Basic Game Making: Writing Characters

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Things to Consider when Writing a Character into Your Game


Introduction
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This tutorial is meant to provide guidance to the literarily challenged on the character making process and to show why every character in any story needs to be though out before slapped down in print or pixel. It aims to show how different modes of style and convention can either positively or negatively affect the finished project, and how to use said styles and conventions to best effect while writing. Also, we dive into some mechanics and discuss what is good and bad for a main character as far as numbers.

We all know that any game we make is a story.  ;) Well, any story we tell needs characters, from the hero to the villain to the innkeeper. Everyone in your fantastic world is a character- they all have a part to play in driving the story forward, and are broadly divided into Player Characters (PCs) and Non-Player Characters (NPCs).

If your characters and writing are good enough, you’ll have made a story that audiences want to hear. Here I give my take on making the characters of your world, and how to flesh all of them out properly. Of course, I am no professional writer, nor have I taken any classes on this subject- I encourage you to seek the truth as YOU know it.

Plain Folk and Time Investments
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So, your game idea is down on paper. The magnificent hero A is hit with B adversity and goes on C quest to defeat D bad guy and rescue E royal figure/life’s love/your mom. Along the way, he/she meets others with a beef against Bad Guy and possibly slept with Your Mom. They are aided by townsfolk, shopkeepers, innkeepers, armorers, weaponsmiths, generals, ditch diggers, muggerers, buggerers, nitwits, halfwits, shit kickers and Methodists.  :o

“So?” you say. “Every video game is chock full of  nameless, faceless palatte-swapped sprites who give out information for free and repeat the same thing over and over. Every game has a hero and a villain.”  >:(

This is all true.   ;D What is not so obvious though, is why all these seemingly unimportant characters are there. Even in the first Final Fantasy, arguably the standard by which others are judged, every 8-bit happy-faced pixel person had a purpose. Good characters, even the nameless ones, have a function.

Every character you make is an event. Use the event wisely; make folk that carry information vital to the current mission, or have some back story to tell, or give clues to the ultra-hidden sekrit at the end of the game. Use style: not everyone is happy or angry or otherwise uniform relative to anyone else. Sure, give the info, but give them a personality if you can.

Now for the caveat: There are literally scores of these nameless folk in your game, each with AT MOST ten lines of text. You don’t have to make every single one stand out, and in fact you shouldn’t- that takes the thunder away from the heroes! But try to make them fun to interact with. If your player talks to everyone in town because they want to see what new witty thing is going to be said, you have done your job well.


Story-Driving Characters
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Story-Driving characters are people like the quest givers, the folk with problems to solve and the power centers in town, like kings or mayors or what have you. These guys and gals ought to have a bit more to say than the average folk, but just enough to let the player know what’s going on. Generally speaking, the more important the character, the more they interact with the player.

Keep in mind that the player won’t necessarily talk to all the NPCs in a town- if you want them to find a certain NPC, you can steer them there with other NPCs (by having them talk about the NPC you want them to find) or by using an unusual graphic for the important character.  ;8  Give them a slightly different uniform or a color swap and that should do it. Important characters tend to look important.

This echelon of character usually has a name- one name. Depending on the style and tenor of the game- whether its funny, serious or somewhere in between- determines the names you give your characters. Whatever you do, stay consistent- we’ll discuss naming conventions in a bit, but keep in mind that consistency is key to suspension of disbelief.

 This level of character interaction also means that they need motivation. You should come up with some kind of background for these guys and gals so that the player doesn’t wonder why the captain of the death squad suddenly can’t live without his teddy. Explain that shit, man.  :P  It makes more sense for the player to do something if the NPC requesting that thing can make them feel for the NPC in some way.

NPCs of this level can be kind of like quest hubs, depending on how you tell your story. At the very least, they are quest givers and therefore provide a definite start and end point to the current task. Once said task is completed, it’s assumed that the PCs will get some kind of kickback; it doesn’t need to be cash or treasure, it could also be information that the PCs cannot obtain anywhere else.  :-*  In any case, your audience is going to expect something substantial so be prepared to deliver. Good NPC quest givers always give a useful reward, whether gold, treasure, information or other privileges otherwise unobtainable by the PCs.



Protagonists
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These are your heroes, the virtual people in your database that do the do in your world. These guys are complex. You see, these characters are the ones you expect to risk their lives and fortunes, to perform feats of inhuman strength and skill and basically do the impossible. I dunno about you, but for me to put myself out like that it had better be for a damned good reason!
Unfortunately, many writers fall into a rut of the mundane- motivations become almost afterthoughts in the swirl of pixels and scripting that is their game, and this is BAD. Any heroic character has to have a deep, unshakable reason for doing what they do. Some examples:

Fighter Joe is leaving his wife and kids to pursue the monster of the moment and get rich on its treasure… NOT GOOD ENOUGH!   :police:

Fighter Joe is leaving his wife and kids to pursue the low-life who snuck into his home and ate his son’s heart while said low-life’s goons made Joe and Mrs. Joe watch…Okay, getting better, definitely works for an NPC’s background.  :-\

Fighter Joe and Mrs. Joe are leaving their kids to pursue the low-life who snuck into their home and ate their son’s heart while said low-life’s goons made Joe and Mrs. Joe watch, and by doing so became the ultimate evil which threatens the land and only Joe and Mrs. Joe can defeat him together because they and only they have the same blood which made the creature to begin with and must decide whether to sacrifice themselves to save humanity or satisfy their thirst for revenge and in turn become the abomination they seek to destroy… NOW WE’RE TALKING!  ;D

Your main protagonist is usually the serious, dutiful type (or becomes so) and has to be whether or not he/she works alone or gains followers along the way. In the former case, they require charisma and organizational skill to keep a corps of fellow exceptional people on task; in the latter, they need to be self-sufficient and successful without support. Your main protagonist has to be exceptional in some way, preferably strong of body and pure of heart, and flexible enough to not take him/herself too seriously.

If there are other party members, you first need to decide how big of a part they have to play and adjust their personalities accordingly. The bottom line here is that altogether, your party cannot be one-dimensional- each member should play off the others’ personalities.  :firerain: :anski2: :holk: :irock2: :ma: :pacman:

Here’s a caveat: It’s easiest to have a main protagonist and the rest of the party should act as supporting characters. For the length of game we should be making, we can really only develop AT MOST two or three characters.



Antagonists
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These are the bad guys.  :aryan: Bad guys are often overlooked as simple plot devices, which is sad because a well-developed villain is a thing of dark beauty. Just like the Protagonists, they risk a lot- discovery, defeat, death, shame, and in a magical world sometimes worse- to pursue their agendas of doom.

When you make your villain, don’t be afraid to make him/her/it a real prick; he’s a hideously rotten turd, capable of anything to achieve his ends. This include sacrificing the innocent, making that which was pure cheap, and challenging entire nations to satisfy their ambition for power. On the other hand, don’t make them unnecessarily nasty. Save the bit about eating children unless it’s really relevant to the plot.  :zwink:

How developed should your villain be? Well, it’s a matter of artistry here. With a sufficiently developed background, the villain can become many things to the story you’re telling, even the main character!

Come again?
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You read that correctly, the main character. He isn’t the protagonist, and he isn’t a PC, but he may be the focus of the story. This kind of storytelling is rather tricky, but it can be done- look at Star Wars episodes I through VI. Who’s the main character, really? That’s right, the big bad guy. Darth Vader.

A compelling villain has some hook, some kind of specialness that evokes strong emotions from the audience. Whether that emotion is positive, negative or waffles in between is up to you, but don’t be afraid to make your villains evil.

Your bad guy probably isn’t stupid, either.  ???  If he was, he wouldn’t be in power. He uses minions to weaken the characters before the final showdown, he only fights on his terms (and fights dirty, at that). A good villain is intelligent enough to cause entire nations trouble. He uses hostages, threats of destruction, lies, bribes and outright thuggery and murder. Sure, we knew that… but our jobs as writers are to make him seem as though he thinks there’s nothing wrong with what he’s doing, and make him seem to take joy from it while not acting like a maniac. A good villain isn’t, as a rule, over the top.

Sometimes, however, the bad guy isn’t a person at all, but an unfeeling force of the cosmos or a looming disaster. In theses cases, the enemy is the ticking clock, the sense of impending doom that the PC’s have while betting on steadily dwindling chances of success. These “bad guys” are revealed in the way they change the lives of the common, decent folk of the world they threaten- such villains depend on others for their voice, and so we come back to our average NPC.



Style Conventions
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One of the most important decisions a writer make is the tenor of the writing. Is it goofy, light-hearted shit or is it the kind of gripping dialogue that would make Margaret Weis proud? It’s going to have its moments of every emotion, if it’s a complete,believable story. That emotion is conveyed by the characters. As different as they all are though, you need to decide on an overall flavor of the dialogue in your story. Good characters look and speak like they belong in the setting. If they don’t, tweak one or the other. :police: Pick a direction and stay consistent!

Naming Conventions
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Part of the general tenor of your story world has to do with the mythical culture of the realm. You don’t need to have a Compleat Historie of Customes since Tyme Beganne or anything, but some rules about consistent naming practices are useful- not only to help come up with the names to begin with, but to lend verisimilitude to your world. A good character name sounds like it belongs to the area. If everyone is named Bob, Sue or Bill and suddenly Petronella Hawkins of Dimirblatt walks out of the stables, you fucked up.  >:( She might come out of the castle, but even still tone it down to match the area- like, Princess Susan of Dimirblatt. Sure, not so exotic anymore, but that’s kinda the point.

Another problem with names is the balance between something that sounds appropriately {insert adverb here} without being silly. This tends to happen with villains a lot. Try to imagine a new mother looking down at her perfect, beautiful baby boy and saying, “ You know, he looks like a Throkktar.”  ??? No, he doesn’t... UNLESS everyone else in the area is named Gilgamort or Kromtharg or the like. It could happen. A good character name should be one you can see a child having. The vast majority of bad guys are going to be human or demi-human, which means they had a childhood. I certainly wouldn’t name my kid something like that.

Lastly, the biggest pitfall- making a name no one can pronounce.  :mad: Yes, the different, oft non-human cultures have their own languages, but nothing is more :mad: irritating :mad: than seeing a word in print a zillion times and having NO CLUE as to its pronunciation. Hugg’rekk’a’nahm is a good example. What the actual fuck are all those apostrophes doing there? Is the double g then a fricative or a palatial? Still a gutteral? Chances are, you won’t know either. Try to avoid the apostrophes! Try spaces. Try smaller names. Toss the ‘ somewhere where it makes more sense. Hu’Grekk works, not too flashy but exotic enough to sound alien. A good character name is easy to pronounce.
 
 
Characters and Numbers
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Here’s where we go back to the RM software. A main character is a hero. He begs to be the coolest, most talented, strongest, fastest BEST character evar!! Slow down, son. No character should be the all being. It’s important to decide what kind of character your main is and stick to the archetype.  :-[

You got it, basic basic basic type like fighter, mage, healer or rogue. Those types are so common because THEY WORK. Sure, twist and tweak them, I never said there wasn’t room for that; just keep to a baseline of believable skill levels. a good character is not a one-person army. Similarly, the main’s stats should be within reasonable levels for the archetype you’re using.

So what if I only have one character in the party?
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In this case, your character is going to be the equivalent of 2 to 4 other characters when you consider survivability- you know, HP, defense, resistances- but after that point he stops being stellar. Take that foundation and think about the game balance. The original Dragon Warrior is a good example: your dude was primarily a warrior, but had a small number of offensive and defensive spells, and a tiny bit of healing. He wasn’t a spellcaster per se, he was a sword and board warrior who knew enough magic to keep himself alive. Solo characters need to be looked at carefully because they can get unbalanced quickly. The key point here is how the main fits into the game’s existing engine, and with that I give my last bit of advice…

When you adjust power levels, playtest the crap out of them. Make modifications as you go and ensure that every item and skill are balanced.



Conclusion
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Every character has a unique point of view. When you make a character of any kind, look at the game through their eyes. After all, to them, the best part of the game is the part that they are in!. In their story, they are the most important characters. Honor that.

In return, they will propel your story forward in the direction and force that you want. They will tell your story! More importantly, they will have made your audience forget they are playing a game.

And as any writer will tell you, the characters help you tell the story by becoming more than their dialogue- every character you make is a fragment of you, they are born from you as surely as any child and they will make demands. Negotiate with them from time to time and honor their desire to be more than a 12-frame jpg image.

I hope you find your storytellers!

M00s



« Last Edit: September 14, 2013, 11:07:34 PM by EvilM00s »
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Couldn't have written this better myself! Good guide for those that need it, and I highly suggest it to even people like me, where I've been doing character and storyline creation for years, but, sometimes a reminder in some areas is a refreshing topic =)
Download http://a.tumblr.com/tumblr_lm5v281q6E1qde50fo1.mp3

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Thank you, friend. *bows*

I believe in mastering the basic- then the complex is already done for you.
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Great stuff, m00s!! Character design is my favorite aspect of game-making, and this brought up some great points!

I can't stress enough the importance of a bad guy with a purpose, too. :p Even the most sadistic, cray cray bad guys have at least *some* reason for doing what they are doing. Can't have the whole "control the werld" thing every time!

Also, I really loved the point about each character being a fragment of the creator! I like to really get inside the head of who I'm writing for, and essentially write as if I were that character and feeling what they were feeling at the time. Of course, with some level of detachment, so I'm not getting depressed while writing or something. :o

:p Humans are so complex, it's easy to find so many different aspects of oneself to expand into a new character.
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Also you can use the Myers Briggs Typology Index as a base for a character

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RMRK's dad
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You know, I think its all gonna be okay.
For going the distance for a balanced breakfast.Project of the Month winner for June 2009For being a noted contributor to the RMRK Wiki2013 Best WriterSilver Writing ReviewerSecret Santa 2013 Participant
Also you can use the Myers Briggs Typology Index as a base for a character

For real kicks, write your favorite characters and analyze their MBT. Now analyze yours. Compare.
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