Character writing ideas: visuals and background

Jul 21, 2020 at 10:00 am by nemirc

Character writing ideas: visuals and background

My journey into computer graphics, then video, then game development, was mainly driven by two things.

First, I like technology and visual arts.

Second, I like stories and writing.

I've talked about my taste for technology and advances in computer graphics, and this time I wanted to share some thoughts on the things I've learned about writing and storytelling, with a focus on characters (I plan to share some thoughts on world building in another episode).

One of the first things I do is come up with a general idea of what the character will look like. The final result may change (and will most likely change) but it's still a good idea to start somewhere. Things like whether the character is a man or a woman, skin tone, eye color, hair, body build, etc., are the first things I think about.

Of course, at this point I already have a broad idea of what the story is going to be about, so the design of the character has to fit the idea of the story and also the world. One thing about me is that I am very visually oriented, and I like the idea of a character to stand out in one way or another, using either facial or body elements, or even clothing and accessories. What I find interesting about this is how you can use that visual element in the story. I can explain this with a couple of examples.

A while ago I worked on a character for a (now on hiatus) project. My basic idea was to have an alien as the character that looked like they had very pale and waxy skin, but I wanted the alien to have some human features so people found it easier to recognize male and female aliens.

The reasoning behind this was very simple: I found it weird to make some insectoid-looking alien and then use the visual tools usually implemented in fictional media, like giving females longer eyelashes or giving males a square chest (you know, features mostly found on humans). Actually, the discussions around this went around the idea of “how could regular people tell the difference between a male and female spider, ant or lizard?”). Obviously, this also resulted in “alien mammals” but that was not an issue because it worked with the story (besides, there's no reason to think alien mammals don't exist).

Another idea was to give them outfits that were not the usual “metal and latex space suits” but rather something more “ancient” looking so we could have the visual contrast between alien technology and low-tech outfits. The result was something like what you see in the picture. While the ideas for the outfits and overall look remained, the skin ended up being more like a fish, with different colors and even some bioluminescent spots, and that made me think of other things for the overall story (like how those bioluminescent spots could play a part in either the plot or world building).

Another example is Amelia, from one of my company's current projects. The fact that she's human, and the story is set in present day, made things easier but the process was the same. I gave her red hair because it's a rare hair color in general (but it's even less common in Central America, where I live), and I also gave her green eyes (those are a little bit more common, but still not common enough in this region).

The fact that Amelia is a character grounded in reality (she's not a cartoon nor a fictional race set in a fictional alternate version of my country) could be used as an example of how a character could be out of place. If, for example, giving her blue eyes would have been a bad idea because people born in this country don't have blue eyes.

As I said before, chances are the visual representation will change as you develop the other story elements, and this part may make you change a few things: writing the character biography and background.

I have to say the biography has to be as detailed as you need it to be. You don't need to write the entire book of the character's life to the smallest detail if they are not needed. Just enough to give you an idea of what kind of person the character is. Things like what does your character like or dislike, studies, economic background, house location, etc. This can be really interesting because you are able to throw a lot of ideas, but a lot of those ideas may not be useful as they may contradict parts of the story or other parts of the biography. To give you an example, you can't write that your character always had good health and then say your character struggled with some chronic disease for a long time.

Due to the way I work, I find this whole process to be a loop. The biography will make me change parts of the visual design, and changes in the visual design will make me change other parts of the biography. These will also make me rethink some possible plot points (even if I'm not working on the actual writing of the story yet). For example, in the case of Amelia, her original hairdo was just a regular ponytail, but the biography made me consider the idea of giving her a braided hairdo, because some story elements make her take a lot of care and pride on her hair's presentation.

To me, the rule of the thumb when writing biographies is simple: if it's going to be relevant. Mentioning that Amelia ate ice cream one random day is not relevant, but mentioning that she routinely goes out to eat ice cream with her family every Saturday afternoon could be relevant.

There are other things to take into consideration when writing the characters, but I will leave that for the next article.

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