Building Character: An Analysis of Character Creation

When we talk about creating a character in a game, we're usually talking about characterization, which is everything observable about a character: what they look like, sound like, how they move, how they dress, intelligence, attitude, career, and so forth. Character, on the other hand, refers to what's underneath — the human heart, the essential nature. Remember the two things you're trying to do with a character: make an enjoyable and interesting character that a player will want to adopt into his or her life for the next few weeks or months, and create a character that will be different and memorable enough to help you cut through the clutter of the several thousand other games that you'll be competing with for shelf, magazine, and player-awareness space. So at this point try to think, what's interesting? What's cool? What hasn't been done before?

I have been a game designer for nearly 20 years, mostly in the adventure game arena. However, at the moment, I'm doing something completely different, working as Creative Content Director for the online gaming site,, and for the first time in my life creating games that are pretty much devoid of story and character, which is pretty ironic given this articles topic: "Building Character: An Analysis of Character Creation."

Basic Terminology

First, some terminology 101. This is real basic stuff, but just bear with me for a minute for the sake of those who aren't familiar with these terms that I'm going to be bandying about for the rest of the talk.

The distinction between player-characters, or PCs, which are characters under the player's direct control, and non-player-characters, or NPCs, which are all the computer-controlled characters in the game. The main thrust of this talk will be PCs.

Second, with the category of PCs, is the distinction between first-person and third-person point-of-view, or POV. With a first-person PC, you're seeing the gameworld through the PCs eyes; examples would be Myst, or Quake. With a third-person PC, you can see the PC as you move him or her through the game world; examples would be Kings Quest or Tomb Raider. First-person PCs are often styled to "be" the player, as if the player were injected into the gameworld, in which case the PC is left characterless in order to preserve the fiction that you are the main character, and first-person games don't deal with the visual appearance of the PC, so its more rare in a first-person game to have a PC with a strong, fleshed-out characterization. Some games switch back and forth, such as the Tex Murphy games, Under a Killing Moon and so forth, which use a first-person POV for the gameplay, but use a third-person view for the cut-scenes, the movie-like non-interactive sequences.

Character vs. Characterization

When we talk about creating a character in a game, we're usually talking about characterization, which is everything observable about a character: what they look like, sound like, how they move, how they dress, intelligence, attitude, career, and so forth. I'll be focusing on characterization for the first and longest part of this talk.

Character, on the other hand, refers to what's underneath — the human heart, the essential nature. I'll be dealing with true character during the second part of this talk.

The Importance of Character Development

The first question to deal with is why is good characterization important? Of course, this is dependent on the type of game; if it's a real-time strategy game, for example, with its relatively distant point-of-view, and its large quantities of interchangeable units, characterization isn't that important. So for today's purposes, let's stick to games where character is important, such as adventures, role-playing games, action-adventures, platform games.

Of all the aspects of such a game — the geography, the inanimate objects, the music, the action sequences, the interface, etc. — the element that is most likely to leave a positive lasting impression on players are the primary character or characters. Humans are hard-wired to respond to other humans (or human-like creatures).

This point was driven home for me a couple of years ago, when my son went through a period of extreme interest in The Three Stooges. He bought himself a life-size cardboard stand-up of the Stooges, and kept lugging it around the house and leaving it in different rooms. I kept walking past a room and spotting it for brief moment, out of the corner of my eye, and just that glance would often cause the most visceral, startled reaction. This continued even after the damn thing had been around the house for months.

If you're going to expect players to spend dozens of hours with a character you're creating, at the very least you want that character to be interesting, easy to identify with, and hopefully very likeable as well. The more a player can get into the skin of the character or characters they're controlling, the more the experience becomes something that's happening to you, rather than something you're doing. Also, a strong central character serves as an almost iconic representation of the game, which is damn useful as a shorthand for facilitating word-of-mouth, and is useful for all sorts of marketing hooks; furthermore, a successful character is a good, perhaps even the best, way to build a franchise.

Some Successful Game Characters

Let's look at a list of some of the most well-known and successful game characters:

  • Mario
  • Sonic the Hedgehog
  • Spyro
  • Crash Bandicoot
  • Rayman
  • Leisure Suit Larry
  • Putt Putt
  • Banjo-Kazooie
  • Lara Croft
  • Pikachu
  • Fatty Bear
  • Link
  • Duke Nukem
  • Carmen Sandiego
  • Gabriel Knight
  • Guybrush Threepwood

Certainly not a comprehensive list, and I'm sure just about everyone here could come up with a handful of good additions to this list with half-a-minutes thought. But it's a good, representative list, with characters from a number of different genres; a mixture of characters aimed at children, adults and at a crossover audience; a mixture of males, females, animals, and various fantasy creatures. But what they all have in common is that they're the focus of their respective games, and have spawned sequels, in some cases many sequels in addition to spin-offs into TV shows, movies, books, card games, action figures, and so forth. In other words... a franchise.

By the way, I'm only going to be dealing with characters originally created for games; I'm not going to be talking about cases where you're transporting a James Bond or an Indiana Jones from another medium. That process, of course, has its own set of issues.

High Concept

The first step in creating a successful character, especially one that you're going to hang a game on, is to settle on what we in the development biz call the "high concept" for that character. High concepts for some of the characters on the previous slide would be "a cute talking car" or "a marsupial who's been genetically enhanced by a mad scientist" or "a female Indiana Jones with mammaries the size of Volkswagens". Remember the two things you're trying to do with this character: make an enjoyable and interesting character that a player will want to adopt into his or her life for the next few weeks or months, and create a character that will be different and memorable enough to help you cut through the clutter of the several thousand other games that you'll be competing with for shelf, magazine, and player-awareness space. So at this point try to think, what's interesting? What's cool? What hasn't been done before?

Naming Characters

Naming characters is a massively important step. A good name is a big part of what makes a character memorable; it is often what gives people their first impression of what the character is all about. Often, that character's name will be the game's name as well, or part of it, so this is a good opportunity to take that power into your own hands rather than letting the marketing weasels bungle it a year down the road, unless of course we have any marketing weasels in the audience, in which case, I meant to say, my very good friends who so skillfully and valiantly pilot our games through the intricate complexities of the marketplace.

As with the high concept, a character's name should be interesting and memorable. In addition, it should be euphonious, pleasing to the ear, and rolling off the tongue rather than twisting it. It should fit the character. Studs Steelpike probably wouldn't be a good name for the skinny accountant who solves crimes with his amazingly logical mind, and Milo Twigbody is probably a bad name for the professional wrestler who becomes an ace assassin for the CIA. I think Duke Nukem, for example, is an excellent name — easy to say and remember, and which instantly creates just the right mental image.

J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is a master of naming characters is. There's no doubt when you meet a Severus Snape or a Draco Malfoy that you'll meeting an unappetizing character, that Hermione Granger will turn out to be a studious know-it-all, that Percy Weasley and Cornelius Fudge will be prissy and self-important, that Peeves will be one extremely annoying poltergeist.

It's a fun exercise to think of the names of successful characters from various media, and notice how well their names conjure up the right initial mental image — the solidly strong James Bond, the sinister Darth Vader, the human-doormat Arthur Dent, the mischievous Bugs Bunny and the everyman Homer Simpson.


Before you start developing a character, you need to know and thoroughly understand the character. The best way to do this is to write a background paper for each character. This can be just a paragraph or two for minor characters, and several pages, even 10 or 20 pages, for your main character. This is really important. It doesn't have to be in narrative form; lists are okay, and you should include stuff like:

  • where was the character born?
  • what was his or her family life like as a kid?
  • what was his education?
  • where does he live know?
  • his job
  • his finances
  • his taste in clothes, books, movies, etc.
  • favorite foods
  • favorite activities
  • hobbies
  • personality traits, and how they manifest
  • shy or outgoing? greedy or giving?
  • quirks
  • superstitions
  • phobias
  • what were the traumatic moments in the character's life?
  • what were his biggest triumphs?
  • important past romances
  • current romantic involvement or involvements
  • how does he treat friends? lovers? bosses? servants?
  • political beliefs, past and present
  • religious beliefs, past and present
  • interesting or important possessions
  • any pets?
  • unusual talents
  • what's the best thing that could happen to your character?
  • the worst thing?
  • tea or coffee?
  • paper or plastic?

The list could go on and on. And, if your character isn't human, your background has to go a lot further, explaining exactly what, in your universe, it means to be a hobbit, or a Jedi knight, or an outcast half-orc half-troll, or what it means to be a robot warrior with a malfunctioning ethics chip.

You've got to know everything about the character, become the world's biggest expert on them, even if you end up creating 10 times as much background as you'll ever use. That way, once you start figuring out what your character will do in a given situation, you won't have to figure out, you'll know. And your players will know you know, even if it is just subconsciously, because they'll see your character acting and reacting in be real, natural ways; don't do this, and your character will be a shallow cliché.

Here's an exercise. Once you've written your background for a character, try to think of a dozen mundane or not-so-mundane situations, and say to yourself, "How would my character react in this spot?" How would he react when stuck in a traffic jam while late for an important date? When passing a panhandler? When confronted with a stray cat? When a comely co-worker makes a come-on? When pushed out of an airplane at 15,000 feet? If you've done your background development well, you should have the answers to these questions without even thinking.

I recently saw the movie Jaws for the first time since it was first released, and there's a terrific scene in it, when Roy Schieder, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw are in the boat's galley, after a hard and futile day of chasing the shark. Dreyfuss' character, the naturalist shark expert, and Shaw's character, the hard-bitten shark-hunter, are trying to one-up each other, with near-shark experiences, rolling up their clothes to show off one scar after another. It's a wonderful scene, and the kind of writing that comes easily when you've done your homework, but probably not at all if you haven't.

Concept Art: Initial Design

Unless your character is a first-person POV character, or unless you've decided to eschew any hope of profitability and write a text adventure, a big part of characterization will be creating the character's physical appearance. And that means working with a concept artist.

Maybe you're thinking that your modeling artists are good enough to create without benefit of concept art. Maybe you're thinking that you don't have time in the schedule or dollars in the budget to afford concept art. Well if you're thinking that, think again. Concept art will save you time and money, big time. It's a lot faster, easier, and more painless to work out everything at the concept art stage. It doesn't mean that you'll never end up creating finished art that you have to throw away or redo, but it'll happen a lot less. And a good concept artist will bring a unique vision to the realization of the character that will, in many cases, be far more interesting and exciting than what you were picturing in your own mind and trying to articulate to the rest of the team.

Here's how this phase of concept art might go. This sequence is from a game that my development company, Boffo Games, was working on for Time-Warner Interactive about 5 years ago, a game that was never completed after TWI was reorganized out of existence. The working title was Reverse Alien, about a human who lands on a planet where the natural objects, the building materials, and the native race are all so fragile, that the human is to them as the monster in the Alien movies is to humans. The native race were called the Feebies, and I started by drawing this sketch:

As you can see, some of us need a concept artist more than others do. I'm like the ancient Egyptians — I never discovered perspective. This sketch, along with supporting text documents, went to the concept artist for the game, Les Nelken, who's currently an artist at Turbine Games.

Les produced a whole batch of sketches, variations on this theme. From those, I selected the head (right) and the body (left) that I thought worked the best:

Les took that and produced a new generation of sketches:

These then went to the art house that was doing the final art, a very talented company in San Jose called Dub Media. And here's a still from one of the few animations of a Feebie that was created before the project was consigned to that big hard disk in the sky:

Right after the Reverse Alien disappointment, I entered Concept Art heaven. The next project that we did at Boffo was an adventure game called The Space Bar, funded by Rocket Science. The concept art for the game was done by Ron Cobb, who was a founder of Rocket Science, and who had done art direction for numerous games and movies. Working with him still ranks as one of the big thrills of my career. The Space Bar was set in a spaceport bar filled with all kinds of pretty wild alien races, so we weren't just creating new characters every week, but entirely new races. One such race was a race of mobile plants, called the Vedj. Again, we started with one of my superb sketches:

Ron then produced this piece of concept art, which we decided wasn't "plant-like enough". A round or two later, he came back with a second image, which was perfect:

Ron's first piece of concept art of a Vedj (left), and the final draft (right).

As you can see, with each go-round, the sketches get more and more detailed as you realize you're getting closer to the final form of the character. And here's an image from the game itself of a Vedj, named Seedrot, seated at a table by the dance floor in the bar:

Now, sometimes the evolution of a character isn't dictated by creative reasons but marketing reasons. Here's an example from a platform game, for the Playstation 2, that we started working on for THQ when I worked at a THQ-owned developer called GameFX:


The game, with a working title of Smartacus, was about a 12-year old super-genius with an evil bent, his 6-year-old tomboyish sister and their adventures through space and time. The concept artists for Smartacus, was Richard Sullivan.

With each generation of concept art, we made her older, and turned her from Smartacus' little sister (left) into a classmate (right) of his.

THQ decided that the target users of PS2s, at least during its first year, wouldn't be interested in a 6-year-old girl, even if she was only a secondary character, and even if she could beat up grizzly bears without breaking a sweat.

By the final generation of concept art, she was even taller than Smartacus.

But to no avail; THQ killed the project at this point.

Now, just to show that the initial design phase of concept art is not necessarily a long process, here's one of many examples of getting it right the first time. Again, I turn to The Space Bar and the art of Ron Cobb. In the bar, serving as a fairly minor humorous diversion, was a race called the Fruufnids. They were less than a foot tall, stood on a table in the bar, and strongly resembled Polynesian drinks, when in fact they were high-level ambassadors from a very powerful planet. They were constantly being picked up by patrons, mistaking them for drinks, and were completely clueless why it was happening, and wildly indignant about it.

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