Characters

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I just want to be clear that Orson Scott Card is a self-obsessed, demagogic, arrogant, preachy, conservative homophobe. He has said quite a share of bullshit in his tenure on this planet. But, if ever you’ve read something by him, you find a lot of good mixed in with the bad (true of most science fiction, really). I spent freshman and sophomore year of high school reading mostly Card (and Heinlein and, ugh, Crighton). Then I graduated to, you know, good novels.

No, that’s harsh. Heinlein wrote some good novels.

But as I said, good with the bad. I’ve been thinking about the four characters in One-Eyed Monsters and the complexities of having four protagonists. And I remembered the introduction to Card’s Speaker For The Dead that I read when I was 15. It’s weird reading it again, realizing how much Card digresses to talk about himself, sort of how a teenager will often shift any subject of conversation to their 2nd period crush. But here are some useful bits:

Most novels get by with showing the relationships between two or, at the most, three characters. This is because the difficulty of creating a character increases with each new major character that is added to the tale. Characters, as most writers understand, are truly developed through the relationships with others. If there are only two significant characters, then there is only one relationship to be explored. If there are three characters, however, there are four relationships: Between A and B, between B and C, between C and A, and finally the relationship when all three are together.

Things I keep in mind for One-Eyed Monsters. I’ve actually got another level to worry about as well: when the player controls Julie interacting with Sebastian, they have a slightly different relationship than when the player controls Sebastian interacting with Julie. Sort of a flip-flopping of the, to use my college Performance teacher’s terminology, “master-slave dynamic.”

Card also talks about the difficulty of writing a family with six children into the book. How will the reader tell them apart? He wrote several drafts before a former student, Gregg, helped him see what was wrong:

My immediate task was to differentiate clearly between Novinha’s children when the reader first encounters them. I sat there in the room I shared with Gregg, assigning some immediate and obvious trait to each of the children that would help the reader keep track of them. Oh, yes, Olhado is the one with the metal eyes; Quara is the one who says outrageous things after long silences; Grego is the violent one; Quim is the religious fanatic; Ela is the weary mother-figure; Miro is the eldest son, the hero in the others’ eyes. These “hooks” could only serve to introduce the children – I’d have to develop them far beyond that point – but having found those hooks, I had a plan that would let me proceed with confidence.

This is actually somewhat streamlined in a game, as it applies pretty directly: each character you can play has different skills and abilities. Provided you make them balanced, they give you good hooks to keep the characters distinct. You’ll find this in any multi-character sitcom: in the first few episodes the characters are especially flat and one-note, because you need to tell them apart as The Sarcastic Guy, The Beauty Queen, The Dumb Hunk, The Neurotic. A good show will flesh them out from there, though you usually get as far as a second season before the writers get lazy and the characters get flat again.

mckee

What? I took Screenwriting in college. Ah, Robert McKee.

He says this about character, and it’s one of the most important things I ever read on the subject (histrionic use of bold text is his, not mine):

Characterization is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny: age and IQ; sex and sexuality; style of speech and gesture; choices of home, car, and dress; education and occupation; personality and nervosity; values and attitudes – all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out. The totality of these traits makes each person unique because each of us is a one-of-a-kind combination of genetic givens and accumulated experience. This singular assemblage of traits is characterization… but it is not character.

TRUE CHARACTER is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.

Beneath the surface of characterization, regardless of appearances, who is this person? At the heart of his humanity, what will we find? Is he loving or cruel? Generous or selfish? Strong or weak? Truthful or a liar? Courageous or cowardly? The only way to know the truth is to witness him make choices under pressure to take one action or another in the pursuit of his desire. As he chooses, he is.

The “character = action” argument is also especially apt for a computer game, since most characters are entirely action. But then, that can also be the failing. Since a character is controlled by the player, they end up being an avatar for the player. Mario’s only desire is whatever the player’s desire is, which is usually to jump on Goombas. Yes, he wants the princess, but that’s mostly window dressing, an excuse to keep moving right.

Narrative games usually have to play the character in a one-step-removed relation to the story, where the player is not exactly controlling the character, but, as Tim Schafer explained it once, the player is a voice in the character’s head. The player is a semi-omniscient god to the game world, following the most interesting character(s) they see, working influence.

one last bit

I work in a children’s museum. Sometimes I have too much free time.

Marshall (In Jovos)

Marshall made in Jovos.

Marshall (In Magna-Tiles)

Marshall in Magna-Tiles.

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