A Guide to Character Creation for Storygames

by Gryphon

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Character creation can be tough.  This is especially true in storygames, where so much depends on the narrator being distinctive, but not too distinctive, and where bland, do-nothing, or over-active side characters can single-handedly ruin a work.  This article first addresses character creation in general before focusing in on some tips specifically for storygames.

But before we start, the absolute best way to get a grip on your character is to write them.  You can never really know what they’ll be like until you put the pen to the paper.  If you haven’t already written any pieces with your character(s), I recommend writing a short 500-1000 word piece with them and then returning to this article.  It needn’t be anything interesting or entertaining, just enough for you to understand what they sound like on the page.


General Character Creation


Character profile questionnaires are often bogged down in details you don’t need, and can actively stifle your characters.  They are bad and wrong.  Here's mine.

The reason most character profile lists aren’t actually useful is that they demand authors nail down details about their characters that are really better off emerging naturally through the writing process.  Why should you need know what kind of car your medieval warrior drives?

This list should contain only to questions that will actively help you refine your character’s role in the story.  They’re designed to give you the structure you need to effectively plot a character’s basic arc without stifling them of any potential to grow over the course of the story.  The rest of your character’s traits and behaviors you can afford to let emerge naturally through the writing.

This list is designed to be useable for main characters, important side characters, and background characters alike, though you need not be particularly detailed for the unimportant ones.

If you don’t have an answer for one of them, that’s fine, write some more and then come back to it you’ve learned more about your character.


1. What role do you need this character to play in the plot?  What do you need them to do?

The purpose of this question is to guide the rest of the character creation process.  If you don’t have a clear picture of what purpose this character fulfills, it’s easy for them to serve no purpose at all.  Even if you wind up with a character you like a lot, purposeless characters will only bog down your story.

If you’re struggling to write this character, ask yourself whether they’re really necessary.  Could their role be filled by someone else who already has another role?  Is it needed at all?

2. What do you want the reader’s first impression of this character to be?

The answer to this question should help you nail down the character’s physical appearance, mannerisms, and basic speech patterns.  If you intend the reader to leave with a vastly different final image than initial image, using the character’s external image can be especially useful.

If you want the reader’s first impression of this character to be accurate, pay close attention to how you characterize them early on, and make sure you are conveying the right impression.  It’s best to introduce major characters in a scene that shows them behaving in a distinctive and unusual way personal to themselves—otherwise they may come across as bland, or inaccurate.  But be careful you don’t try to oversell them to the audience, or they’ll just come off as lame.

3. What do you want the reader’s final impression of this character to be?

This question can help you make a number of decisions.  It can help you decide in what ways this character will grow and change over the story.  It can help you figure out what secrets this character is hiding.  It can help you decide if you want this character to convey a particular theme or message of your work, as character arcs are usually the best way to convey a thematic message.

4. Name two character strengths:  One that helps them succeed, and one that is a moral virtue.

A failure of two-dimensional characters is often that they have their strengths or flaws in only one of two categories: practical and moral.  Thus we end up with pure good-hearted angels whose authors insist they are deep and complex because they occasionally drop things, or on the other side of the spectrum, lying cheating and stealing unkillable badasses whose authors insist they are well-rounded and not overpowered because they sometimes have angsty existential crises.

Ensuring your character has strengths and flaws in both areas makes them more rounded out.  If you’re having trouble coming up with practical or moral strengths or flaws, try writing a short scene  with your character in a tough situation (alien attack, cafeteria lunch line, etc.) and see what behaviors naturally emerge.

5. Name two character flaws:  One that causes them to fail and one that is a moral failing.

6. What changes, actions, and emotional reactions do they spur in your other characters?

This question is a good way to work out connections and relationships between your characters.  Think of both existing connections and relationships that develop over the course of the story.  Tying your character’s strengths and flaws to the actions they inspire in others can make for tighter storytelling.

Defining the influence your character has on others is also a good way to see them from a different angle.  You may see unexpected traits emerging as they interact with your other characters.

7. How does your character think of themselves?

Self-image is a great way to determine the unique rationale behind your character’s outlook on the world.  For example, a cruel, arrogant character might be that way because they are extremely self-confident and feel superior, or, they might behave that way because they feel weak and unworthy and think it’s the only way to assert themselves.  Details like this will help you write them more consistently.

It’s also a great way to figure out what kind of character growth they’ll undergo.  Think about what their is self image at both the beginning and end of the story.  See if you can find a way to turn it on itself or make them question it.

8. How do other people think of this character?

This is about the general public, not just their relationships with other major characters.  Is their public image accurate?  Is their public image at odds with their self-image?  Does their public image change over the course of the story?  How important is their public image to your character?

9. What are your character’s inner rules?

Maybe your hero never kills an opponent, or another character never lets their feelings get in the way of their choices.  Maybe your villain is ruthless, but isn’t willing to endanger their friends and family.  Every character has a set of standards that they follow as best they can.

It’s also effective if you can tie these inner codes to some motivating event from their past.  Maybe your hero is pacifistic due to an incident where a companion’s use of lethal violence led to disaster, or your villain’s reluctance to sacrifice their friends is due to the genuine appreciation they have for everything they’ve done for them.

10. What would cause your character to break their rules?

What would cause your pacifistic hero to kill an opponent?  What would cause your practical logical character to make an emotional decision?  How will your villain react when forced to choose between their goals and their family?  Situations like this are a great way to spur character development, or to break your character’s self-image, particularly when your character is forced to choose between two of their own rules.

You should allow moments when your character breaks their rules to be either triumphant or tragic, or both, depending on the rule broken and the context of the situation.  Not all rules are positive, after all—your hero cold-bloodedly killing an opponent is a tragedy, but that same hero breaking a rule that prevents them from questioning authority would be triumphant.  Some rule breaking moments may be ambiguous—If your hero finally kills an opponent, but doing so saves hundreds of lives, they may have mixed feelings about their decision.  Additionally, rule-breaking or rule-keeping moments are key in the redemption of a villain.

Rule-breaking moments often come near the climax of that character’s arc, and determine how that arc will end.


Character Creation For Storygames


Obviously you can’t just do everything the same for linear story and storygame creation and expect it to work out.

For the narrator (and any major side characters), you may want to quickly run through the above questionnaire for every major branch in which they appear.  The branching format of storygames gives you a unique opportunity to show all the different directions a character arc can potentially go in.  Most protagonists face one or more defining personal choices in their stories, and you now have the opportunity to show each of these outcomes.  Take advantage of it!  You have the opportunity to explore every facet of your character in a way linear authors can only dream of.

Though side characters can’t themselves make choices, you still have a great opportunity to show the influence that circumstance, as well as your narrator’s actions, will have on their own development.


The Narrator


Special consideration is due to approaching the narrator’s characterization.

You want to hit a sweet spot where the narrator has a personality, but not so much of a personality that it limits the player’s options and immersion.  Where this sweet spot is depends a lot on the type of game you’re writing.  Immersive literary games like Eternal succeed with strong and distinctive leads, while technical puzzle-y games like Dungeon Stompage do better with a blank and malleable (or customizable!) protagonist.  Most games fall somewhere in between.


Tips for keeping the narrator distinct yet not overbearing:

-In general:  The more you know what target audience you’re writing for, the more specific your characterization can afford to be.  If you know you’re writing for science fiction fans, make your narrator a science fiction fan.  If your target audience is more broad, be vague about what exactly is the subject of that book they’re reading.

-A good rule is that everyone likes characters who are funny.  Be careful here, because some senses of humor will be off-putting to some sect of readers, such as overly cutesy characters, or overly edgy characters.  Inoffensive snark, sarcasm, and wit is a good way to go if you’re trying to please everyone.  Obviously you can afford to be more specific if you know who you’re writing for.

-If you can tie distinctive traits to the subject of the plot, do so.  If your plot is about an evil AI taking over the greater New York area, then it makes sense for the narrator to be say, a computer buff, or alternatively, someone who’s never trusted technology.  This makes them distinctive, ties them into the narrative, and it makes sense in context so it’s unlikely to grate on the reader.

-Have your characters state firm opinions—but only ones you already know the reader shares.  If your character has an important decision to make, have them argue eloquently and passionately in favor of one side, but let the player first click a link showing which side they’re already on.  This makes your character seem well-rounded and fleshed out in all circumstances, despite having a wide variety of possible opinions.  On the flip side, try to avoid having your character take a decisive stance on any complex issue that is not determined by the reader’s choices.

-Characterize the narrator through the questions they ask.  Asking questions is something a player with any personality could reasonably do, but you can use the phrasing and context of such questions to add levels of complexity to them.


Tips for side characters:

-When possible, try and reuse side characters rather than introducing new ones.  Readers are always excited when they see a familiar name in a different branch, and will be curious to see how your narrator’s choices have affected them.

-Don’t let side characters make major decisions.  Even if, logically, they should be the one making the call, any major story-altering decisions get left to the player.  You’re a creative author, you can come up with a way to make it believable.  Maybe they ask the protagonist for advice, or call a vote where the protagonist’s vote just happens to be deciding.

-Let their opinion of the narrator be distinctive—and let it change depending on the reader’s decisions.


In Conclusion:


When it comes to characterization, try not to get too bogged down in the details before you’ve started the actual writing.  You’ll need a reasonably solid outline of their arc and motivations before you start, but if you don’t know their hobbies and favorite color, don’t worry about it.

You’ll learn far more from experimenting around with them than you will from any character creation guides.  Try experimenting with throwing them into different situations to see how they react, and before long, you’ll have a well-defined character with some intriguing traits that may surprise even you.