WRITING FOR CHARACTERS

Some advice for helping your characters find their voice.

They say there are two kinds of people in the greater RPG Maker community, two groups who have drawn battle lines and sworn eternal enmity to the other side. It is the great debate of our time, the eternal conflict that has raged since ever the internet opened to door to all who had an opinion, and gave them license to voice that opinion to any and all who would listen. The great war I am referring to, of course, is the great debate of Story vs Gameplay.

And this entire debate is flawed from its very inception.

To all those who play and create games for the story, I say to you now that you are not wrong, at least not entirely. A game is a perfectly fine medium in which to engage in the art of storytelling, many games have wonderful tales of heroism, loss, tragedy, and triumph. But, chances are it probably wasn’t for the reasons many of you think.

So, what is a story then? A story has several components, it has a setting, it has a conflict, it has a narrative arc, it likely has plot twists, and eventually it reaches a conclusion. But this alone does not a story make. Something critical is missing from this equation. That thing is, of course, the character. The character is the core of the story. The character is who interacts with the setting. The character is who must face and often resolve the conflict. The character is who things like loss and betrayal or love and victory happen to. Without them, a story is nothing. It just doesn’t exist. You won’t find a story without a character, or a least probably not a good one.

The character is, simply put, the most important part of an entire story. And in a story-oriented game, the character becomes the most important asset you have to connect to your audience.

The four crystals of light are losing power. The demon lord Jerkface McEvilguy is rallying his armies of the damned. The dragon Malzedor the Red has kidnapped the princess. These are all stories. They are largely trite, stale fantasy fare that we have all seen a thousand times. But those things aren’t what are important. What’s important is who is going to save the crystals or stop the emperor/demon/evil god/axe murderer/whatever. And this is the same no matter what it actually is your character is setting off to do.

So, it does not matter in the slightest how original or creative your story premise is. Well, I shouldn’t say that, showing at least some originality is certainly nice, or at least not directly ripping off something that someone else wrote. But even if your world and your story is the most original, innovative fantasy/sci-fi plot anyone has ever seen, it will simply not be any good unless the characters behind that plot are compelling.

And the problem here is that more often than not, these characters, the people who things are happening to, and indeed who is typically the player’s avatar in the game world, are simply not given the attention they require from those who desire to create a game in order to tell a compelling story.

So, Gameplay vs Story people, you’ve been arguing about the wrong things. And those of you in the story-telling camp who simply fill out a list of a generic party of lifeless character classes to run through your in-game universe with nary a thought and wonder why your story isn’t being hailed as the greatest thing since Shakespeare, you need wonder why no longer. The simple truth is that if your characters aren’t interesting, then your narrative just isn’t going to work.

So, how can you save those lifeless characters and make your beloved “story” the engaging epic you always envisioned? Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers but maybe I can help you get on the right track.

1. Your premise isn’t as important as you think it is.

If your narrative is riddled with clichés and an overuse of literary conventions, not even great characters can save it, right? Or can it? Remember Tales of Symphonia? Can you name a plot device from that game that wasn’t lifted verbatim from somewhere else? Hell, the first ten hours of that game are virtually identical to Final Fantasy X. But is Tales of Symphonia a bad game? No, it isn’t. The most obvious reason is probably the totally awesome battle system but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We are analyzing ToS purely from a narrative perspective, and the narrative is a veritable who’s who of overused fantasy tropes. The plot is hackneyed, suffers from an overabundance of fetch quests, and is ultimately very, very predictable.

What keeps this game’s narrative from being utterly abysmal? Why, the characters, of course! Some of them are stupid and make use roll our eyes. Some are mysterious and make us wonder what they aren’t telling us. Some are insufferable geniuses. The villain actually has motives and stuff. But all of them have qualities that tell us something about them. We know what is motivating them aside from the overarching need to complete this series of quests to finish the game. What sorts of qualities are these? We’ll get to that in a second, but the point is that the fact that this game is essentially about unlocking the eight “seals” and acquiring the ultimate legendary magic sword to save the world doesn’t diminish the overall “story” as much as you might think. This story is about a lot of other things besides saving the world. It is about the main hero’s growing maturity. It is about many of the characters coming to understand that they are acceptable the way they are and don’t need to conform to others‘ expectations. It is about love and about how that love can be used to create both wonderful and horrible things.

Are any of these things related to waking up the eight elemental spirits? Nope. These themes and ideas could have been superimposed on virtually any other overarching narrative and the result would have been largely the same. The conclusion should be obvious. It doesn’t really matter how amazingly imaginative your world is or if it’s virtually identical to any other, At least not from a purely structural point of view. What matters is how your characters engage with and interact with the world, and with each others.

2. Show, don’t tell.

Character 1:
Mary Beth is a young girl who lives in Tyhbel Village. She is eight years old and has blonde hair and freckles. She is very cute and friendly and everyone likes her.

Character 2:
Our hero is sitting along on a grassy hill outside a village. One of his close comrades was killed in a recent conflict and our hero is still upset over this loss. A little blonde girl runs up to the hero and smiles widely at him. “You look sad, mister! Here, have a flower!” She shyly hands our hero a small bright yellow flower. She giggles uncontrollably and runs off, beaming broadly.

Now, which of those two characters was better? Actually, that’s a trick question; they were both the same character. She was just described in two different ways. In the first example, I merely told you about Mary Beth and how she is precious and adorable. In the second, we see Mary Beth being precious and adorable. Which version of the character did you find more engaging? Now, suppose Baron Von Evilguy comes along and beheads Mary Beth right in front of you because her parents didn’t pay their taxes on time. Would you particularly care about her death in the first example? How about the second?

Actually, I cheated a little. Because in the second one, Mary Beth did something else too; she actually interacted with the hero. She offered him a smile and a friendly gesture when he was feeling down. She has established an emotional connection with the hero, and hopefully, with you, the player. Mary Beth is probably a one-shot character, in this case her death galvanizes the hero out of his depression. However, basic interactions, even very simple ones, can create a much stronger attachment to a character than if we simply see Baron von Evilguy beheading a random child just to prove what a jackass he is.

Moral of the story: don’t just tell us about your character or what your character does. Show us! Stat blocks do not a character make. Neither do back stories. Your character could be the most interesting individual on the planet and have an incredibly compelling backstory, but if it isn’t conveyed to us properly, your player probably just isn’t going to care that much. This is more a matter of presentation and style than the actual writing. Passively conveying walls of text to the player isn’t very intriguing. Your player would probably much rather see your character doing something than simply saying something.

Also, note how much more effective actions can be at conveying something than words. In Legend of Silhoua, a shy character runs away from you if you try to talk to her. This is far more effective than simply telling us that she is shy. And in Kinetic Cipher, the characters have a variety of poses they go through to punctuate their dialogue. Nero in particular bounces around excitedly when talking to emphasize how energetic and child-like he is. We never have to be told this by the characters. It is self-evident. Never underestimate how far even the simplest actions can improve a character, or a scene. But always keep consistency in mind. A good rule of thumb is you have to see a character do something about three times before it becomes established as a trait. Be diligent in crafting your characters’ actions and it will pay off a thousand-fold.

3. Characters are people and should talk like people.

Characters are people. They are individuals, unless they’re Borg or something. They should talk like they’re a person. So ask yourself, how does a person talk? The answer, of course, is that everyone talks differently! But there are rules to this.

There is a difference between professional language and conversational language. You wouldn’t talk to your friend using ridiculous, complex or overwrought theoretical terms, unless your friend was into that kind of stuff and understood it. Remember all that complicated language from your theory textbooks in college? If you haven’t seen these yet, you will. And I don’t need to tell you that that sort of language is complicated, very hard to understand, and is often used by an author to cover up the fact that the author isn’t actually saying anything useful. Doing this doesn’t make you sound smart, it doesn’t make your character sound smart, and it is making your player think for all the wrong reasons.

But what if you want your character to sound like an intellectual snob? There are plenty of other, better ways to do that. And there are plenty of ways to add a lot of variety and personality to characters in their dialogue. Maybe a studious or proper person never uses contractions. A snobbish person talks down to everyone. Maybe a character swears a lot. Maybe some never swear at all. Maybe a character calls everyone “Sweetie” or some other nickname. Or give them some other verbal tick. Remember how Raijin in Final Fantasy 8 ended all his sentences with “ya know?” Even if you remember none of the other characters in that game, you probably remember that.

But don’t take my word for it. For a really great example of this, go read The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (this is actually good, practical advice in general for any aspect of writing). Every single character in this series has a completely different way of talking that is so natural sounding and distinctive that you practically don’t need to be told which character is saying what. You’ll just know. And it adds so much to their personality and character for them to talk that way without them ever having to explain a word. For a very brief example, check out Lys86’s The book of Three project, which covers the plot of the first book. Just know that it only contains a fraction of the awesomeness that the rest of the series has.

There are a variety of other devices too. You could use accents, or specific dialects, catch phrases, there are plenty of options here. Anything that lets you know that this character is separate and distinct from all the other characters around him.

4. Story serves the characters. Characters should never serve the story.

Take a good look at your epic story you’ve got there. Stop and ask yourself what’s really going on here. Is the focus of the story on your characters, or is it largely based on a sequential series of events that just need someone to be there? If you could remove your main character and replace him with an entirely different character, would anyone even notice?

This is what I like to call “Tolkien Syndrome,” which is what happens when the awesome epic lore, awesome battles, and awesome events and places and just generally all the cool stuff in the world takes precedence, and the characters take a back seat. Legolas and Gimli were surely incredibly great and interesting characters, but can you remember them particularly getting to say or do anything particularly memorable? Probably not, because they simply didn’t get much to do. They were simply meant to keep the narrative moving from one awesome locale to the next so that the reader could see all this awesome stuff that the writer created.

“But Solitayre!” I hear the internet cry, “Tolkien was a fantastic writer!” I agree. Just look at The Hobbit. The Hobbit is fantastic. It’s a great adventure story, every bit as epic as The Lord of the Rings, and relies on many of the same themes to drive it. Why do I think The Hobbit was better than Lord of the Rings? Because The Hobbit wasn’t about the awesome world of Middle-Earth, it was about Bilbo Baggins, an unlikely hero thrown into a variety of incredible scenarios for which he is not the least bit prepared, and how he faces each situation and adapts to it. From a minimalist point of view, The Hobbit was about how Bilbo acquired the One Ring. But in a larger sense, The Hobbit is about how Bilbo grows as a character from a self-centered indolent to a clever and confident hero.

Let us learn from Bilbo’s example. Character should never simply be vessels to move forward the story. They should be the story. This is their story, it’s about them, let us see how it affects them, how they grow, how it changes them, for good or ill.

So, in conclusion, your characters are the lifeblood of this thing we call a story. They are not just our eyes and ears in the world. They have a voice. They should be allowed, nay, encouraged to use it.

Good characters almost don’t need an author. They practically write themselves. You’ll never wonder how they’ll act in a certain situation, even one you never intended them to be in. You’ll know. One of the greatest joys of being a writer is to watch a character you have created blossom and take on a life of their own.

Posts

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Very nice article. This should make my game much better and what else can you ask. Thanks for writing this.
about #4;

That's what ROLEplaying is :)
To be fair, the original Final Fantasy had a great story, and it essentially had no main characters to speak of.
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18012
It's not like this is meant to be the end all-be all ultimate writing guide, there are exceptions of course, (I am not sure the original Final Fantasy is one of them but that's just a personal opinion) but these are some ideas I think are important to keep in mind. =)
The Zelda series wouldn't be as good if Link was a more developed character
Solitayre
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
18012
Just because Link doesn't talk doesn't mean he has no character. =)

This is especially true of the later games in the series.
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