September 10, 2011

Imagined conversation and character-building

Looking back on my last developer rant, I’ve decided that I was a little bit too scattershot in my approach. I wanted to cover a multiplicity of areas where detail tends to get overlooked in RPGs, but in doing so I skimped on solutions. In particular, I want to revisit the matter of characterization and drill into it a little bit more.

Reading that piece, you might get the impression that you can build fleshed-out characters simply by creating a laundry list of questions and answering them repeatedly, once each per character. If you got that impression, for the love of all that is holy, please discard it at once. You need to understand the details of your characters’ internal lives, sure, and I think I covered a few crucial details that you will generally want to know, but I never really went into the “how” of it. That is what we’re going to do right now.

The wrong way: outlining characteristics

“Fleshing out” is a good metaphor for the goal of character-building: we start with a skeleton, a character composed of bare bones. Then we add meat.

But this metaphor is a terrible description of the actual process of developing a character. Try this exercise: think about someone who know personally in real life, someone you enjoy or find interesting. Think of four or five adjectives to describe them. Now, think about what it’s like actually being around that person. Think about their views, their mannerisms, verbal tics, the kind of jokes they tell. Those adjectives you picked don’t really convey all of that all that well, do they?

Adjectives are brushes that lay down broad strokes. You can decide some general features of your characters that way, but you still won’t know what your characters are like–what they talk like, what they’re like to interact with, what they think about. Characters sketched out via a top-down approach tend to come off flat and inorganic. Luckily, there’s a better way.

The right way: imaginatively interacting with your character

Now think about that person you picked again. Remember how you actually learned what they were like? Here’s a magic trick: I know. I know how you learned about them because the answer is basically the same for all people, all of the time. People learn about other people by spending time with them and by talking with them. If you want to get to know your characters in a way that goes beyond the superficial, you have to go through this same process.

“But Craig,” you say, “my characters don’t exist. How am I supposed to spend time with them?” That’s easy: use your imagination. Think of a character, then imagine yourself having a conversation with that character. Afterwards, take notes on what they said. Later, if you want to develop a relationship among multiple characters, imagine them talking to each other.

How it works

Here is how I do it. I think of a bare-bones character, one with just a few characteristics I know about going in. I imagine myself there with them. For purposes of the conversation, I might adopt the persona of someone else in the game world, someone the character already knows and trusts, so the character behaves naturally.

I say something, and then note the character’s response. I conduct a conversation with the character in this way. I prod the character gently, poking around for information. Sometimes I challenge him. I want to see how the character behaves. I want to see both what he thinks and how he thinks.

I do not know what the character will say ahead of time. I’m not simulating a conversation with a finished character–I’m learning what my character is like in the first place. So it’s nothing at all like hanging flesh on a skeleton; it’s more like meeting up with a stranger in a coffee house and chatting. The goal here is not to decide on features and add them; it’s to discover things about the character. Or, put another way: it’s less like sculpting and more like conducting an archaeological dig.

I still have handwritten notes from when I first talked to some of the primary characters in Telepath RPG: Servants of God. I got to know Griffin in very much the same way the player does. Here, you can see some of the notes I jotted down shortly after my first chat with him:

As you can see, I adopted the persona of Griffin’s friend Duvalier for purposes of the conversation. Griffin would never have disclosed these things to someone other than Duvalier. That’s partially because he trusts Duvalier implicitly, and partially because these details concern his history and relationship with Duvalier. Mind you, I didn’t even know that he had these things to say until I talked to him as Duvalier. Talking to him as Duvalier led to some interesting discoveries about who he is and what forces shaped him.

You can’t just talk to your characters once or twice. You have to talk to them continually throughout the game’s development. The conversations don’t have to be long; short conversations spaced out over time work too. One way or another, though, you do need to keep at it. Your subconscious needs time to think up new material, and your understanding of the characters needs the opportunity to grow along with it.

You will occasionally have to reject things that your characters say. After all, you created them, and they exist only in your mind. Some of you will inevitably bleed over. Recognize when a character is just voicing your own personal thoughts or beliefs. Be on guard against your character becoming a transparent cipher for yourself. The goal, after all, is to simulate someone else. Iterate and toss out the parts that don’t work–keep the parts that do.

As time passes, you might notice a character changing. That’s good–roll with it. Maybe your character is revealing another side of herself; maybe you’re learning that your first impressions of your character weren’t correct. Best of all: your character may be changing in response to in-game events, possibly revealing a proper character arc. This emergent quality of imagined conversations is one of its greatest advantages.

I still sit down and talk with my characters occasionally, even this late into development. The other day, I was reading a really interesting blog post about Queen Anora from Dragon Age, and the reaction that some players have to her. The bit about her barrenness got me thinking: I wonder what Rahel thinks about having children? So I sat down to ask her.

Going into it, I knew that Rahel had a strained relationship with her father, who had tried to marry her off to a member of her clan. These are some of the things she had to say about having a child:

Rahel: I’ve thought about it before. I just…honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never had that burning compulsion I hear about so often, that overwhelming desire to become pregnant and have a child.

Rahel: Really, I fly two ways about it. Part of me wants to. I’ve always said that if I had a child, I would do the exact opposite of everything my father did. And there’s a part of me that really, really wants to make good on that promise.

Rahel: I would want a girl. And I would want to raise her the right way: as a person, not as chattel.

Rahel: But I have things I want to do with my life. I don’t want to become tied down to a man, a home, a family. Not yet, anyway.

Me: Do you ever feel any pressure to do it?

Rahel: Yes. There’s some personal pique in it. I see the look in men’s eyes when they ask me when I’m getting married. I know they’re rooting for me to get pregnant. They’re just so damned eager to see me heavy and helpless. I’d sooner throw myself down a well than give them the satisfaction.

Me: What do your friends think?

Rahel: I really don’t have very many female friends. I find women…petty, for lack of a better word. Every little thing becomes about status. Even—no, especially—child-bearing.

Rahel: I have a lot of spite in me. I don’t deny it. This world is filled with cruel and stupid people. I resent that fact every single day, with every ounce of my being.

As a bonus, because I wrote down the things she had to say, suddenly I have fodder available for a dialog tree if this topic ever comes up in-game.

But that’s just a bonus. Even if this never comes up directly, just by talking this through with her, I have a better sense of Rahel’s attitudes and experiences. I now have some sense of why she has no female friends in-game, instead mostly interacting with male characters. Some of these things I might have guessed at, but honestly, I didn’t know them until I asked.


A well-written game needs characters that feel real. If you can’t immerse yourself during their creation, your player isn’t going to be convinced by them afterwards. Do yourself a favor: act a little crazy. Your game demands it.