9.6. Believable Characters

Some characters in stories are “round” – they have many facets to them, a deep character with many layers that we get exposed to through the telling of the story. The details that make them tick are important for understanding what is happening in the story. Why does Bruce Wayne decide to devote his life to fighting crime instead of enjoying the life of a billionaire playboy? Understanding the details of his childhood help make his decision more believable.

Does every character need to be complex? Not necessarily. We don’t have time in a story or a game to develop the back story of a clerk who takes money from the protagonist in a convenience store. As long as their actions within the story are consistent with our expectations, the audience will never stop to ask, “now why did he just make change for that purchase?” It is OK, if characters like these are “flat”, or one-dimensional.

But as their actions become more central to the story, more depth is likely needed to help explain their actions. If that same cashier starts a fight with the protagonist, which results in the police arresting the hero and giving the villain time to launch their plans, the audience is naturally going to wonder what reason their was for the attack. Is the cashier actually associated with the villain? Does he have a long standing grudge with the hero? Maybe he just had a fight with his girlfriend and takes out his anger on the hero who tried to pay for a candy bar with a $100 bill. There needs to be some believable reason for his actions established in the story.

Thus the challenge for writers is to make believable characters - ones whose actions all make sense for that character. To do this, writers of stories spend lots of time thinking about their characters - coming up with lives for them outside the narrative. There are numerous resources to help writers think about their characters in detail - for example check out this character chart or google ‘questions for characters’. Even though not all of these details will ever show up in the story, having a deep understanding of a character allows the writer to get inside their head and think about how we would expect the character to react to different events.

Another useful trick for understanding characters is to think in terms of psychological classifications of people. You may have encountered the Myers-Briggs personality test in a psychology class. It has four dimensions that it divides people along (Extrovert/Introvert, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving) to create 16 personality types. Thinking through what personality type a character is can help you come up with explanations for their behavior that feel believable. (If you are interested, the Extra Credits guys have a video exploring this technique.)


Wikimedia Commons - CC-BY-SA-3.0

The 16 Myers Briggs Types.

The first 3 minutes or so of this one compares Quantum Conundrum with Portal to demonstrate how a well thought out character with an interesting backstory can make a game:


Extra Credits also has a nice video about making interesting flawed Heroes, as well as a two part series about Villains: part 1, part 2.

Materials on this page adapted from:
Game Design Concepts by Ian Schreiber (CC BY-NC 3.0)