What Makes a Successful Video Game Character?

Mario, Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Kratos, Ezio Auditore… Many game developers pursue the dream of creating the next icon of the video game world. The character that, of only appearing on the screen, make fans cry and applause — and, consequently, bring millions to the developer’s bank account!

But, what do they do in order to accomplish such dream? They keep generating empty characters. Funny-looking, crazy animal-shaped heroes; or the silent assassin so mysterious that not even the own creator knows what’s going on with them! They throw a lot of stereotypes in a bag, shake it and pick up five cards. And, hurrah!, that’s the new protagonist for their project!

Ok, once in a while, we all like to see the badass, unstoppable soldier who defeats a whole army, only he and his light machine with infinite ammo. Or the gawky racoon that does everything wrong but arises as the hero in the end.

The real question is: do you want to create a character like those? Or you want to create someone new? Someone players will follow, cry, fears, cheers and truly care about? If this is your goal, my fellow writer, join me in this post and let’s take a look at how can we create a better, more likeable character!

In terms of narrative construction, most Triple-A game developers are scared. Many of them still see video games as an entertainment tool, and nothing more! They imagine players like robots, who sits on their sofas, grab the controllers and push a set of buttons to see a sequence of events happening on TV. Players can’t feel emotional.

This kind of taboo is better to be left for another discussion, but it’s good to keep it in mind because it has a strict connection with the theme of this post.

Essentially, there are two elements that conduct a narrative

Joel and Ellie, the two protagonists of The Last of Us

- The Protagonist: the main character who leads the story, not necessarily a hero!!! It may be a single protagonist, a double, a trio or a multi-protagonist. It’s for them that players must care. The only way this will happen is if you KNOW your character. Let’s take Joel, from The Last of Us, for example (you will notice I use Naughty Dog a lot for illustration. They’re masters when it comes to storytelling and one of the few developers that don’t deserve a spot on my critic).

What the hell has to do with the story that Joel liked to buy ice cream from ice cream trucks, or that he likes playing guitar, or even that he used to gather family and friends for a barbeque? Nothing! But it helps bring players closer to the character. And how did ND come out with this kind of dialogues? Exactly, by knowing their characters.

The protagonist is one of the very first elements you must think when creating a story (in fact, the Protagonist may be born even before the story)! You have to know their name, when they were born, the colour of their eyes and hair, what are their skills, and others aspects more visible to the audience. But the writers also must put some thought on aspects that may not be that visible, and may not even appear directly: what’re their fears, traumas, hobbies, religion, political ideology, does their prefer coffee or tea? Movies or cartoons? Do they know how to play guitar? Why? Why not? Before start writing, imagine your protagonist on different situations. How will they react? How situation A or B will impact on them? Make a document only for listing how your characters gonna be. 10, 50, 100 pages, write as much as you can!

Also, keep track of some key elements every good Protagonist must have:

1. Willpower: well, why would you even create a character without it? The trick here is: the willpower must sustain the story to the climax, but players don’t need to recognise this willpower from the beginning. YOU, the Writer, knows it exists and it’s following the Protagonist, however, if you have a more minimalistic narrative (like The Last of Us), you may work on a more passive approach to willpower. Just make sure it’s in your story because the audience will know if it isn’t!

2. Conscious Desire: what’s that your Protagonist wishes? Does he want to slay a God? Rescue his princess? The Conscious Desire and Willpower work very closely with each other!

3. Unconscious Desire: This is a little bit tricky to use and, sometimes, your story doesn’t need it at all! The Unconscious Desire is normally a feeling that opposes the Conscious Desire, yet this is no rule. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a recent example that plays with these both Desires, as the protagonist Aloy consciously seek for answers about her origins, and this quest also serves to help her find a solution to the threat of the hostiles machines, something she really wanted, but not in a very active way! The Conscious and Unconscious Desires are movable in Horizon and even changes position during the storyline.

Aloy, Protagonist of Horizon: Zero Dawn

4. Capacity: does your Protagonist has a capacity of accomplishing what he wants? Additionally, does they have a…

5. Clear Chance of winning at their purpose? You can’t send Kratos on a spy mission, the same way you can’t ask Snake to kill the God of War. An exaggerated example, but it serves to illustrate!

Of course, all those five elements (there’ll be more ahead) must act in synergy with all others information you built for your character and your universe. Got the point? Writers must be the GODS of their story, they have to know everything about their world and not just the outside world, but the universe that runs inside the veins of each and every one of their characters!

This brings us to the second component that guides a story:

Vaas Montenegro, Antagonist of Far Cry 3
  • The Antagonist: the main force that creates a conflict with the Protagonist’s goals, wishes, and so on. Now, did you noticed I said force instead of character? Just like the Protagonist don’t need to be a Hero, the Antagonist don’t need to a Villain; furthermore, the Antagonist doesn’t even need to be a person! Doubt me? Let’s analyse The Last of Us again. We don’t have a “Man vs. Man” conflict there. We have a “Man vs. Nature”, or even a “Man vs. Society” conflict. Marlene and the Fireflies are not the main antagonists (and Marlene is far, far away from being a villain). Things go much deeper, and many players don’t even realise it.

And here we have our sixth element to keep track of:

6. Reaching the Wit’s End: the Antagonism exists to pressure your Protagonist, to make him reach his limits — ethical, moral, emotional, physical, it all depends on your story — and surpass it… or die trying! It’s important for the Antagonist to have a clear and constant presence during the storyline, and continually put the Protagonist in arduous situations. Just don’t forget about the Rising Action, the line that contains the events of a story: as the name suggests, it must always go up until we get to the climax! What, in this Protagonist vs. Antagonist example, means that the dramatic charge of the first time your Protagonist suffers from an action caused directly or indirectly by the Antagonist must be smaller than the second, and the third, and much smaller than the climax!

Video Game has been using this technique since primordials days. Reaching the limit is an element that goes beyond the construction of the story, also helping to build Gameplay. The first level of a game is simple. Its mission is essentially set the world, main characters and teach basic mechanics for the players. As the game progresses, we face harder challenges, harder Bosses, until the last level, when we will put to test everything we’ve learned so far and, in case we have a personified Antagonist, we’ll battle against them. It’s the climax! The time we reach our limits and finally discovers if everything we did so far was in vain or not!

Something we really must avoid is to push our Antagonist to what I call The Megalomaniac Villain Hole:

- What’s the goal of this character?
Destroy/Rule the world.
- Why?
Because yes.

See? How many movies/games have you watched/played with this same formula? It’s okay when it comes to cartoons (to some of them, at least). This kind of “crazy” villain is funny and fits the style of the narrative. But if you want to build a solid, more mature story, STAY AWAY from the Hole!! The maxim “every villain is the hero of their own story” can work very well here and help you build your Antagonist!

What’s important to keep in your mind is: give the same attention to your Antagonist as to your Protagonist (even if the Antagonist is not a person)! Remember: they’re the elements that model and guide your universe!

The Human Essence:

Make your characters be convincing, believable! Doesn’t matter if your character is an alien, a robot, an animal or, wow, a human! You’ll always want to put on them what I call HUMAN ESSENCE (or if you’re a Björk fan like me, you may call it Human Behaviour… Just kidding)!

Even if your story is about “Hero vs. Villain”, let’s forget for a moment the so impregnated and illusory need that perpetuates on this industry that every single story must have a classic Good vs. Evil conflict. Anyone who lived in the real world for at least more than a decade begins to realise that such forces don’t truly exist; that the thin line that separates good from evil is blurred! Batman, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Captain America (not sure if he’s a good example nowadays, but ok), even our buddy Spider-Man… they’re all heroes, yes, but not 24h per day. Same goes to great names of video games: Nathan Drake, Geralt of Rivia, Aloy, Snake (Hideo Kojima is another one of the few masters in this industry!) They all have their strength and weakness, their courage and fears, the moments when they doubt of themselves, do something you never expected them to do and times when they do something wrong, screw everything up! Why? Because they’re not perfect!

And this imperfection defines Human Essence!

Geralt of Rivia, Protagonist of The Witcher saga.

Players like to see their characters subjugating colossal obstacles, overpowering their worst enemies… but they also come closer to the character when they see something real, mundane, human on them!

Finally, we have our seventh and final element to help us build a successful character. And this last one can be a real headache if you fail on the others settings!

7. Empathy: here we have the core of Human Essence! Doesn’t matter if your game is about robots fighting against space dinosaurs, make sure your Protagonist and your story have a foot in reality. Empathy has a lot to do with the message of your story (and every good story must have one!) and how your character can deliver this message to players! The site Psychology Today defines “empathy” as:

The experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.

In short words: why should players care for your Protagonist? There’s any bridge between your characters and the Human World that allow players to cross and put themselves in the shoes of your Protagonist and Antagonist? Think of the examples posted here: Joel and Ellie, Vaas Montenegro, Geralt of Rivia, Big Boss, Aloy, Kratos, Nathan Drake. They all have the empathy to take players together with them into their journey. And none of them falls into the common notion of “Hero” or “Villain”!

Big Boss, a great example of character who plays with the term “Hero” and “Villain”.

This was an introduction on how we can create better characters not only for our games but also for any narrative format! I’m not a professional writer but these tips helped me a lot to improve my writing, and I hope it will help you too!

There’s an infinite of others concepts for us to study; however, if you save in mind you must know and respect your characters beyond limitations of “heroes” and “villains”, “good” and “evil”, it’s already a big step for a more interesting and sophisticated narrative!

Hope this was useful for you! :) Any comment, doubt, critic, feel free to post below!