People don’t read. This Is Known.
Did you write 130 pages on the amazing character Jack Ransome, protagonist of the latest Ultimate Shooter game? No one on your team will read it. No one will know about his cyberlegs or his deeply painful back story. Art will do their thing, audio will do their thing, and Jack Ransome will be Jack Walkedsome.
Cut it down to 5 pages? Great! But no one will read that either.
A paragraph? Maybe. If you’re lucky.
You also need to be aware that as a writer you are not the keeper of the character. You’re in one of the many departments that will contribute to it. You might be the first person to flesh it out, but equally it might come from other departments: “we need a sidekick, and he’s got a mechanical grabber device” or “we need a love interest and she gives the player a horse”. Or even “isn’t this a cool piece of concept art, who do you think this is?” There are game mechanics functions, story functions, marketing functions — all sorts of input will result in a character.
But you’re the writer (or narrative designer). So a cool thing that you can do is to build an easy-to-understand reference document that can be iterated on as the character is developed so that anyone on the team who has anything to do with the character will get it and everyone is pointing in the same direction.
Scratch that. Not a reference document. A reference sheet! A reference card! Keep it short!
Caveat: This isn’t normally a technique I use to create characters — there are many ways to tackle that particular task— this is what I use to communicate them to other team members.
What I use is something like this:
It combines a few high-level touchpoints and useful fragments of information that hopefully make it easy for other people to understand. It’s worked for me on a range of titles in the past. Sometimes it’s the starting point for a character, and sometimes it’s something I put together based on a character that’s already developed but who isn’t being communicated well to the wider team.
It combines several things that I’ll step through bit by bit:
A name at the top
This is the most common name for the character, the one we use throughout production.
A space for a picture!
There shouldn’t be one there to start with (unless you started from the concept art and worked backwards). Seriously, don’t find an image online or hand draw one yourself! Instead leave a blank slate for the concept artist because they will come up with something much better than you could think of yourself.
A ‘real’ name
Just for reference.
Who are they?
A single sentence about who this person is (or appears to be) to the world in general.
Then a section on the roles the character is intended to fulfill:
What is their role in the game-world itself? A shopkeeper, a plumber, an FBI agent, a celebrated poet?
Why are they in this story? What are the mechanical effects they will have in the story? (Why do they exist?) The more complex the character, the bigger this is likely to be, but if you don’t have a good answer to this, then either clarify it — or cut the character!
Are they supposed to be a cautionary example for the player? (“Don’t do what this guy did, look what happened to him!”) Are they someone to pose a particular challenge or moral dilemma to the character? Are they a potential love interest (although that shouldn’t be just who they are)? Are they opening up options in the story? Are they Infodump Central? Are they making the player feel a particular way?
Characters shouldn’t just exist to make the story work, they should also be there to make the game work. Do they have a mechanical effect? Do they give quests? Do they give the players options or abilities they wouldn’t have otherwise?
At the heart of the Personality section I have this set of sliders which gives a rough idea of what sort of person this character is. It’s not precise, it’s analogue, but should give you a simple guide to where they sit and how they might react to situations just by running your eyes down it.
It’s also useful when developing multiple characters to see how they all work together. Are the sliders the same for every member of your cast? That’s something you should sort out. Remember that ideally for every line of dialogue it should be obvious which character would say it. A range of personality types is critical for this – if the sliders are all very similar, it’s hard for the player to find distinctions.
Inward and Outward
Around each side of the sliders we have:
This set of cards (I usually use up to 7) are one-or-two-words each and tries to give some of the most important and obvious things about what sort of person they seem to be. It may not be intentional, from their point of view — but this is who they look like to the people around them. I put a short summary in text above this.
The same as outward, but this is who they think they really are, and they usually try to hide it. Almost always this includes the word ‘insecure’, because humans, right? And again, a quick summary at the top.
(In my experience, people read the single-word cards much more than they read the summaries.)
Then we have a handful of highlight cards which cover obvious behaviours or outlooks that Everyone Knows. “One thing about Dave is, he’s always on time..”
Under that I put a row of reference characters. That doesn’t mean that person is any of those characters, it’s more ‘like this sort of person’. The trick here is to try to find examples that people on your team might have heard of (a task I find harder and harder as the years go on and my references get further back in time!).
Or if a character is a perfect example, you can always sit your team members down to watch a movie, and then say “See? See? That person right there, and this is the thing we can take from them!”
Here are a few examples so you can see what I mean. Of course, your mileage may vary, and I strongly suggest you iterate on it as the rest of the team help you to develop the character. Make it your own thing. Just don’t make it too long!
It’s probably worth saying that I use Miro for this sort of thing, because I tend to think in diagrams.