There is a theory of writing called the Circle of Story Elements. It states that there is a circle of 5 story elements that a writer must work through before you have created a complete story. You may start at any point on the circle, but you have to get to all of them before you're done. The circle goes like this:
characters - character dynamic - plot - atmosphere - wordbuilding - then back to characters again.
Me personally, I am a character dynamic writer. That means that the most important element of my stories is the relationships between my characters and how these change over time, and the theme or moral of my story is explored primarily through these character dynamics. Therefore I often start with an inspiration for a relationship, and work outward from there. I fill in the details of the individual characters, the worldbuilding that made them who they are and that now provides obstacles to their progress, the emotional and social atmosphere that provides context for the relationship, and finally the plot that challenges the characters' relationships and pushes them to change.
You, however, may be much more interested in one of the other elements and have more inspirations in that area, so you should probably start there. (Note - for an MMORPG or adventure game, which are strongly atmospheric, you probably want to start with worldbuilding and atmosphere.)
For the purposes of this tutorial, however, I am going to start with characters. First it's useful to know how many major characters you want to have in your cast. A 'major chracter' would be any playable character, plus all NPCs who get a lot of screen time. For a single-player RPG I personally would recommend having about 8 deeply developed major characters, but many commercial games such as FF7 and Crono Cross go for variety over depth and have 10-30 major characters. Aristotle's _Poetics_, which could be considered the first how-to-write book, teaches that one of the major goals of writing fiction should be unity, which in the case of characters means that 1) characters should not just appear and disappear again, they should be present throughout the work of fiction, and 2) you should use as few characters as possible to tell the story, because then the audience can get to know each character in more depth. Spending more time with each character permits the audience to identify more with each character's motivations and goals, and this makes the whole story feel more personal and intense.
Right then - how do we make major characters? Well, each character must be designed individually in the following areas: name, dialect and speech habits, archetype, role, and motivation. However, the cast must also be designed as a group, so that each character is unique, and they contrast and complement each other in interesting ways that create your character dynamic and are useful to exploring your themes and worldbuilding. Of course we don't know what your themes and worldbuilding are yet... >.<
In what ways, exactly, are these characters complementing and contrasting one another? Well, there are many axes along which people may be divided and classified. You may, for example, have heard of the Myers-Briggs personality index, which is the basis of the Kiersey Temperament Test. Or you may be more familiar with the astrological system (western or Chinese) which ascribes a personality type to each astrological sign. The Hogwarts Houses in the Harry Potter books are another example of this sort of system (and I'm creating one in my novel). Anime fans may be famliar with and the Japanese belief that ascribes a personality to each blood type. And then there are enneagrams, tarot systems, the four humors, the four elements, Jungian archetypes, the Dramatica system... the list goes on and on.
To develop my own, less haphazard, system, I took the systems listed above, plus a few psychology books, and tried to extract some of the major ways in which human personality types vary. Here's what I came up with: (These are only the extremes, you may want to add a 'middle' category for each; but then again you may not, because 'in the middle' characters are usually boring.)
Social Position (Leader, Follower, Switch, Loner)
Social Orientation (Introverted, Extroverted)
Serotonin Level (Optimist, Pessimist)
Testosterone Level (Excessive, High, Low, Insufficient)
- Male: Brute, Alpha, Mama's Boy, Poof
- Female: Butch, Alpha, Mothering, Fainting Lady
Energy Level (Intense, Laid-back)
Anticipation (Paranoid, Cautious, Easy-going, Reckless)
Acting Ability (can't lie worth a darn, lies passably, professional actor/spy)
Self-Esteem (High, Low)
Self-Discipline (Hedonist, Ascetic)
Attention (Attention-seeking, Attention-avoiding)
Morality (Immoral, Amoral, Relativistic Morality, Absolute Morality)
Base Emotion (Bored, Annoyed, Happy, Anxious, Content, Sad, Angry, Mischievious, Self-righteous, Stoic)
So, if you select an element from each of those axes, that should give you a fairly good start on your character's personality. Each major character should also have about 2 motivations:
- rivalry/competition/urge to dominance
- desire to be helpful/useful/submissive/loyal
- ambition/need to live up to personal mythology/vow
- loneliness or other desire/lust
- desire to be part of a group/good citizen
- curiosity/boredom/love of mayhem
That should give you a character with a 3-d personality but still generic enough to fit into any worldbuilding. You can fill in the details like names, professions, skills, and backstory when we design the worldbuilding.
Now we're moving on a bit into character dynamic, which is composed of the role(s) a character play(s) and the relationship(s) they have with (an)other character(s).
Roles - A role describes how a character thinks he should act in relation to others (leader, sidekick, advisor, skeptic, persuer, avoider, loner, etc.), and is expressed in the way in which that character affects the plot (by driving it forward, obstructing it's progress, helping, hindering, etc.). There is no general consensus on how many roles there are or what they are, so here are a few systems for your perusal. Remember that some roles may be played by inanimate objects/situations/principles/groups of people. More than one character may play a single role, and one character may play more than one role.
Pirandello said there are 6 roles:
Leo - protagonist
Mars - antagonist
Sun - object of protagonist's desire
Earth - recipient of sun, rival
Moon - helper (most npcs are this)
Balance - arbiter who decides victory between leo and mars
Propp said there are 7 roles:
Object of Desire (usually a princess)
Donor - gives foozles. Is really pretty similar to a helper.
Dispatcher - hero's superior, usually a king
False Hero - a rival
Vogler lists 7:
Mentor (guardian, see below)
Threshold Guardian (usually donor)
Shadow (usually antagonist)
Trickster (usually contagonist, see below)
The Dramatica system lists 10 roles characters may play in a story:
Main Character (empathetic viewpoint character)
Impact Character (interacts the most with the MC)
Protagonist (drives toward a goal)
Antagonist (blocks the drive toward a goal)
Guardian (provides an example for the protagonist to emulate)
Contagonist (delays or sidetracks the protagonist)
Sidekick (has faith in the protagonist)
Skeptic (doubts the protagonist)
At any rate, one of your characters has to have a goal and be pushing to achieve it, or your plot won't go anywhere. In game stories it is often the major villain who is the antagonist trying to carry out some evil plan, leaving the PC to be the hero/protagonist who tries to stop him. Sometimes there are two factions each persuing their own conflicting goals who take the roles of protagonist and antagonist, and the PC is more of a mentor/guardian/helper arbitrating between them. In a game with an adventuring party the party usually contains all of the roles except antagonist, which belongs to the villain(s). Sometimes the role of antagonist is taken by society or nature. But the PC is always the main (viewpoint) character.
Character Dynamic - Character dynamic is the relationship between any two or more characters. I have never found a good list of character dynamics, so all I can give you is my own attempt. My list is almost certainly incomplete, but I hope I've caught all the most common ones:
ruler-champion, leader-sidekick, friends, brothers, arch enemies, prankster-victim, mentor-student, protector-protectee, lover-beloved, rivals, victor-defeated, and master-slave. If you consider these, you may notice that each is a relationship where either the two participants are equal or the one has more power; and the type of power can be knowledge, a dominant personality, rank/political power, intelligence, sexuality, physical strength, or competative ability.
There are also more complex triangles or hierarchies like:
lover-beloved-rival, leader-gang, gang-low man on totem pole, rival-rival-rival, sidekick torn between two leaders, lover torn between two beloveds, etc.
And of course a character can participate in more than one character dynamic, even with the same other character. For example, a clever mage and her bodyguard might be leader/protectee-sidekick/protector, which would make their relationship interesting because in some ways one has more power but in other ways the other does.
For the main characters of your story, these should change over the course of the story; beginning, growing deeper through being tested, or being destroyed. When it finally settles into an equilibrium state this subconsciously signals the player that the story may now acceptably end. In other words, no one will complain, "Hey! Where's the rest of the story?! This doesn't feel like the end!"
Working With Source Characters
And finally, here's an exercise in taking an existing character, breaking him down into his essential traits using the principles I explained several entries ago in the context of concept art design, and recreating him as my own original character:
I was initially interested in the character Tomo from the anime _Fushigi Yuugi_. He is a minor villain who is slavishly loyal to the major villain for reasons of unrequited love. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his character is that he had very poor self esteem with regards to his leader/love object and was quietly begging for affection, but acted very egotistial and angry/defensive to everyone else. He was also intelligent, creative, and somewhat immoral in thinking of assorted villainous plans. His profession was acting, but I didn't think that was essential. He had a weird appearance that made people shy away from him and no friends, and was powerful because he was a 'celestial warrior' with a magical fighting ability.
Next I encountered the character Severus Snape in the Harry Potter books. He isn't described that much in canon, but he is definitely a sort of 'tame villain' - his students are all scared of him because he is a powerful and weird-looking wizard who appears to be a bad guy, but really he's a spy for the good guys (sneaky and good at acting). And like Tomo he is intelligent, has no friends, and is generally angry/defensive. Fanwriters have developed his character in several ways, often speculating that he is slightly sadistic and amoral, and often adding a element of unrequited love to his story.
Then I saw Grima Wormtongue in _Lord of the Rings_. Again, a minor villain with a weird appearance and no friends, motivated by unrequited love, intelligent and sneaky (advisor to a king), and angry/defensive/egotistical except toward his leader and his love object, towards whom he was pleading instead.
So combining these three characters and removing unnecessary details I had an archetype (I dubbed it the 'self-defensive sociopath). Then I added my own details to create my own character, Lieann Lord Aravian:
As a beta male, he has generally been maltreated by his society, to which he has reacted by becoming sharp-tongued and sarcastic, and sneaky, creative, and immoral in trying to force the world to give him what he needs. His bitter and bitchy defensive anger combined with his attitude of superiority because of his intelligence scare off anyone who might have been willing to befriend him despite his appearance/gender. Desperate for affection and feeling that everyone hates him already and he has nothing to lose, he is thus the perfect candidate to abuse his power as a nobleman to take an extreme action such as kidnapping the object of his affection, blackmailing someone into sleeping with him, or even acquiring a slave to use as a lover (which is what I wanted to happen in the plot).