Worldbin: Creating Realistic Characters

In most games you play now, most of the characters are quite shallow and two-dimensional. This happens because the writers either try to make too many characters appealing to you, and fail, or, most commonly, they just didn’t care. Take, for example, Gears of War. Or Halo: ODST. Or Black Ops. Now tell me something about the characters that isn’t related to how well they can shoot, or how badass they are, or even what their full name is, in some cases. Most characters can be summed up in two adjectives and a noun. The hot, nerdy scientist. The arrogant, loud-mouthed rival. The evil, British antagonist. When the entirety of a character can be said in three words, something is wrong.

The most common set-up is the Five Man Band. It goes a bit like this; (I’m stealing this shamelessly from TvTropes, here)

  • The Hero— The leader of the group. He’ll be a upstanding American bloke, no matter what the setting is, and will adhere to American values, be exceptionally noble, generous, and perfect in every way.
  • The Lancer —  The second-in-command, usually a contrast to The Hero. He’ll make snarky remarks, and bring a touch of humour to the game. He’ll probably be a bit more laid-back than the relentlessly meritorious Hero.
  • The Smart Guy — The physically weak, but intelligent or clever member. He’ll be the youngest, and might wear glasses. He will probably have no real-world knowledge, but can hack a computer in 4 seconds, and will talk constantly in long, long words.
  • The Big Guy — The strongman of the team. May be dumb. Or mute. If he has any characterisation at all, it’ll be that also he is a bit thick and clumsy, but will be soft on the inside, until his comrades are attacked.
  • The Chick —  A peacekeeping role to balance out the other members’ aggression, bringing them to a nice or at least manageable medium. Also the love interest. Because the Hero will be white, she’ll be Black (But not too Black), Asian or Latino. If it’s fantasy or sci-fi, she might have differently coloured skin. Most likely Blue or Green.

Now keeping this set-up is fine, as it is a tried and tested set-up, and should be easy to work with. However, characters need to be expanded on in order to make them both believable and likeable. (unless it’s the antagonist, in which the player should hate him with an ungodly passion) The simplest way to do this is to add another layer to the character, via backstory, sidequest or dialogue, that either explains why the character is how they are, or gives you an insight into how they think, and how they became who they are now. In both cases, this should give you greater understanding and empathy about the character, and maybe even raise some moral questions. In better cases, this should help the plot along. An example.

(Mild Metal Gear Solid 4 Spoilers in the next paragraph. Nothing big, though.)

Johnny Sasaki, from Metal Gear Solid 4. He’s a bit thick, and has a profoundly stupid haircut. He wets himself in combat, and is overpowered many times throughout the series, and is a bit of a joke character. Solid Snake frequently escapes because of his incompetence, and his bouts of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. He constantly draws fire, attracts unwanted enemy attention, and is mostly useless in combat. However, it is later revealed that he never had an injection of the combat nanomachines that every other soldier has due to his fear of needles. These nanomachines control your hormones, share your senses with your teammates, and give people a “combat high” – quicker reactions, faster aiming, and better accuracy. However, when Liquid Snake shuts down all the nanomachines, he suddenly becomes extremely useful, as hardly any of the other soldiers had ever had to fight without their nanomachines doing all the hard work for them, and becomes a great asset to the team.

He is set up originally as a comedic sidekick with some legacy appeal, a standard flat character. But the game explains why he is less effective than everyone else, which, although originally is a nice bit of trivia, and becomes a (minor) plot point later.

Here are a few things you should not apply to your characters, unless you can do it very well.

  • They are the last of their kind.
  • They are the secret heir to the throne.
  • They have sworn vengeance against the murderers of their parents.
  • They have an evil sibling they have to kill.
  • They are stuck in an unwanted arranged marriage.
  • They were abused when they were young. (Seriously, it’ll be trite and spoil the tone, and maybe even destroy the character. Be careful with this one, it’s exceptionally hard to pull off well. Look, don’t even try OK? And don’t say I didn’t warn you…)
  • They are subject to prophecy / are the chosen one.
  • They were born in extreme poverty.
  • They are grieving over the loss of a loved one.
  • They are suffering from a terminal illness.

Now, I’m not saying that these are bad, per se, but just that if you do not construct your character from the ground up with these traits inbuilt, and just try to slap them onto them later, then there is a high chance your whole character concept will fall apart. Here’s some ideas, taking these ideas above, and modelling some possible characters around them.

  • The foolhardy, highly religious character is plagued by visions of the future every night, most of them concerning how he is going to die. This explains how he charged into combat readily, as he knows how and when he will die, but he is so obsessed about death and the afterlife because it is such a prevalent theme in his life.
  • The gallant paladin is conflicted over whether to depose his brother who stole the throne from him, as under the current occupant the country is finally better than ever, and the populace love him for all the improvements he has made. He is happy to seem how the country is now, but he cannot forgive his brother, and is conflicted by this quandary, and instead retreats back into his puritanical teachings for solace.
  • The cheerful spoony bard is in fact noble herself, as in stuck in an arranged marriage, but she requested a grace period in which she could see the world before she takes a much more active role in running the the estate. Her fiancée is likeable, open-minded, and is fairly comely, and she’s quite fond of him, too. It’s a professional, mercantile affair, and will benefit both of their families greatly.

Ah, well, these are just a couple of ideas. Feel free to steal them if you wish.

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