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Story Design Tips: Identifying with Characters, Part II

Being able to make your players identify with a character is a tool that cuts two ways.

When designing the story of a game, it seems that only a fool would create a game in which the player does not identify with the main character and/or his/her team. It’s the same thing in the gaming world as it is in the regular world of writing.

I’m sure that if any of you had had any basic lessons in writing, it was clearly and forcefully conveyed to you that you absolutely must let your readers identify with your characters. Otherwise, the players/readers would be less involved with the characters’ fates, and they would surely not cry for them if something bad happened.

This was actually disproven a few decades ago by a playwright and poet called Bertolt Brecht. He believed in creating a distance from all the characters as well as from the story. Amazingly, his best tales were absolutely riveting, powerful, and some even made the audience cry.

Usually, in this Story Design Tips column, I show you how something can be done. In the last article, I showed you how to create identification with characters and situations. But this time, rather than show you technique, I want to open your mind to two tools you have in your story design arsenal that you probably hadn’t even considered.

Story Design Tool #145: What if your player didn’t identify with the character?

There are many characters in the story, and you’d like the player to care about some of them. You want the player to feel for them, to feel bad if something happens to them, to fall in love with them, or to feel that their adventure is the player’s adventure. That’s perfectly fine. But the truth is that you can achieve all those without having the player identify with the characters.

Players and audiences identify with people, but they also identify with situations. It is one of your tools to make the player dislike a character completely while completely identifying with the situation at the same time. Can you imagine that for a second? Do you see that such a tool can create a wide array of emotions for the players?  

Now, at this point I’m not touching the main character in a first person game. The hero there, after all, is the player, and his choices are the player’s choices. How can the player not identify with himself? Personally, I think it’s possible, and I think it might lead to interesting stories and games. But I’ll leave that for another time, another column. For the time being, take this tool and try to see what happened if you used it on the other characters in your story.

Story Design Tool #146: Identifying-with-characters can be moved

One of the exercises I give students in my workshops is about identification. I tell them to write a scene in which there are two characters, A and B. In the beginning, I tell them, you have to get the readers to identify with A and dislike B. Within a short while, find a way to make the readers dislike A and identify with B. Then, as the scene progresses, make the readers identify with A again, while disliking B. Then, lastly, in the same scene, find a way to make the readers dislike A, and identify with B.

It takes time, but you can learn to do that. You can move the ‘identify-with’ component from one character to the next as a scene progresses. In fact, you can usually do it in zero time.

Moving the player’s empathy from one character to the next is an important tool in writing and is hardly ever used in the gaming industry. Think about it. Think how you can use it.  

In Conclusion

Identifying with characters is not as straightforward as you might thing. The ‘identifying’ component can be moved from person to person. Sometimes you can achieve a better effect for your story if the player actively does not identify with a character. These are tools you should have in your arsenal when you begin to construct your stories.

[As always, if you have questions about story design or ideas for future columns, please put them in the comments below or email me at guyhasson at gmail dot com.]  

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