Design characters, not motives (part 2)

Playful Narrative is a series of short weekly articles each focused around a single lesson or point to remember when writing for games.

From motives to character design

Last week I wrote about character design for games and how it often gets stuck at defining a set of motives. This week I’m going to talk about how to go from there to an actual character design. Designing a character in this way is not the only way to do it but it’s a very helpful one for games, especially since the writing for the game often comes after the design of the game itself. As such, game designers will have a set of motives and information characters need to bring into the game and the writer will have to work with that.

Once you have such a set of motives that defines what the character wants, you can design a character that would plausibly fit these aims. The key here is to ask ‘Why?’ over and over again until you reach an answer that defines parts of the personality of the character1. You know you’ve reached this point when the only possible answer to a ‘why’-question is along the lines of ‘because that’s how the character is’2.

A good way to practice this method is by taking a character that isn't very clearly defined in it's series (considering character traits and their reason) but has clear motives, and try to 'design' this character as if you were making it.

A good way to practice this method is by taking a character that isn’t very clearly defined in it’s series (considering character traits and their reason) but has clear motives, and try to ‘design’ this character as if you were making it.

If for example you have a character that wants to save a kidnapped princess, you ask why. There may very well be more than one answer. He might want to be seen as a hero. He might secretly love her. He might feel indebted to her because of earlier events. You trail down each line asking why again and again, until you lead it back to the feelings, experiences, traits and quirks that define the core of a character3. This is best done on a big piece of paper or whiteboard, starting with a motive on top, and trailing down answer by answer, branching out until all lines end in a satisfactory answer. If you feel the character is heading somewhere not to your liking, you can start over.

You can do this as much as you feel you need to do to explore the character. Once you have a lot of material, wrap it all up, balance it out and define the character4. Remember that a good character is one the player can identify with and understand. A well rounded character has weaknesses and strengths, perks and flaws. Add elements to what you have defined earlier if you feel this is necessary to make the character human. Lastly, to stay away from stereotypes, it is often good not to answer all the ‘why’-questions with the most likely answer. Play around with conflicting characteristics from time to time. Lastly, if you ever feel the character needs a bigger role in the story or new aims (perhaps old motives have become irrelevant), you can use the character description you now have to think these out in the more traditional character centred way and add them. As long as you keep in mind that there is always a dialogue between a person’s motives and his character, you can use this method in various ways and situations.

This week’s point to remember

You can use motives to come to a character design by asking ‘why’-questions until the answer is a character trait.


Next week in Playful Narrative: Hire a writer

Whether you totally agree with me or feel like I completely miss the point, let me know in the comments or get in touch! See you next week.


Footnotes:
  1. You don’t necessarily have to ask ‘why’ with every question, though this is a good method to make sure you are asking the right questions. Different questions can be asked but often unconsciously already contain part of an answer to the ‘why’-question you could have asked. []
  2. Note that when using this method you can also cross over to other characters related to the character you’re working on, like his parents, an old friend, an archrival, or into past events that happened in and define his world. This is because these relations and events can shape a character. []
  3. To give examples here, good follow up questions would be: Why does he want to be seen as a hero? Why does he (secretly) love her? Why does he feel indebted? []
  4. If you’ve worked as described above, you can do this by adding horizontal and diagonal arrows to link answers you feel stem from the same character traits. You can also add descriptions and experiences and link them to the tree at this point. []

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