Deadly Designer Sins: Characters

Every game has a hero. A silent hero. A “hidden” hero. The heroic hero. The Anti-Hero. The player usually plays the hero, or at least a Main Character. Whether the player has the choice of how his character acts, or whether it’s all pre-set and you only follow a set storyline a character can be an interesting, well “built” concept which will bring about a lot of attention. Or a cardboard cutout with generic reactions, without any real base.  But main characters are not your only concern. There are NPCs, Villains, monsters. You could go the easy way and say “Generic Guardsman”, “Generic Shopkeeper”, “Generic Necromancer”. But if you want to have a generic, average game you might as well stop reading now.

This guide is a part of our Deadly Designer Sins series.


Is character design as mystical and complicated as Alchemy?

 This guide although centred around designing characters can be applied to other activities, not just computer games. Such as, your D&D session, or when you play on an RPG server, or when writing a story/novel. Let us talk with a number of things, when it comes down to characters. But first of all, and this mainly concerns the main characters, let us talk about “Motives”.

Human beings, are not machines. We do not pick the most logical solution (at least, not that often), and we will be swayed by some form of emotion. Emotion always argues with reason. This all comes down to one very simply word, Motive. Although it is a term often used in Criminal stories, motives range beyond that concept. What makes us act the way we do. The choices we make. It is not all “random”, even though sometimes it might seem that way. A farmer does not try his hand in adventuring just because he can. A military commander does not perform a daring blitzkrieg because he feels like it. Nor does the alien Zug Zug kill all the humans because he thought it might be funny (though, that is also a motive). When thinking about motive, the easiest way to realise why a characters wants to do something is to ask yourself the question “Why?”. But not just that. The answer has to be focused on some emotional or “logical” stimuli.

For example:

  • Why did John Brown become a Dragon Slayer?
  • Because his family was killed by a Dragon.
  • Why does he feel becoming a Dragon Slayer is the best solution?
  • Because he wants the dragons to feel the same fear/grief he himself felt.
  • Why?
  • He was so stricken by the event, that he saw no other way, nor was there anyone else, to point him in another direction.
From here, we have the making of either a hero, or also an anti-hero. Since John is so blinded by rage that he wants all dragons dead he will not discriminate between “Good” and “Evil” dragons. Any dragon he finds, no matter how big or small he will consider a target. But now, let us look at a slightly different example:
  • Why did John Brown become a Knight of the Light?
  • Because his friend, a priest, helped him through his grief and anger.
  • Why was John in grief/angry?
  • He lost his family to a dragon.
  • So, why the Knight of Light?

The priest explained to him, that the Dragon was Evil. (in a very simplified sense, this could be much more expanded) He then offered John the possibility of avenging his family, and finding peace through hunting such dragons, and saving others from the same fate.


And it seemed like such a good idea at the time…

Certainly, a much more complex motive, calling for a side character to step in, but in both cases you can see the logical sense. Other times somebody could hunt dragons from greed, since there could be legends concerned with treasure. Greed is often a powerful force for a lot of “lower rank” citizens. Consider the Need Hierarchy Theory. On the most basic level we need to fulfil our Physiological needs. Then Health, Security, Shelter, Safety. After that, friendship, relationships. The Sense of Achievement, respect, recognition are mildly low on our priority list, but the lowest of the low (if all the other elements are not fulfilled) is Self Actualization. In other words, perfecting yourself, learning new skills, etc.

It is true, that we are not concerned with learning new skills or wanting to shine if we are exhausted, hungry or in the general meaning of the sense “Miserable”. How you fulfil these needs is an independent matter. Somebody committing crime might be doing so because he cannot find any other job, and he needs the money to obtain any form of shelter or in order to buy medicine for his daughter. On the other hand somebody could be an assassin and kill a king from a psychotic need to achieve something, or self-actualize, perfect himself.


Any good criminal story needs an interesting motive, perhaps with a twist or two. The same applies to your characters.

Motives are often very obscured in today’s games. Soldiers especially, and their leaders have often strange or lack motives. Although it is impossible to programme an AI to act in such a complex sense why would a soldier fight a giant demon? Possibility A) He is defending his home, and he is very tied down to it. Possibility B) He was trained to do so, and has no actual connection for the place he is fighting for, he could be a Mercenary. If it is possibility B the motive is different to possibility A. A is much more emotional. People fight for their home where they lived their whole life. B is a “logical” decision. The soldier follows orders or is paid to do his job. But this basic reason will be reflected further along the line. For example a Mercenary does not care if the Town Hall is destroyed and turned into catapult ammunition. Meanwhile a citizen might not be prepared to sacrifice the very same Town Hall as a barricade element.

How to separate emotional motivation from “reason”? Every person is different, so the decision is up to you. Do not be afraid to shuffle between reason and emotion when the situation calls for it. So, during a battle a confident commander could lead his men expertly, but when suddenly all the dead soldiers become undead and attack his army on one hand he could be cold blooded and take the necessary actions to counter this, or panic. You should always write out a “character”, his history, training and, let us call them, psychological traits and when a specific situation arises glance back at it and decide how would the character react then. There is of course, nothing wrong in making a character entirely fearless, but you yourself have to realise that this can be potentially damning for the character, and take into consideration when you place your character in the storyline.

Let us consider a slightly different factor in character design. Culture and Religion have always been somewhat sensitive topics in today’s world. But by looking at our modern day example we have a live case of how people can be vastly different. One example would be trying to compare Feudal Japan with Medieval Europe. To those from Europe, our culture and past is obvious. There were family bonds, kings, lords, holy crusades. In general in order to get a more precise example we have to look at each nation individually since the Feudal systems worked on slightly different principles from kingdom to kingdom. But all these systems compared to what was occurring in Feudal Japan seem alien. The Japanese Samurai did not only follow a code, they had numerous ceremonies and often a single wrongly (or deliberately) performed gesture would mean an insult. But the people of Japan were more than just dedicated to ideals, they were often restrained on their emotions. Today people of Japan are often thought to have ever-present “Poker Faces”. They rarely show emotions. To us, Europeans, when somebody does not react in any way to our jokes or gestures we ourselves might be insulted, or we might think the guest was insulted. In Japan the lack of presentation of emotions is perfectly natural.


The world is not centred on your nation. Wherever you look there is something different. A new perspective, new tastes. Whether in a “Real Life” or “Fantasy” setting remember one “spot” in the world might be entirely different to another “spot”. Open up your mind to numerous cultures and influences, which can effect your characters.

So when creating a character from a specific culture, or following a specific religion take into consideration the “quirks” of said culture. This does not mean that every single person from said culture has to be identical, but that there will be a prevalence for certain types of behaviour. Elves from Faerune are often considered “Snob Nosed Know-All Pansies”. Dwarves are “Bearded Midget Hotheaded Drunkards”. Gnomes are “Mad Turnip Eating Inventors”. These are stereotypes, but when examined more closely they are often not baseless, and are often derived from a recurring set of behaviours among a specific “Race”, culture or group. Stereotypes are hard to get rid of, once learned, but consider what sort of stereotypes are associated with your own country, and see how “more or less” accurate they are, and then take note of how each person is different, despite still fitting the “set”.

What role does Religion play?The effect of “Religion” on an individual is dependent on a few things. Their personal Piety, but also the setting. For example, in Medieval times faith played a much bigger role, since a lot of illnesses were un-curable. You often did not have contact with your loved ones for months or years. The church controlled their own land and as such was also a force to be reckoned with. In modern days religion still plays an important role in giving people faith, and helping those in need. Those who are more dedicated to a faith will follow the faith’s dogmas, whatever they might be. Some cultures are more religious than others. For the Aztecs the role of their gods was very clear and of the highest importance to them. But in, let’s say, England, around Henry the VIII the church was squished with little remorse. Although it might not had been a popular move, it shows how Henry viewed the church as more of a “Push Over” than an institution that was important to the state.

Old man

Age does not mean that you only “Look Older”. There are plenty of things to consider.

If you really wish to go into details, remember, age often plays an important role in who a character is. Younger characters learn quickly, they can usually adapt. Older characters usually have a lot of experience, and although they might have problems with learning new skills, which are entirely unconnected to their previous experience, they will certainly be better suited at what they already know. As such, an old Officer might be better at ordering men around, organisation and awareness, although possibly lacking knowledge of how to properly utilise modern equipment and techniques. Meanwhile a new officer might still fumble with everything but as he gains experience he will be better at utilising modern techniques and equipment than the older officer. We often have this image of older people although being wiser, often lacking knowledge on how to use, let’s say an e-mail. In some cases that might be the case, but we are once again sinking into stereotypes. But when adding a character consider the possibility that an older character is more “set-in” than a younger one. Remember about exceptions, however, such as Wizards, who although might be older in age, will often hold incredible knowledge which will rarely be outdated, and more often than not sought out by younger wizards. The same goes for “warriors” who might pass on knowledge on how to easily defeat a specific monster. Or, as in the case of the Old-Young Officers the Older officer could aid the Younger officer in things that he knows best, while allowing the youngling to handle the “New Stuff”.

That is all for now. Stay tuned for next parts of the series, and in case you want to look for the list of all the related posts click HERE.

Alexander “WriterX” Bielski

About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
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Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

3 Responses to Deadly Designer Sins: Characters

  1. Anoneemouse says:

    What about gender? It’s a HUGE part of every character, and many games can’t seem to get it quite right in general.

    • WriterX says:

      I thank you for asking about that, as I was pondering on this very topic today. I aim at writing something regarding Gender and Sexuality, before I do that I have to make some proper research.

  2. Nat says:

    I love everybody’s opinions on what makes something work, or consequently not work. I just stumbled onto this series, and I think all four sections out so far are very well-spoken! However, some of the greatest characters ever made… did not have any realistic motivation whatsoever. I will make as short a case as I can, so it may not be the most convincing, sorry:

    1. Heroic motivation: In Man of Steel, the reason Superman is considered so poorly done was not little things like “he killed the mass murderer” but the fact that they spent so much time “personalizing” Superman. Often the only inspiration good characters need is “the bad guy is doing something bad” even if it has nothing to do with them.

    2. “Personalizing characters”: on that fact, you don’t need to be slightly capable of making the same decision. It’s their decision, not yours.

    3. Insanity and other villains: Even though insanity is a motivation of itself, lots of villains, especially insane villains, only carry one motivation; I feel like it, so it’s not wrong.

    4. Terrible characters: I do acknowledge you can put far too little into a character, but far too much is bad too. All of the worst characters in my memory either had nothing to them (blundering killing machines) or had far too much time devoted to development to be likeable in any way.

    5. What is too much?: Just one too many lines of backstory can mean the difference between an amazing character and something horrific. The cutoff extends from “nothing” to “eight-hour-long origins”, on a character-by-character basis respectively.

    Sorry it was short- comment box unspoken rules- but adding too much of a reason can easily kill a character, especially unintendedly. I understand characters do better with motivations, but adding too much is far too easy to be ignored. Adding certain little details can change a villain from “bad” to “very misunderstood”, and make a hero just not the hero anymore. People oft have a hard time understanding this concept (strangely) but to me it is plain as day.

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