A Narrative Designer's Approach to NPCs
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
As a Narrative Designer, you often create and develop non-player characters (NPCs) that help drive the story you’re telling. This is your supporting cast, the characters that bring the world to life around your player character or main character.
What I’ll talk about below comes from my experience creating NPCs for various story lengths (short to epic) and various media, including video games, fiction, table-top games (TTGs), and live-action roleplaying games (LARPs). No matter what, good story is good story, and bad story is…well, a damn shame.
What are Non-Player Characters, Really?
Truth? NPCs are storytelling tools. They’re not your best friend, not your fantasy (iiew), not your children, not your pets, not there to serve you. They may be your chance to show off, but ONLY if you’re showing off how great a narrative designer you are.
You create NPCs to serve the story you’re telling. This means every decision you make about them must pass the “ARC” test. Does taking the character in a particular direction:
- Answer questions players/readers may have about the world and story?
- Reinforce the story you’ve already been telling?
- Create opportunities for future story twists and awesome story arcs?
Not all characters are created equal. Typically, I rank my NPCs in three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary. I’m not reinventing the wheel here. Writers have used this terminology to classify characters since before I was born (no cave-painting jokes, please). The simple fact is that not all characters carry the same importance in the story.
In most situations, the primary character is the player’s character or main character in fiction. I have found, however, that it’s helpful to remove the player’s character from the equation (because that’s a whole other kit and kaboodle) and then classify NPCs as primary, secondary, or tertiary.
Primary NPCs remain in the spotlight, personify important information, and give definition to the story. They can be friendly to the player, or not, but once a primary, always a primary, and if you stop using the character after establishing it as a primary—without a strong ending to their story—your players/readers will notice and feel dissatisfied.
In a perfect world, everything you write, all the characters you create support the story. This is especially true of primary NPCs. Their story arcs should parallel the main story and weave into it, not diverge from it. Their back stories, personalities, quirks, goals, strengths, and weaknesses should all be tied to the story. They personify the story, embodying the tone and theme, and expressing the current arc by their personalities as well as their choices.
If you’re telling a science fiction tale about being lost in space with a family, your primary characters will personify that situation. They will all be part of the family in one way or another. Relationships will be familial in nature. They’ll each have science-fiction skills and will dress appropriately. Their personalities will hinge on the idea of being lost, whether they’re constantly paranoid, extremely brave, protective of the family, or just dang curious.
It’s possible to tell a story without primary characters, but it will have weaker emotional impact on the player/reader. This is one of the mistakes made by some video games. They invest heavily in secondary NPCs and forget to build a strong cast of primary characters.
Secondary characters come in and out of the spotlight occasionally, as needed. They relay important information, and give definition to the world. They may accompany your primary characters from time to time, but they won’t be constantly there. Secondary NPCs can have story arcs of their own, but their stories tend to be short-term and always in support of the greater story.
Secondary NPCs have more flexibility to come and go when needed. Players may get emotionally attached to them, as they do to primary NPCs, but players don’t have the same high expectations of secondary NPCs. If they disappear for a bit, it’s not a big deal. You can then bring them back as plot devices to reveal the twist, explain a situation, or provide resources. Also, secondary NPCs offer an opportunity for added humor, especially in dark and dangerous stories where the primary characters are up to their eyeballs in blood and wouldn’t be joking around.
Tertiary characters appear once or twice, relative to a specific situation. They suffer the repercussions or reap the benefits of the story. They are the red shirts, the starving orphans you feed, and the alien threatening to make you dead if you don’t leave. Quite often, they’re used to reveal the stakes (poor dead red shirts) and to describe the current situation (nothing like an alien shooting at you to make it clear you’re not welcome).
Even red shirts get names. And most tertiary characters should have names or unique descriptors of some sort. They’re one step above ambient spawns, and therefore do still play a role in the story other than as set dressing. The alien may be Messenger Zaxxor from Zora who has come to tell you to get out. The orphans may be Teeny and Tiny, the Bobble twins, who look up at you with big, hungry eyes. Gulp! Their roles in the story may be brief, but they can still be poignant and evoke the desired emotion, tone, and theme.
To summarize, here’s my cheat sheet:
- Primary characters personify story.
- Secondary characters relay information.
- Tertiary characters reap consequences.
The Role of Iconics
In the games industry, an iconic NPC is representative of the game’s story and world. They are almost always primary NPCs that are deeply involved in the story and regularly in the spotlight. Typically, they are used in marketing materials to represent the game to new buyers.
When designing an iconic, all the rules of the primary NPC apply.
In a game where there are various player professions, cultures, and other such diversifying options, the iconics represent these types. Their very existence teaches players what characters of X profession or X culture are basically like. In a heroic MMO, where the player is a hero, they lead the way by being heroes themselves.
The iconics reveal aspects of the player’s character. Quite often players will be sentimental about the iconic with the closest ties to their own character. Any misuse of that character by the writer will produce negative feelings among players.
Iconics can seem stereotypical—because they are, at least in the beginning. They’re setting examples and teaching the ways of the story, gameplay, and world.
Iconics can grow and change over time, and should. Like any other character, their individual story arcs run parallel to the main arc and reveal nuances in and perspectives on the story.
The player's character may not always like or agree with them, but ultimately, they are on the same team. This is important to help players develop an emotional connection to the iconics and thus to the world.
When iconics argue with each other or the player, in dialogue, it’s because the writer is attempting to shine a light on the two different perspectives.
Because players want success, not failure, the characters should reconcile their differences and move forward in a positive direction together. When the iconic NPC supports the player, they’re reinforcing the player’s success.
Bottom line, the iconics are extensions of the player’s character. What you do to them, you’re also doing to the player’s identification with that NPC, so it had better be satisfying to the player. It must make sense, and it must reinforce the player's success.
Player Investment in NPCs
The longer your story is ongoing, the more invested players and readers will become in the characters. This is most noticeable with iconics and other primary NPCs, but people also grow sentimental and nostalgic about secondary and even tertiary characters. As a narrative designer, this translates into responsibility.
Players get to know the NPCs, perhaps as intimately as their friends and coworkers, and they notice if the character exhibits behavior that doesn’t jive with who they are. This can happen when there's a change of writer or when a tight deadline prevents us from doing due diligence. Sometimes, it's the result of a gameplay decision, a resource that we didn't have time to make, or some other mechanical challenge we were unable to overcome.
Over the years, whenever I’ve taken a character too far or made a call that doesn’t feel natural to players, they tell me all about it. I welcome this. Each and every time, it's been a learning moment for me, and I thank those fans who cared enough to share their frustration. Unfortunately, I can't always fix it.
The perfect narrative designer (a unicorn) maintains continuity by having each and every character act only according to their personality, history, and current situation. The perfect narrative designer never writes dialogue that strays from the character’s voice, and the perfect narrative designer maintains the story vision from the beginning all the way to the end.
No one is perfect. Writing and narrative design are lifelong pursuits, with daily lessons in what to do and what not to do. It’s a journey, like the journeys of our characters.
Can you identify the primary, secondary, and tertiary characters in your game or story? Let me know in comments.
For the past 9 years, Angel McCoy has been a writer and narrative designer on the AAA MMO Guild Wars 2. Before that, she lent her creative skills to industry heavy-weights Microsoft Game Studios, XBox.com, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and White Wolf's World of Darkness. In her spare time, she serves as Creative Director for the indie game team at Games Omniverse and mentors burgeoning writers. Her narrative toolbox is overflowing with lessons learned and shortcuts discovered, so she's giving back and sharing some of the best of them with you.