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Tim Schafer

Writing Update 5: Creating Characters

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Hello, all you characters!

My name is Tim! I’m in charge of creating characters for the game Broken Age! Nice to meet you! I’m here today to describe one specific part of the process I go through when trying to create memorable characters that feel real to the player. (I put that word in italics because it’s foreshadowing!)

Sometimes people ask me what is more important, characters or story? I’ve always replied that character and story are the same thing. Or at least, they are so intermingled that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Change one and you change the other.

A story, in its simplest form, is:

[somebody] [somewhere] doing [something]

I had a writing teacher who wrote this on the chalkboard, and then repeated the phrase over and over while giving numerous examples.

[Captain Ahab] [on a boat] [hunting the White Whale]

[Luke Skywalker] [in space] [saving Princess Leia]

[Winnie the Pooh] [in the woods] [trying to get some honey]

[Marlin the clownfish][in the ocean] [trying to find nemo]

[seth Rogen] [in Hollywood] [Trying to survive the apocalypse]

He listed about 30 examples like this. (Not the Seth Rogen one. I just saw that last night.) I think he was padding out the lesson for time.

Anyway an incredibly simple concept, but it illustrates the interconnections. If you change the character out in any of those examples, the story is completely different. Luke Skywalker in a boat trying to find the White Whale is a totally different story. No two characters would approach a problem or react to events in the same way. At least, not if you’ve designed the characters well. If you’ve left them too vague or superficial, if they are merely functional elements in your story instead of individuals, then they might react in the same way. And that’s a problem.

So to avoid that, I’m going to talk about one the most important parts of character development: specificity. Making sure your character is a specific individual, not a stereotype. A unique character, different from anyone else in the world. It doesn’t mean that they have to have wacky gimmicks, eyepatches and crazy accents. It just means they have to be specific.

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Shay meets a character in Broken Age

For example, lets create a new character. Lets say your story has a scene where your main character gets in trouble in school. So you’re probably going to need a school teacher.

Imagine a school teacher for a bit. Do you see her in a little red schoolhouse? Maybe a bun in her hair? An apple on her desk? Thick black glasses? Let’s put a ruler in her hand for good measure. Done! We have our teacher character. She’s ready to be in the scene where our hero goes to school and the teacher sends her to the principal’s office for passing notes. Right? I mean, this character doesn’t have too many lines, so why develop her character any more?

The problem is that this teacher is a very shallow stereotype of a teacher. She has no specific attributes that make her memorable. She’s the teacher you would get in a set of free clip art.

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She might not have many lines, but if all your supporting characters are this way, your story will be more bland than it should be. Even if this teacher is only onscreen for a minute, she should be unique and different from any other teacher in the world. Luckily, its not actually that hard to make her so. You just have to ask some very basic, specific questions.

For almost every character I make, I try to fill out a character chart for them, and write a short backstory. A character chart is just a basic profile of the character, asking questions about their basic stats, and personality.

Here is an example of a blank character chart. (I’ll include this file at the end. But feel free to make up your own!)

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It might seem like mundane information, but you’ll find as you go through it, answering questions, that your character starts to come to life before your eyes.

Please don’t take my list of questions as the final ones either. I just listed a set of characteristics that differentiate people off the top of my head one day. There are many other things you could add, and should!

Let’s start with our teacher. First question: Name.

Okay, lets skip that one. Why did I put that one first? When you’re making a character up from scratch, I think it’s better to name them after you’ve got this first section done. And in general, feel free to jump around when answering questions.

Okay, next question: Age.

You might get hung up on your first question, or any of these questions, because you’re worried about what the right age of your character is. As if there is one correct answer that makes all the other puzzle pieces fit. But I’m here to say it doesn’t matter! I mean, it does matter, but there’s no 100% right answer. There are great stories to tell about 15 year olds, 25 year olds, and 90 year olds. Just put something down! See where it takes the character. If you don’t like it, you can change it later.

I’m going to put down 45 for the age of the teacher. For absolutely no reason at all. But how did that feel? Now you know the teacher is 45. Before you might have been imaging a 22 year old. So now with one question she’s already coming into sharper focus.

Now how about this one: Gender?

I’ll bet many of you picked female as soon as I said school teacher, because that’s the stereotype. (And also because I said “she” a couple times. But that was just a trick!) The clipart school teacher would probably be female. But what happens if we say “male” here? Lets try that out and see where that takes us. We now have a 45 year old, Male school teacher. I changed the gender not necessarily for a social agenda, but because it’s a creative exercise and you need to question every assumption.

Now, Nationality/Ethnicity. “What does it matter?” You might ask. It’s not important to my character! Many of these questions are not central to your idea of your character. But still, every question we answer makes him or her more specific, and therefore, more real and memorable.

This question, in particular, seems weird when you’re telling a fantasy story. Do I want my Elf to have a German accent? It can be distracting if you give a fantasy character a regional identity that’s too tied to Earth. Like a Dwarf with a Louisiana accent. (Although Disney cartoons do this all the time.) Sometimes you don’t even notice, like all the English accents in Star Wars. Hm. Then again, that might have seemed weird if I were English... Anyway, you can make up your own rules here.

In many of the games I worked on, I imagine them as set in a parallel universe that just happens to look a lot like ours. So I try to never say real world names or places in games like that. Lili Zanotto does say her family is “back East” at one point but I figured their fictional country could still have an eastern part, right? Similarly, in Full Throttle, it’s said that Corley Motors is the last motorcycle manufacturer in “the country,” not “in America.” But even though these stories are set in alternate universes, I still might put “Tennessee” in for the character’s home state, just because it helps me place that character in my mind. What I mean is that they are in the closest approximation for Tennessee in their world. And it’s okay to say Tennessee on this chart even if your world has no Tennessee because these facts are only meant to inspire character development, not be referred to later as “canon.”

Where was I? Oh yeah. Let’s say that our 45 year old male teacher is from New Hampshire. For absolutely no reason at all. Except now I’m imagining him in a tweed jacket with patch elbows.

Parents? Lets say his dad was a farmer. I wanted to find a name for him and so I googled “New Hampshire Farmer” and found myself on a page for a Bed and Breakfast, then I realized I liked this more. Our teacher’s parents, Jack and Eva run a B&B in New Hampshire. There’s another name on that page, Mike. Maybe our teacher could be Mike. Kind of nondescript, Mike, so lets find a fun last name. Hm. Nothing on this page. Man, when you look at real names, they are kind of boring. So let me look in my other favorite name reference: The zip code directory! Just let me flip to a random page... oh wait. I don’t have any books any more. Sigh. I miss my old zip code directory. Where is that thing?

Instead, I googled “list of New Hampshire towns” and flipped through it. Towns make great last names. Eaton, Hudson, Lancaster, Wakefield--all great names! But I settle on Cheshire. Because it makes me think the teacher has a big smile. Mike Cheshire. Hi Mr. Cheshire! Sorry I’m late for class!

Okay, I’ll just answer a few more, and I’ll try to answer them as quickly without thinking about the answers too much, just to prove a point.

Siblings: One older. She’s rich and never calls him because she feels Mike judges her husband for being a ruthless businessman.

This is a good place to ask, where do ideas like this come from? I really don’t know! Sometimes you just spit them out before you even think about it. They come from your life and everything you’ve taken in your experiences so far. Maybe they are your most intimate, personal memory; or just something you stole from a stupid movie you saw on dvd and didn’t even like. Who knows? That’s why this is art--you’re making decisions that even YOU don’t understand. You’re expressing yourself in mysterious ways through these decisions. People won’t really understand it until 50 years after your death! Isn’t that cool?

Significant Others: I’m going to make Mike divorced, so that his relationships can be an interesting mess. He’s having an affair with one of his student’s mothers. But he’s still in love with the girl he dated just before he met his ex-wife. Get it together, Mike!

Location: He’s not in New Hampshire anymore. He moved out to Arizona for a job and now he can’t wear his tweed jacket because it’s so hot.

Religion: His parents were.. I don’t know. What religion are people from New Hampshire, usually? I’m not hung up on 100% realism, but I do like the characters to feel grounded in reality. So I google “New Hampshire religion” Lots of protestants and Catholics there. Plus Quakers and Atheists. Lets make his parents Catholics, and Mike an atheist. Wait, is Cheshire a Catholic-sounding name? What’s a Catholic-sounding name anyway? Who cares--I’ll ask my Catholic friends later. Maybe steal their last names while I’m at it.

This is taking too long! Must answer quickly!

Class: parents were upper-middle, he is lower-middle.

Education: Masters Degree in education. I’m thinking he’s smart.

Physical questions!

Is he fat or skinny? Let’s try a little beer belly. Middle aged paunch.

But he’s tall. Like 6’ 4”

He could be weak or strong. Depends if we’re making Meet the Parents or Kindergarten cop. I don’t know what the story is, but I’ll bet we don’t need some super strong teacher.

Hair style: Viking beard. All my male teachers growing up in the 70s had giant beards, so I’m going with that. Thick hair too. And maybe dirty red.

He dresses like a lazy academic. Button down collars, but maybe he sleeps in his clothes from time to time.

Attractive? Sure. Not like a model, but attractive enough.

Story time! I was in a writing group once, part of a screenwriting class, and I learned that the art of making your characters likeable and relatable is a dark magic in many ways. Except one way: Whenever I described my characters as “attractive” people seemed to like them more. People just like attractive people more, okay? Don’t blame me. I didn’t invent people. Well, I mean, I guess this whole post is supposedly a lesson in how to invent people. But I didn’t invent real people. You can totally make a story about ugly people, and it will be great. Just don’t try to sell it in Hollywood, he said, cynically. And attractively.

“We really like your story and want to option your script! But just one change. Instead of this older woman with elephant man disease, what if she’s actually a beautiful young woman, but with a scar. On her hand. On the inside of her hand. A very faint, emotional scar on the inside of her hand.”

Unusual characteristics? Hm. EYEPATCH! No, no eyepatches. Wings? Three arms? Talking boil on his neck? Extra thumb? Whoa. I think I want an extra thumb. That would be nuts! But lets not give Mike Cheshire any unusual physical characteristics right now.

Behavior! Speech! Should he stutter? No, but he spits a little when he talks.

Lets make him cheerful, and shy. But give him an ambition. Does he want to be principal? Or just want to build a new basketball auditorium in the school? Lets go for basketball.

Time to skip to the end! Here is his final character sheet!

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Okay, who is this guy? Sounds like Phillip Seymore Hoffman playing the White Shadow. Anyway, I’m not saying this is the greatest character in the world, or even a MAIN character. I’m just saying now he is a SPECIFIC character. And if you have “a teacher” in your story, even if that character only has a few lines in one or two scenes, run through this exercise with them. Then, when you write that dialog, you might mention something about his desire for a new basketball court or you might hear him grind his teeth or whatever you came up with, and the audience will realize that they barely know this guy, but that there is more to know. Why does he grind his teeth and care about basketball? They’ll feel like there is more more to this guy than they’re being allowed to see, and they’ll fill in the missing information with their imagination. You might just hit that sweet spot where, with only a few facts, the audiences feel like they know this person. Maybe they went to highschool with someone just like him. Which makes the funny things he’s saying even funnier, and the dramatic stuff more moving.

Now, there’s a lot more to character design than this. These templates are not meant to tell the whole story about a character. Just some specific details to use as a starting point. There are many other things you’ll need to figure out, such as the motivation for your character. What do they want more than anything in the world? What do they tell the world they want, and what do they secretly want deep inside? What do they want and not even realize? What do they need? What are they conflicted about? What is their backstory? What are their weaknesses? Could these turn into strengths in the right situation?

All these questions start to give you ideas for how to apply pressure to this character, and that pressure will bring about interesting behavior. Behavior worth telling a story about.

But these are big topics that need their own post!

Today my point is about how important (and how easy) it is to create specific characters. And how you can achieve this by simply answering a series of questions about them. I say “easy” because it’s not so critical how you answer these questions--just that you answer them at all! If you don’t answer them, this blank chart is still there. It’s sitting behind your characters, unanswered, making them forgettable stereotypes and bland, two dimensional props. Why do that when this process is so easy? People will think you’re a genius, just for filling out a form! :)

Lets end with a bunch of examples from Stacking, Broken Age, and Psychonauts!

Here are two character sheets filled out by Lee Petty when he was making Stacking. Lots of great detail here. (By the way, if you haven’t played Stacking, you should go play it right now!) Warning: some Stacking Spoilers. For instance, many of the characters are dolls.

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Awesome!

Okay, now two more, this time from Broken Age! Our two heroes, previously known as “Sacrifice Girl” and “Spaceship Boy,” Now called “Vella” and “Shay.” Exciting! Names!

(Note: These are the kind of documents you make up in pre-production, so some of these answers might change as you develop the characters and write dialog for them. If I were the kind of person who tossed around terms like “canon” twice in one post I might say that these are not meant to be “canon,” but merely the current state of how I think of the characters for the purpose of inspiring their development. Whew! Good thing I’m not that kind of guy!)

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Woo! Broken Age! Vella and Shay!

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Last but not least, an actual set of examples created for Psychonauts. Many of the ideas I have about the importance of specific character descriptions comes from an experience I had early on in that product’s design. I had to write a character document about all 20 camp kids at Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp. 20 kids? How would I even keep them straight in my head? That’s where it’s important to give them all different temperaments, nationalities, behaviors.

But I couldn’t get my document done. Surprise! I was too distracted with this new thing that came out around that time: Friendster. Anyone remember when Friendster came out? It was such a big thing at first--we were all trying to collect as many Friendster friends as possible, and write funny testimonials on their profiles. I was mildly obsessed with it, and had a hard time pulling myself away.

“Stop messing with Friendster,” I’d say to myself, “And get to work trying to figure out the proper format for a document describing the character traits of this group of kids, what they like and don’t like, and how they interact socially.” Then a lightbulb went off over my head. Friendster was the perfect way to describe this whole thing! So I made a whole set of fake friendster pages for the camp kids and they blossomed in my brain as real people. A social network forces you to describe the character in a profile, but also shows you who’s friends with whom, what all the crushes and grudges are, and starts you writing inter-character dialog as they post on each other’s pages.

It got me thinking about weird questions I had never considered before, like what is my character’s favorite band? It may never have been revealed during Psychonauts that Chloe Barge was into hardcore rap, but it made me happy to know it, and who knows what effect that made on the dialog I gave her?

Another great thing that happened was that it forced me to make photo collections for the kids. The pages all had six photos that the kids supposedly chose for themselves. It was a great exercise because I had never thought of that before: What six photos would this character choose to express themselves?

Anyway, it was a lot of fun, but Friendster wouldn’t let me put it up because of the whole no-fake-profiles thing. So our producer Malena put it up on MySpace for me but they kept changing the format and it began looking weird. But now, finally, here for your pleasure, the talented Chris Remo has recreated that vintage early-2000s janky proto-social network aesthetic as: Campster!

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You can follow that link and explore all the characters and their relationships. Make sure you click on the profile pictures to see their photo collections. Looking back at it, I can’t believe how much work it was (the original version took about three days) but it just proves I will do anything to put off writing a design document. Even writing something that accidentally turned out to be a non-traditional design document itself! Whoops!

Well, I hope you enjoy Campster and this post in general. I hope it inspires you to take some of your own characters and make identity charts for them or fake social networks for that matter. Whatever it takes to make every character in your story, from the heros to the most insignificant walk-on part, to be an individual, and someone the world has never seen before.

Good luck and have fun!

(Download a PDF version of the character template)

(Download a Microsoft Word version of the character template)

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Interesting reading, thanks, but can one kid be interested in Xena and Mulholland Drive at the same time (that's quite diverse)?

I would like to see babe 2. scanners if this is one movie (and scanners doesn't refer to Scanners), sounds like a cool B-Movie.

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This is so Awesome!

It's really neat how filling out different portions of that table ends up creating a sort of life story of the character, affecting his personality and influence.

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Very helpful post. I'll be using this method I think.

On a side note, It'd be great to see a similarly structured post about puzzle design.

Perhaps one of the Broken Age puzzles that didn't make the cut or one from an earlier game.

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i always thought a great example of how to make an unattractive character appealing is in Roald Dahl's "The Twits." he gives an example of how an unattractive person (i believe he describes her as having a "wonky nose" among other homely characteristics) can still look nice and people will like her if she is a good person (obviously paraphrasing quite heavily there). then, there is of course the excellent Quentin Blake illustration that accompanies it that does, indeed, show a homely woman with a wonky nose who looks like the nicest lady in the world. i wanted her to babysit me as a child.

oh, i actually found the pertinent jpg!

http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_kwdsltgBIl1qzivpwo1_500.jpg

Edit: this got me thinking, and certainly no offense to any of the talented DF artists, but man, wouldn't a game with Quentin Blake's art be an interesting thing?

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So, what would be the one-liner for Star Wars The Phantom Menace? :)

[George Lucas] [in his money vault] [pooping on nerds' dreams] .....?

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Really appreciate the insight! I've never considered building an entire social network between characters as a means of developing them, but I really love the idea. Is Campster actually a functioning webpage, or were the pages pretty much hard-coded? Because I'd love to play around with it myself.

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So, what would be the one-liner for Star Wars The Phantom Menace? :)

A bunch of forgettable characters on planet Boring settling a dispute over the taxation of trade routes.

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So, what would be the one-liner for Star Wars The Phantom Menace? :)

A bunch of forgettable characters on planet Boring settling a dispute over the taxation of trade routes.

You make it sound interesting!

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Always interesting to see how different creators come up with ways to design characters. I don't go down that deep with my characters, mostly because I don't see the point in digging that deep. I feel a basic level of understanding them goes a long way more so than trudging up lots information that will never come up. I can understand why someone would go to that level especially with the visual medium of video games and the need to know how every character might react to one another.

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Great post Tim.

Very good timing too, as I was just realising this morning that one of my main characters was as flat and lifeless as a soggy piece of paper.

I feel a rewrite coming. This is a good thing.

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Thanks, Tim! Great post! Even exceeded the post limit! What dedication!

I remember reading the original Psychonauts pages back when it was Double Fine's only game and when I still had a Myspace. Man... so long ago and yet it seems like last week.

Also interesting coincidence: My middle school's music teacher was named Mr. Cheshire. No joke!

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Oh, man, I'm bookmarking Campster. I just can't get enough of these kids and their antics.

Also, echoing the sentiment of "Yay, names!"

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It's interesting that both Shay and Vella "won't" have accents, because that's not possible. I'm assuming that means that both would have one of the many US accents. Which ones are you guys aiming for? It would be interesting to give Shay an east-coast based accent and Vella a west-coast based one.

Relevant: http://aschmann.net/AmEng/

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As I was reading this, I kept thinking about Lupe, the chirpy cheerful coat check girl from Manny's Casino is Grim Fandango. For being someone who had like three lines, I always thought there was something more about her and it ended up being memorable because of that. I always got kind of sad when I remembered that this cheerful young woman was actually dead in the world of the game.

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Really appreciate the insight! I've never considered building an entire social network between characters as a means of developing them, but I really love the idea. Is Campster actually a functioning webpage, or were the pages pretty much hard-coded? Because I'd love to play around with it myself.

It's all hard-coded in this instance, because it is simply derived from a decade-old Friendster network Tim made. I just took all the raw files, cleaned them up, made things more consistent, etc. But there's nothing truly dynamic going on.

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Wow, this is fascinating and helpful for all wannabe writers out there/here. :-)

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Lili likes Peter Murphy and Nick Cave aaaaaaaahsoawesome

I think I recall something like Campster from a few years back, was it built/linked very recently or way back in the pre-Brütal Legend days of yore?

*edit - wow, Dogan seems to have predicted Team Fortress 2's hats pretty accurately as well. BBCode is breaking the link so doublefine.com/campster/view photos/dogen photo 10.jpg*

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great! thanks tim. Tartina is an awesome name. i actually havent realized how important is to put that much work into the relationships to get the characters right.

there is no chance this was prompted by a certain thread in the Discussion & Feedback section now is it :).

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Lili likes Peter Murphy and Nick Cave aaaaaaaahsoawesome

I think I recall something like Campster from a few years back, was it built/linked very recently or way back in the pre-Brütal Legend days of yore?

*edit - wow, Dogan seems to have predicted Team Fortress 2's hats pretty accurately as well. BBCode is breaking the link so doublefine.com/campster/view photos/dogen photo 10.jpg*

WAY back in the day it was browsable on Friendster. Those ancient pages are the ones I rebuilt. Campster is basically just a cleaned-up archive of the old Psychonauts network on Friendster.

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