For the few last months, I was in charge of animating the weekly open doors at my local PnP RPG club. This meant that I had to create, each week, a new scenario, interesting enough to hook any potential newcomer.
For those of you not familiar with PnP RPGs, the high level of interactivity of most games makes the creation of an actual, linear story near impossible, especially when you don't know your players and can hardly predict their reactions. Thus, creating a scenario mostly means creating a situation and the characters related to it. The quality of these characters is essential, as it is their reactions to the players' actions that will make the story go on.
So, I quickly had to find a way to make sure every character I created was good enough to keep my players entertained by the story.
Now, the first question to arise is: what is a good character? Personally, I found two answers: it's either a believable character or a strong character.
On the creation of a strong character
A strong character is usually a very simple character, with a pretty straightforward personnality. In the vast majority of the cases, these are the big bad guys: Ganondorf, Dark Samus, Lavos... They can also be recurring ennemies, such as Nemesis from RE 3, or the Tank from L4D.
These guys barely need any personnality (actually, they barely need to talk at all), they just need to be good at what they're meant to be. In the other medias, you have examples like Darth Vador (from Episode 4), the Daleks, the Joker. But they're not always the bad guys, they can sometimes be the good guys, like Gandalf or Yoda (from the original trilogy).
These characters are those who stay in our minds, the most iconic ones of any story. They usually don't do much, but have to be damn good at doing it.
For these characters to work, you must rely on seasonned tricks. Pick what this character will be (villain? mentor? helper?), and make every single element of this character and his environment work towards this: the looks, the context, the actions, the music. Music, especially, is very important, as it is what will remain in peoples' memory: just think about musics like the Imperial March or One Winged Angel, and you'll see. Or just think about that moment in Left 4 Dead when you hear the Witch crying, or the Tank's theme.
When it comes to video games, you must also use the gameplay itself to reflect this. If you want a bad guy to actually inspire fear, then make sure that the hardest boss fights are for when he's around. Want a mentor to be really helpful? Make sure that he is the one who gives the player his best bonus and pieces of equipment. Want an ally to appear really reliable? Make sure he appears when the player really needs it, and gives him some actual help.
This might seem pretty obvious, but not everybody remembers it. Have a look at this scene, from Resident Evil 5:
So, what this scene says is: you are alone and in trouble, but no worries, friends come and save your life yay! Except it all happens in a cutscene, and never has any real consequence on the gameplay (they send you on a mission on your own, without even giving you any weapons or help).
The second important element to these characters is rarity. Remember: the more you see a character, the less important he becomes to the players' eyes. That's the tricky part: the more you see a character, the more "normal" he seems to the players' eyes, and the less powerful his apparitions become. Over the course of a game, more than 4 apparitions generally is a bad idea. You also can't have that many characters in your game, and never more than one of the same type, otherwise the story will quickly suffer from it.
On the creation of a believable character
So now that we have these strong characters, we also need... Well, pretty much every other character in the game. These will be the "normal" characters, these that are often meant to be forgotten, but that still are necessary to your story.
The big mistakes made by most inexperienced story writers is to come up with a story first, then create characters to fill it up. This is pretty normal, as one is way more likely to come up with an idea for a story than an idea for a character.
The first question that might arise is: when should you create your characters? My answer would be: right after you got your idea for the story's general outline, early enough to be able to completely change where you are going with the storyline. You should have your characters "created" as in "ok I have this guy's name and his role in the story and a general idea of who he is". It is know that you should start asking yourself the right questions about this character. Create a file named after him (or take a sheet of paper if that's how you roll), and create an answer for each of these questions:
What is his name?
How old is he? How old does he looks he is?
What does he look like?
Where does he live?
What does the place he lives in look like?
What is his marital status?
Does he have a family?
Did he lose any family member? how?
Who are his friends?
Are there other people close to him?
What does he think about men?
What does he think about women?
What is his job?
How does he like to dress?
What's his religion?
What is his view on his religion?
How does he like spending his time?
What are his main hobbies?
What are his favorite sports? Does he practice them?
What is his favorite meal?
What is his worst flaw?
What does he believe to be his worst flaw?
What is his best quality?
What does he believe to be his best quality?
What kind of humor does he like?
What is his temperament?
How important are the people close to him to him?
How important are the people he barely know to him?
How do his friends see him?
How do the other people see him?
What is his image about himself?
What is his ambition?
What was his childhood dream?
What is the meaning of life to him? Does he often think about it?
What will the players think about him?
Make an extensive answer to each of these questions. If needed, you may add other questions, but don't take away any question. The character you're creating might be a thousand years old wizard, or a evil galactic overlord who burnt down a thousand planets, but he still had a childhood at some point, no?
Once your characters are designed, have them actually act in the story. Your players will never see the answers to most of these questions, but these elements, if followed, will still make your characters more natural, more fleshed out. For every situation, ask yourself: what would X or Y do? Does this reaction seem natural for him? What would he think about it? This might drastically change the storyline, but since you created the characters this early, you can still afford it, right?
I would also, in most cases, advise against asking these questions for the "strong" characters I talked about earlier. These characters are more ideas than characters, you don't want them to look more human, as it would only weaken them. There are some exceptions...
But in most cases, you're heading the wrong way.
Next week, I'll continue on this subject by exploring the specificities of characters in video games.