I once had to write character bios for a AAA project. The team gave me a long, complicated template to use. It listed things like name, age, gender, sexual orientation, goals, secrets, likes, and so on. I didn’t quite know how to approach this, so I started making stuff up. Tall? Sure! Gay? Why not!
And I didn’t feel like I was doing a very good job. I was grabbing traits out of thin air and cobbling them together. It was like building a Frankenstein.
And, I started wondering how much of this was even necessary. Do I need to make up a whole family backstory, for example? Will that make a difference to the player, especially if this character never speaks?
And was I even the right person to be figuring this out? Won’t the artists and designers want to have a say? Am I doing other people’s jobs?
And my biggest worry: was I somehow failing to cover the important stuff - whatever that might be?
As you can see, I had questions. And at the time, there were no clear answers.
I could find plenty of ADVICE on how to create character bios - from film & TV & theater books. But games are different - and game characters are different, too.
What makes game characters different?
In his book The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell breaks down how character patterns shift across mediums, from novels to film to games:
Mental => Physical. “The game characters are involved in conflicts that are almost entirely physical, since these characters mostly have no thoughts (the player does the thinking for them) and are only occasionally able to speak.
Reality => Fantasy. Novels tend to be reality based; films often push towards fantasy, and game worlds are almost entirely fantasy situations. And the characters reflect this - they are products of their environment.
Complex => Simple. For a variety of reasons, the complexity of plots and depth of the characters gradually diminishes as we move from novels to games.
So a character that would work brilliantly in a book or a movie could fall flat in a game.
So then the question becomes, what do we need to know about a game character? In other words, how do we create a character bio that leads to an unforgettable character in a game?
The answer is to play detective. Take the time to analyze great game characters and figure out why they work - in games. Then you can reverse engineer a character bio template of your very own.
Learning from the best
Start by choosing a videogame character you know and love.
Then sit down and replay the game with that character in mind, and take notes.
Here are some things to watch for:
What is your connection to them?
There are two levels to this question.
The first level is: is this character a player character or an NPC? That’s easy.
The second, more complex level, is: how do you work with this character?
For example, let’s say you chose Delilah from Firewatch. She is your character’s boss, and (if you’re interested in the story) you’re trying to figure out what she’s hiding from you. So she’s someone you’re paying attention to, for a couple of different reasons.
On the other hand, if you’re playing Untitled Goose Game, maybe you and the goose are partners in crime.
This question asks you to take a step back and watch yourself, as you play the game. Why does this character make the game for you?
(If you’re stuck, try imagining the game without this character. What would change?)
This leads us to the next question:
How do you feel about them?
Do you love them? Hate them? Both? The best characters bring up complicated feelings for us.
For example, Senua in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is mentally ill. How do you feel, playing her? Are you confused by her? Frightened by her? Compassionate towards her? All of the above?
Or maybe you’re playing The Stanley Parable. Does the narrator make you laugh? Do you also hate him a little bit?
Or maybe you’re playing Florence. Do you feel like you ARE her, or are you rooting for her, or both? Or something altogether different?
Take some time to mull this over. You may be surprised by how complex your feelings are about certain characters!
This leads us to the most important question of all:
WHY do you feel this way?
This is where you get into specifics. The devil is in the details, and the devil is what you want here. This is where you’re going to look at yourself, just as much as you look at the character.
For example, let’s say you’re playing Florence, and you’ve decided you feel protective towards her. Maybe that’s because you can relate to her - she reminds you of a younger version of yourself. Or maybe you are the same age as her, and actually you feel inspired by her, because you’re on a similar journey right now.
Maybe you feel protective (or inspired) because you’re able to experience her boring job and difficult relationship with her mom. You’re able to not just see her art but create it. You can relate to the universal life experiences she’s having - discovering (and losing) love, finding herself along the way.
Make a list of all the moments with this character that gave you the feels!
Now you’re ready to:
Reverse-engineer your own character bio template
This is where you take all those elements that mattered to you, and identify them as important things to learn about a character.
Let’s keep going with Florence. Here are some character traits that were important for you to know about that character:
- Difficult relationship with mom (lonely?)
- Young adult - entering the world for the first time
- Artist at heart, trying to find her way in the world
I bet you noticed that on this list, you don't see any of the usual character-bio traits like eye color or height. Sure, those are parts of a character bio, but maybe not the essential parts.
You may have your own list of what is important to know about this character. And that’s the key: to have your OWN list. This way, you know what elements of the character made a difference - to you.
And the list is probably game-specific! In other words, these character elements mattered in this particular game. If this character was in a different game, other traits would be more important.
So run through this exercise more than once. Do it for three of your favorite games. And look for patterns.
And see which character traits matter to you!
And make those traits the most important elements of your next character bio.
There's more to know about characters - and we'll talk about that in a future post - but hopefully this is enough to get you started.
See you next week!
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.