Dimensional character design

May 7, 2013

Alright, enough essays. I want to get some “real writing” on this blog (“creative writing”), and that means laying the ground rules. And that means another essay.

I argued before that writing generally has a point. For writing practice, I’m going to try character design. These will be characters who support (or rule) a videogame narrative, or, if I feel like it, some other sort of narrative.

I will use the principles from “The Beautiful Road: A Writer’s Guide to Putting Gameplay First,” being a speech by Dave Kosak (scroll to the entry for February 22, 2012). He cited in turn David Freeman’s discussion of “character geometry,” but surrounded it with many specific suggestions from his videogame career at Blizzard Entertainment.

“How do you define a character? Think of your character as a group of traits. [Cue massive slide of possible traits.] Now, you could create all your characters by throwing darts at a wall like this, but really you want to come up with characteristics that are going to back up whatever kind of story or theme you have about your game. And you want to make sure that your traits all are things that you can express in how they view the world and how they interact with other people. The more traits you have, the more depth you add to a character.”

What was on the “massive slide of possible traits”? This:

“Quiet, Dispassionate, Lazy, Unflappable, Rational, Direct, Noble, Reckless, Family-Oriented, Greedy, Degenerate, Brooding, Eloquent, Serene, Hedonistic, Entitled, Inspiring, Nihilistic, Arrogant, Fragile, Barbaric, Machiavellian, Bookish, Damaged, Compulsive, Idealistic, Corrupt, Malicious, Dry, Coarse, Dainty, Nimble, Intellectual, Sickly, Depressed.”

It may seem easy to select a handful from this list and run with it, but trait selection is limited. Importantly, the limits go in both directions.

Counting up, a character with very many traits takes a lot of effort to convey to the audience: every individual trait requires space to present, and you only have so much space in the story.

Counting down, a character with very few traits may be easy to convey, but cannot be very important in the story: the writer will run out of things to write. After awhile of the character acting and reacting in the same ways, anything new and interesting such a “shallow” character could do would be “out-of-character.”

Taking “the number of traits” to mean “the number of dimensions” (per David Freeman), Dave Kosak had the following recommendations for videogame characters:

One-dimensional. Good for: masses of enemies to kill, minor allies.
They might be “cruel,” “hungry,” or “stupid,” but just one at a time. They have enough personality to state in single lines of dialogue. The audience doesn’t need to know more.

Two-dimensional. Good for: quest-givers, companions.
In doing so, it’s helpful to give them one trait that the audience expects, and one they don’t: say, a trait expected from group membership (a nature-lover being “protective”), then a clashing trait (“violent”). This clash is a technique for generating character interest (another topic in his talk) that doesn’t take up too much space.

Three-dimensional. Good for: major videogame characters.
By now, a character is believable and can be examined in-depth over the course of a game. Further, characters who are often in the spotlight like this can change traits over time: this is “character development.”

Four-dimensional. Good for: book characters.
There is only so much space for presentation in a videogame. For that matter, there is only so much space in a movie. But the written novel may have more, and truly interesting characters can be more deep than just three dimensions.

So now we have established some parameters, if not for the events in a story (that goes back to the “point” essay, and, in truth, a million others out there) then at least the characters. Next up: the fun part!

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