A big part of narrative design—for many games, at least—is writing dialogue for specific characters. Some characters are easy to settle into. It might take only a couple of lines before you have found their voice and can consistently write for them. Others take a long time to discover, and may take multiple days of writing and rewriting lines in order to coalesce those lines into a voice of their own. Whatever the case may be, here are some methods you can use to find a voice for characters.
Ready, set, research!
My first step to getting inside a character’s head is finding some part of me that identifies with the character. This is far easier for some characters! For instance, I find it much easier to write for Sazan than for Bugg. I have more frames of reference in my life that allow me to understand what motivates Sazan. I’m not by nature an upbeat person, so it is harder for me to step into Bugg’s mind. I don’t have any personal touchstones to use as insight into Bugg’s happy-go-lucky attitude. All I share is his enjoyment of botany.
So what happens when you are trying to write for a character where you don’t have a personal frame of reference to write from? That’s where collecting references comes in. Often if you join a team that’s already in production mode, they’ll have already figured this part out and will hand you a character with a full personality, including references to similar characters from other media. If only it was always that easy! When I’m starting from scratch, I’ll look for the same thing and start to piece together a collage of references to help build a clearer idea of what this character is like. What type of personality does the character have? What are their patterns of speech? What mannerisms or affectations make them unique?
Whether you’ve been given a reference sheet or defined the character’s personality yourself, the next step is research. I like to look at my list of references and find clips from movies with those characters, read scripts, and read dialogues in books or comics with similar characters. I’ll immerse myself in the research—listening to certain clips over and over again and diving into books on certain cultures or books written from certain perspectives—as I soak in the character’s personality. As I read or listen, I’ll take notes on which lines are most fitting for the character we’re designing.
If you are truly lucky, you’ll also have a character model finished which you can play in the game (or at least look at). I find playing the character I’m writing for in-game really lets me get into their head. It’s invaluable when you are writing for characters that are already established in the game world. But you won’t always be that fortunate; sometimes all you’ll have is some awesome concept art, and sometimes you’ll just have a nebulous idea of what the character is going to be like.
Before writing new lines, there is one other thing that has to be done. We have to map out the relationship of the new character to other characters in the game. Do they respect them? Hate them? Secretly admire them? Are they in a similar job, or have they worked together before? Is there shared history here, or just rumors they have heard of each other? Once a full network of relationships has been drawn up, then we can start on the lines!
Write & rewrite
Say we want new victory lines, where the character is celebrating after winning the game. We have notes on how the character sounds. We have how they interact with all the characters. Now we need to put what we have in practice. But one line isn’t enough. It’s better to try three to five different lines as you build the voice. It is likely the first few lines won’t sound right, that something will feel off. You haven’t settled into the voice of the character yet. But with practice it will become easier, and faster to settle into their personality.
The goal when writing for a game is to get the point across with brevity while allowing the personality of the character to shine through. This is no easy feat, and may take several rewrites to get something that fulfills that exact criteria. Never underestimate the value of saying the lines you write aloud. Often, by delivering the lines the way you imagine the character saying them, you can catch inconsistencies in your writing. It also allows you to catch any awkward turns of phrase and to streamline what the character says. You don’t want the first time you hear the lines aloud to be in the recording booth as the voice actor trips over them!
Clunky or out-of-character lines won’t be the only source of rewrites! As playtests hone character balance, the character design will change. You’ll have to modify previously written lines to better fit new or updated skills. As the art develops, the character’s personality may shift. Perhaps they were originally hard to approach, but the new design has them reading as carefree. Now you have to go through and reevaluate everything you have written to make sure it’s in line with their new personality. In the worst case scenario, the old lines have already been recorded and need to be changed. In that case you have to record new lines that better fit the transformed character, and go through to replace the old lines with the new ones.
If you ever get stuck, don’t feel like you have to go it alone. Often, other members of the team really appreciate being asked to help come up with lines for the characters. If you need twenty different ways of saying “you’re awesome!” for a character, and you only wrote eleven before feeling tapped out, reach out to others and ask what they’d have the character say, no matter what their discipline is on the team. Sometimes the best lines aren’t going to be the ones you write. As a narrative designer, part of your job is to realize when someone else has a better grasp of the character’s voice—and to let them help.
Finally, if you end up writing lines that aren’t in the voice of the character, keep them around! Just because they don’t work for the current character you’re working on, doesn’t mean they aren’t any good. It’s useful to have a line repository full of unused lines. Sometimes they are much better suited for another character—maybe even a future character than hasn’t even been proposed yet. When that character does come into play, you’ll be ahead of the game as you can pick over lines you already wrote and repurpose them. However, some rejected lines are going to be just awful, completely unusable by anyone—if you keep those around, at least you’ll know what not to do in the future!