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Storytelling in Games and Interactive Media. Chapter 5: Character Design

Although character design is a discipline on its own, writer and narrative designer are often tasked with defining character's personalities and prominent features.

Robert Renke, Blogger

April 14, 2022

14 Min Read

“The best marketing doesn't feel like marketing.”

- Tom Fishburne


Although character design is a discipline on its own, writer and narrative designer are often tasked with defining characters' personalities and prominent features. Living characters are arguably one of the most important parts of a story, and it is certainly up to the narrative designer to ensure their consistency throughout the game.

Character design is not limited to their written lines and looks either. It is not even limited to the product itself. According to Ryan Kaufman, "sharing is caring": characters should have simple, distinctive features so that they are replicable through any media or style and recognizable in fanart, cosplay, memes, or any other content created by your users or your marketing team.

Characters and relationships that are inclusive and representational inspire, and if you don't explain your story to death, you can leave space for fans to fill with their imagination. (Kaufman, 2019)


Figure 1: Kaufman, R. (2019). Narrative Nuances in Free-To-Play Mobile Games. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILFzKNLAwVQ

there is good reason for supposing that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves, in other words, that they are patterns of instinctual behaviour.”

-C.G. Jung


It is a generally accepted assumption that Plato defined today's concept of categorizing anything in a reduced number of archetypes, however, it might be more accurate to say that Plato's Eidos laid the foundation for Jung's conception of archetypes giving the concept of abstract Ideas living behind their equivalent physical manifestations.

In Socratic Dialogues, Plato argues that because the material world is changeable it is also unreliable. Behind the unreliable world of appearance would then lie a world of permanent ideas. This is the world of Forms or Ideas. Plato argues against the artistic practice, saying that the attempt to recreate Form will end up being an imitation of the perfect Idea; everything in this world is an imperfect representation of its perfect form. (Macintosh, 2012)

Archetype was then synonymous with Plato's Idea. When the Corpus Hermeticum describes God as the archetypal light, it expresses the idea that God is the prototype of all light, in other words, pre-existent and supraordinate to the phenomenon "light". (Jung, 1970)

Jung follows his statement, claiming:

"But I am an empiricist, not a philosopher; I cannot let myself presuppose that my peculiar temperament, my own attitude to intellectual problems, is universally valid. Apparently this is an assumption in which only the philosopher may indulge, who always takes it for granted that his own disposition and attitude are universal, and will not recognize the fact, if he can avoid it, that his "personal equation" conditions his philosophy. [...] Anyone who continues to think as Plato did must pay for his anachronism by seeing the "supracelestial", i.e. Metaphysical, essence of the Idea relegated to the unverifiable realm of faith and superstition, or charitably left to the poet."

(Jung, 1970)

In his model of archetypes, Jung follows Freud's conception of id, ego, and super-ego, distinguishing between two different classifications: the persona (image of ourselves that we present to the world) from the shadow (hidden anxieties and repressed thoughts). (Waude, 2016)

At this point, it might be important to mention not to confuse Jung's persona with the term as used in marketing, which is used to refer to pre-designed proto-customers and can eventually also make use of Jungian archetypes to be constructed.

Jung noted the relationship between the personal and collective unconscious. Shared concepts permeate the collective unconscious and emerge as themes and characters in dreams or surface in cultural mediums such as myths, books, films, and paintings. Archetypes are often incarnated as characters, for example, James Bond's M representing a mother archetype, or Hyde in Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde representing Jung's shadow. (Waude, 2016)

figure 2: Pearson, C. (2002). Archetypes: What they are and why you should care. https://www.carolspearson.com/about/about-archetypes-c-g-jung-and-depth-psychology

Mythological motifs are archetypal manifestations, i.e. Symbols, and have significance in that a myth is a phenomenon of collective consciousness. They are the end product of a conscious elaboration of the original unconscious content, which often includes the efforts of many generations of storytellers, enduring throughout time. If, for example, we look at alchemy as only a proto-chemistry, this can not explain how the interest in it continued despite the failure to produce the desired objective results. We must then avoid the mistake of trying to see mythology as an attempt at explanation in objective terms when its explanations are symbolic in nature. (Shelburne, 1976)

The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche. (Campbell, 1949)

According to Campbell (1949), psychoanalyst scholars have "demonstrated irrefutably that the logic, the heroes, and the deeds of myth survive into modern times. In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream".

Archetypes evolve over time, in what we notice them as well as how they express themselves to us (Pearson, 2002). Furthermore, because our society is not the same as it was when Jung wrote his original concept, many new models have been created (Odenthal, 2014). As Pearson and already Jung described, neither individual nor collective archetypes tend to be limited to one category, rather the whole is a mixture of its pieces, nor is it constant, but instead subject to constant change and adaptation to our environment[(C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 1959, p.70)].

figure 3: Odenthal, K. (2014) A list of modern day archetypes. https://discover.hubpages.com/relationships/Top-Ten-Female-Archetypes-of-Modern-Society

Joseph Campbell, on the other hand, uses archetypes such as the hero, mentor, or villain as a matter to define not personalities but the character's role in the plot. Recalling Jung's words, " I cannot let myself presuppose that my peculiar temperament, my own attitude to intellectual problems, is universally valid." the concept of archetypes is presented in an infinite variety of names and forms by different authors. The best practice here, among other reasons to not lose one's mind, is to adapt the theory to each given situation and design style. In games, we could use archetypes in Jung's or Pearson's original way to outline our characters' personalities, we could use Campbell's model to define their roles in the plot, we could use different archetypes for playable characters' abilities or NPC's mechanical role. Possibilities are endless, but in the end, the chosen model or combination of models will depend on the nature of the project.

Figure 4: Renke, R (2022). Abstracted from Revel Archetypes(2016) and Bartle (1996)

NPC Motivations and AI Limitations

Recalling Dinehart(2019) from part four, we can say that our character's motivations and desires are what drive the plot. Motivations can be internal or external (Haggis, 2017). The same motivational theory that applies to players applies to characters as well, and should ideally result in motivational parity. See this article for more information on motivational theory:https://www.gamedeveloper.com/business/on-player-taxonomies-and-motivations---part-1-psychological-foundations

Figure 5: Haggis, M. (2017). Storytelling Tools to Boost Your Indie Game's Narrative and Gameplay. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fXE-E1hjKk

Matt Brown (2018) refers to motivational theory in the AI behavior of the Sims. AI can be used to drive NPCs' wants and needs based on previously accumulated input and happenings. Moreover, sims deliver a certain illusion of autonomy, progressing based on their behavior trees while the player is absent.

Ken Levine in his 2014 GDC talk "Narrative Lego" points out that technology is simply far from being so advanced to function autonomously. Therefore, he says, we should not try to make "intelligent" NPCs.

Levine goes on to explain his experimental concept of modeling "Passions" rather than people for "star" characters, the latter being a concept coined to refer to the few important characters. Giving the example of Luke Skywalker, this character is "adventurous, has father issues, and wants to prove himself". He might be "vegetarian, has tooth-decay, and obsessive-compulsive disorder", but those things are not relevant to the audience or the story. A Passion is what a Star cares about relative to the actions of the player. Passions are transparent to the player and must be responsive to the player's action: it has no meaning if the player can't do anything about it.

Ken explains an early mechanical concept based on the fictional example of Frank the Ork. Frank's behavior towards the player is based upon three key Passions. First, Frank has a shared Passion among orcs, which is "hating elves". Second, Frank wants a temple of old gods built as opposed to new gods, and third, Frank the Orc likes Barbara the Orc. Any action the player does in regards to any of those three passions would give + or – 1 on the scale of the corresponding passion, which then feeds into a macro-Passion scale, and based on thresholds Frank's attitude towards the player would change. (Levine, 2014)

Levine's concept can be seen as an evolution of multi-faction zero-sum games, like the ones we can see, for example, in World of Warcraft with opposed factions such as the Bloodsail Buccaneers vs. the Steamwheedle Cartel. note that in WoW, a perfect zero-sum game was avoided as with very intense grinding for reputation by killing monsters unrelated to one of the factions, one could reach popularity on both. Similarly, in Levine's concept, performing any action in favor of elves would reduce the player's reputation with Frank, while performing acts for the other Passions would increase reputation with Frank without affecting that of other orcs or elves.


The NPCs' personality is equally important than the protagonist's, as Polyhedron Productions' CJ Kershner presents in his 2016 GDC talk about empathy. Especially regarding enemy AI, in this highly recommendable talk, we are faced with the paradox of emotional confliction, as Kershner talks about the power of guilt and his wish for "mature, nuanced work". AI can have agency, add responsibility and emotional consequence to the player's actions, and in that can be used to showcase world narrative from a perspective that is opposed to the player's "faction".

All of that gets more complicated once the ethics of the played character do not align with the player's real-life values. Nagles(2015) proposes 4 steps to deal with moral dissociation between player and character.

First, creating a safe space. Nagel gives Assassin Creed's Animus as an example. This is a clear transition between out-of-character and in-character, allowing for moral dissociation. At the same time, it provides a breaking point for the player, a moment to start immersing into the game. In The Art of Alice: Madness Returns, Art director Nako explains another, more subtle breaking point: "When Alice enters Wonderland, she is in a familiar scene that she remembers from when she was a child. But later she sees something new, a lot of dolls and train parts, in dark smoke. This lets the player know that Alice will experience a whole new adventure."

The second of Nagel's steps is to define complex factions with complex morals. According to Nagel, we need to define who the character actually is. Factions don't need to be black and white, as on both sides there can always be nuance.

Figure 6: Nagler, D. (2015). Designing Morally Difficult Characters. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bW2pw9jEto

A common method to do so is following the D&D model of lawful to chaotic and good to evil axes.

Figure 7: Nagler, D. (2015). Designing Morally Difficult Characters. Game Developers Conference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bW2pw9jEto

Third, link character motives to game goals. In his educational game "the Sim", students tended to start with purely mechanical arguments and then gradually become more involved in the roleplay. Mechanics can be linked to character motivation, thus providing an extrinsic motivator to follow the character's personality. Nagel gives the example of Persona 4, where characters get points in combat for bettering their relationship with each other, which over time gets the player to "actually care about the characters through that system".

Lastly, keep the characters human. As with any character, also morally opposed ones require traits of personality that make them relatable and believable. But when the character's actions oppose the spectator's moral, those traits serve another purpose: distraction. (Nagel, 2015)


Josh Sawyer(2012) coins the term character prototypes, as opposed to archetypes, to provide a low-level starting point for the player's character concept, that helps define and reinforce scope and range.

A character's personality is then reflected in all of their details. Trust your art team, because how the characters walk, what they wear, and how they talk, is going to tell a lot about who they are.

Think carefully about casual lines that the characters call out during the gameplay – they can be heard more often than anything else. (Mehrafrooz, year unknown)

According to Harrison Pink(2017), emotional attachment takes time. Concepts like family simply describe existing relationships but don't have any power on their own. The problem appears when there is emotional parity: there is an established relationship between two characters while the spectator is still a stranger. For example in Tales of The Borderlands, the player sees the triggering event at the same time it hits the character. The opening scene in The Walking Dead breaks this rule, but works as the story quickly catches up with the experience.


Characters are the driving force of the plot and constitute the living beings of the living world we want to create. There are a variety of archetypal frameworks that we can use to define their characteristics and roles so that those can be reflected in their looks, skills, and sounds, and live on even outside of their product. There certainly are technical limitations at some points, but those should only drive us to even more creative solutions!

"Think of every character as a main character.

They believe they're the main characters in their stories.

No one should just be an obstacle."

- Ben Edlund

Previous parts:

Part 1: Prologue

Part 2: Setting and Tools

Part 3: Freedom of Choice

Part 4: Structure and Devices

Next parts:

Part 6: Time and Space

Part 7: From Theory to Practice


Kaufman, R. (2019). Narrative Nuances in Free-To-Play Mobile Games. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILFzKNLAwVQ

Macintosh, D., (2012). Plato: A Theory of Forms. https://philosophynow.org/issues/90/Plato_A_Theory_of_Forms#:~:text=Plato%20calls%20this%20more%20real,eidos%2Fidea%20in%20Greek).&text=Plato%20would%20say%20that%20peoples,representation%20of%20its%20perfect%20Form

Waude, A. (2016, January 22). How Carl Jung's archetypes and collective consciousness affect our Psyche. Psychologist World. Retrieved February 22, 2022, from https://www.psychologistworld....

C.G. JUNG'S THEORY OF THE C0LLECTIVE UNCONSCIOUS: A RATIONAL RECONSTRUCTION ; WALTER AVORY SHELBURNE ; UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA ; 1976; https://ufdcimages.uflib.ufl.edu/UF/00/09/81/33/00001/cgjungstheoryofc00shel.pdf

Campbell, J., (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces, commemorative edition. Princeton University Press(2004). http://www.rosenfels.org/Joseph%20Campbell%20-%20The%20Hero%20With%20A%20Thousand%20Faces,%20Commemorative%20Edition%20%282004%29.pdf

C.G.JUNG ; FOUR ARCHETYPES ; TRANSLATED BY R. F. C. HULL ; PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS ; 1970 ; https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~cavitch/pdf-library/Jung_MotherArchetype.pdf

C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 1959, p.70

Pearson, C. (2002). The 12-Archetype System. https://www.carolspearson.com/about/the-pearson-12-archetype-system-human-development-and-evolution

Odenthal, K. (2014). A list of modern day archetypes. https://discover.hubpages.com/relationships/Top-Ten-Female-Archetypes-of-Modern-Society

Shadraconis, S. (2013). Leaders and Heroes: Modern Day Archetypes. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1048&context=lux

Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit. MUDs Richard Bartle ; 1996

Revel Archetypes (1996). fun and gains. http://www.funandgains.co.uk/

Haggis, M. (2017). Storytelling Tools to Boost Your Indie Game's Narrative and Gameplay. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fXE-E1hjKk

Brown, M. (2018). Emergent Storytelling Techniques in The Sims. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjuOSgPdtS0

Kershner, C. (2016). The Lives of Others: How NPCs Can Increase Player Empathy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ew9aLIp0Evc

Dark Horse Books (2011). The Art of Alice: Madness Returns

Mehrafrooz, B. (year unknown). The ultimate guide to game narrative design. https://pixune.com/game-narrative-developing-a-story-that-works/

Pink, H., (2019). Snap to Character: Building Strong Player Attachment through Narrative. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyQfP1GjdJ8&t=557s

Sawyer, J., (2021). Choice Architecture, Player Expression, and Narrative Design in Fallout: New Vegas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR4OxNfzTvU

Nagler, D. (2015). Designing Morally Difficult Characters. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bW2pw9jEto

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