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How To Write Great Characters
While you may want people to like your characters, likability is far less important than being interesting and meaningful
Characters are central to every story. Even in video games, where the player possesses all the agency, characters are what power a story and push it forward. In order to tell a rich, compelling story, you’ll need to create great characters.
What Makes a Character Great?
One mistake that writers often make is focusing too much on making characters “likable.” While your goal as a video game writer may be to create characters that players like, you should not write characters with their likability as the sole focus. Doing so puts you in danger of creating someone incredibly talented, smart, virtuous, and incredible, but ultimately uninspired, forgettable, and perhaps even a bit creepy.
I don't like people who are likable. I don't believe them. If someone's smiling all the time I feel like it's suspicious. I know how it sounds but I feel that. So I have problem with creating likable characters. I'm more into creating interesting characters which are getting likable when you get to know them.
— Karolina Stachyra, Writer on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Furthermore, as the saying goes: “you cannot please everyone,” and you almost certainly cannot accurately predict what your players will think of any particular character. Instead, focus on creating characters that are interesting and meaningful to the story. Successfully doing so will result in great, memorable characters.
How To Make Characters Interesting
There are many ways to make characters interesting, and chances are that your favorite characters are some combination of multiple interesting factors. For example, interesting characters may be any of the following:
Whether they’ve got a mysterious past, hidden motivations, or surprises up their sleeve, mysterious characters can arouse curiosity in players and leave them craving more.
However, creating mystery is a balancing act — you need to tease the character’s secrets without revealing too much too soon, and all the clues need to add up to a satisfying reveal. For example, perhaps the reveal of the character’s secret creates a plot twist, helps in a dire situation, or contributes to a change in the environment or characters.
While our brains prefer to group people into certain categories and archetypes, human beings are incredibly complex and full of contradictions. A noble person can be dishonorable, a cruel person can show kindness, and someone who’s brilliant about one topic can be absolutely laughable about another. Likewise, characters that are full of complexities and contradictions feel more relatable and can elicit empathy and curiosity from players.
When creating a character, ask yourself why they are who they are, and how might that motivation manifest itself in different ways in various scenarios. For example, one person may be noble because it usually benefits them, another because they are trying to make up for something, and a third because their parents told them it was expected of them. All three of those noble people have the capacity to be dishonorable, so long as doing so satisfies their underlying motives.
While complex characters tend to be relatable, fantastic characters are anything but. These characters usually function as symbols for some idea or philosophy—though fantastic characters can become complex through exploring the depth of the ideas they represent. One of the most popular characters today, Joker, is a great example of a fantastic character: Joker represents chaos and cruelty.
Additionally, Joker represents the opposite of what Batman represents—order and justice—which makes him not only an interesting character but also incredibly meaningful to the story of Batman.
How To Make Characters Meaningful
Having interesting characters is great, but they’ll be far less compelling if they serve no purpose. As John Truby said in The Anatomy of Story:
To create great characters, think of all your characters as a part of a web in which each helps define the others.
John Truby calls this the “Character Web.” In essence, characters are made more meaningful by their connection to others and to the story. Always try to write characters that help support the larger story.
The Last Of Us is full of fantastic examples of this concept. Firstly, Joel and Ellie make for a meaningful pair of protagonists because they start the game as complete opposites. Joel, an old man, is emotionally worn down and closed off, while Ellie, a young girl, has a sense of hope, wonder, and desire for connection. Individually they are very interesting, but together their differences help to define each other, creating an interesting dynamic, memorable moments of conflict, and eventually beautiful connection and growth.
Furthermore, (without spoilers) every single person Joel and Ellie run into throughout the story relates somehow to their situation, forcing the characters to look at themselves and their beliefs with a critical eye. Together, this weaves the game’s central themes of connection, hope, and survival.
When creating characters, think about how they impact the story and game as a whole. If you find that they could be removed without the game suffering, it’s time to give them something to do, such as:
Provide assistance to the protagonists
Provide an obstacle for the protagonists to overcome
Contribute a tone not seen elsewhere in the game
Deepen the lore of the world with a personal story or hidden knowledge
Offer a perspective that challenges the beliefs of the protagonists
Crafting great characters is no easy task. By focusing on making characters interesting and meaningful to the story, you need only write a great story for the great characters to emerge.
How To Write a Game is a free publication written by Ryan Matejka, an organic human who loves to write. If you like this, please consider making a small donation.
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