Writing good characters: utilising characters correctly to enhance a story

So we’ve all got a favourite title or series, right?

But just how do we turn something from a bad title into a good title and how does a good title become a great one?

I’m going to go in depth on a few aspects that I think are often vital to a title if it wants to cement itself as something timeless and amazing, rather than just a flash in the pan.

Mass Effect: Andromeda/ EA Games/ Bioware

But with that in mind, what makes a good title and what separates it from the games that just don’t measure up?

Let’s look at how characters can be utilised to create something fantastic and immersive, rather than tedious and unbelievable.

Avoiding Exposition

OK, so let’s start a bit of a story here to see some potential issues that can kill a world before you’ve even begun to explore it.

So let’s go on a journey and see how this works…

Example 1

You’re trundling through a field as the sun slowly rises, sending god rays cascading across the dew covered grass. A sheep bleats far in the distance as two dragonflies dance in the sky.

As you head back into town, you’re approached by a mud-covered farmer:

Oh Hello Jack, how long have you been here in the village now, 10 years?

You nod.

That’s right, ever since your family was killed in the fire…they never did find out who caused that, did they?

You shake your head

Anyway, why not head inside to your auntie and get some of that apple pie you’ve always loved? It’s your favourite isn’t it?

You smile and nod again.

Oh and don’t be talking to that mysterious stranger who’s new in Mary’s tavern!”

You look up at the tavern, where a man with a wicked moustache waves back.


Summary

It breaks the immersion a little bit doesn’t it, but it also leaves very little to the imagination?

This is just an encounter I’ve created briefly but I’ve seen far worse. Whole chunks of exposition designed to relay information to the player that we should already know as the character.

Unbelievable single-layered characters and exposition can drag us kicking and screaming from a beautiful environment, making us crash back into reality and destroying the experience.

A good world should be built with characters that can breathe and live. We should be able to imagine them interacting with others, relaxing, working and sleeping without being directly told that they’re doing these things.

Let’s look at that dialogue earlier, for example, how could we improve that to create a world that feels alive whilst also relaying the same information in a realistic manner?

Let’s give it a go from when we were walking back into town:


Example 2

As your feet beat their way down the familiar pathways into the old hamlet, an elderly man looks up from a hill nearby, smiling and waving weakly.

You wave back with a smile as he turns towards the house, his mouth moving but the words unheard.

As you reach the old farmstead, a mud-covered farmer offers you his hand, but before you can take it, two young boys bump into you, knocking you off balance.

“Sorry Jack!” one yells back as they race towards a group of people crowded around the local tavern.

The farmer sighs before offering you his hand again.

“It’s those kind of manners these visitors bring from the city. All that hustle and bustle…”

You nod your head before loud clapping and cheers rise up from the tavern, catching your attention.

“Don’t be getting no ideas, boy!” The man says with a smile, patting you hard on the shoulder.

He notices your smile when you catch the steaming pie cooling on the windowsill.

“Your auntie said you deserved a treat since it’s you know…well today…”

You frown and he pulls you towards him.

“Your pa would be proud…never forget that”

You both head inside.


Summary

Personally, I think the better option is the second, as it not only allows us to learn about the character through subtle interactions that seem believable, but it also seeds the interest and intrigue in the player, right?

Where did his father go? Who is so interesting? Why are the villagers so excited?

We want to create a world that encourages the player to explore, to learn and to grow inside it’s confines. We want a world that lives and breathes and evolves over time, rather than just explains itself to us.

World-building via this kind of method can really enhance a great game, whereas pure exposition that isn’t woven into the narrative can leave us feeling disjointed and separate from the things around us.

Emotions are important

So let’s set the scene here:

You’re a detective speaking to Sarah, a witness who was the first to stumble across the body of a dead friend, so let’s try to imagine their voice.

Are you ready, Detective?

Example 1

The woman looks up at you after examining the photos from the table, tears streaming down their face.

“Linda was my best friend! How can someone do that to someone…a living breathing person?”

You hand her a tissue and she wipes her tears and blows her nose

“I’m sorry, I just don’t know what I’m going to do now…I mean what do I tell John….”

She pauses before looking back at you.

“I want to help you, however I can”


So how did that voice sound during the first part of that speech?

Did she shout?

Another important question is did we believe her?

If someone doesn’t solicit what we consider the correct response, we get suspicious, right? So when it comes to interactions in video games, developers need to take that extra step to ensure we get the right feeling from our characters.

So let’s look at how we could make Sarah a more believable character below whilst still using the same dialogue.


Example 2

Sarah’s hands tremble as she examines a photo carefully, her fingers quivering as she places it back on the table.

She pauses, taking a deep breath before trying to raise her head, her voice falters

“Linda was my best friend!”

She’s looking at you now, her lip quivering as she sniffles loudly, wiping her nose with one hand haphazardly

“How can some…Someone do that to someone…”

Her voice trails off as you hand her a tissue, which she doesn’t take straight away.

She wipes her tears before playing with it in both hands, pulling at it gently as her mind wanders

“…A living person, brea…breathing person”

She blows her nose before catching glimpse of the photos again and wincing, turning her head to avoid them.

“I’m sorry…I just…I just don’t know what I’m going to do now-“

Her eyes widen as she comes to a sudden realisation

“-What am I going to tell John?”

She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes, before clenching her fists, slamming one on the desk as she looks back at you, tears still streaming but with a look of determination.

“I want to help you, however I can”.


Suddenly Sarah has changed from someone suspicious and unreal into a living, breathing character. Her fiddling, movement and worries are something we can relate to and sympathise with.

he invites us to go on that emotional journey with her and we feel as if we understand her motivations, her feelings and her personality to a far different degree than before.

The takeaway message

These are just two small aspects, but the end message is that writers and developers need to consider the smaller intricacies in regard to character personality.

There’s no point in creating a beautiful world that utilises the latest graphical technology when the characters aren’t what we’d consider real.

No matter how they look, characters can take us to new heights or drag us down based on their interactions, movements and inflections.

So when you’re looking at creating characters, whether it’s for books, games or stories, remember that those subtle interactions and smallest details can have huge positive effects on creating a real world that your fans will celebrate, rather than hate.


What do you think?

Don’t forget to share and subscribe so you’ll know when I upload the next chapter of my tips and tricks for writers.

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