Character Differentiation in a Cast of Thousands

I’ve totally neglected my game writing posts, of late–I’ve got a number of articles half-composed, with titles like “Writing for Failure” and “Complex Stories and Atomic Narrative Theory.” Unfortunately, paying work has taken precedence over more complex pieces, so let’s do something simple: Back to writing fundamentals!

Games–especially open-world action-adventure games and role-playing games–tend to have extremely large casts. This is partly due to length (you can cram a lot of characters into a 40-hour game), but mostly due to mechanics: If every quest requires a unique quest-giver, or if every town needs to be populated with a dozen or more conversable NPCs, or if every item seller needs dialogue attached, you’re going to end up with vastly more characters than the narrative really warrants. When it comes to speaking roles, a game like Dragon Age: Inquisition makes the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy look intimate and focused by comparison.

Let’s forget mitigating this fundamental issue for now (and there are ways to design games to reduce this problem) and focus instead on how to handle all those characters. We’re not just dealing with a cast of thousands, but a cast of a thousand walk-ons–characters who appear for one scene, serve one purpose, and then may never be seen again.

These characters still need to be interesting and engaging. They need to establish themselves fast–within a handful of words, not by the end of a full scene. They need to engage the imagination of a player who may not be fully focused on the narrative. And they need to be different. So in the space of a small number of lines, how do you make every character feel unique and memorable? If most characters can be distinguished in at least, say, two of the three following aspects, you’re probably on the right track.


When I talk about character voice, I’m not talking about actual voice acting. Instead, consider all the aspects that determine how a character speaks: Education, class, word choice, syntax, and so forth. A character who speaks in short, to-the-point phrases using precise but not obscure language has a wildly different voice than a character who speaks in lengthy, ultra-formal paragraphs. Consider these variations on one line:

  • “I wouldn’t have killed her, and I didn’t. Doesn’t mean she’s worth crying over.”
  • “I did not kill her. I do not mourn her.”
  • “I had no involvement in her death, but I grant you this–I’d relieve myself on her grave, given the opportunity.”

They’re all (probably) awful people expressing the same sentiment, but they sound dramatically different. When characters speak in the same voice, it’s one way they can end up blending together in the audience’s mind.

It’s easy to go over the top with character voices and end up with a parody instead of a natural speaking style. It’s also easy to default to a few specific voices (e.g., working class and upper class). Not every character needs to be instantly recognizable from her speech pattern alone, but if you’re falling back on the same few styles over and over, you probably need more variety.


I use “presentation” mostly to refer to physical aspects of the character. Age and ethnicity and accent and choice of hat aren’t personality traits, and they don’t excuse a bland NPC–but when you’re dealing with a large cast, they’re effective signposts to differentiate characters in the player’s mind. I’m going to be a lot more likely to mix up two middle-aged white male security officers than I am to mix up a young black female security officer and an elderly Asian male security officer.

This is true even if (especially if!) they have the same basic voice. Physical traits are big, clumsy, and effective differentiating features. (As a side benefit, differentiating characters in this way also gives you a more diverse cast.)

Attitude and Context

Just because characters have similar voices doesn’t mean they’ll actually end up sounding the same. Two characters with similar backgrounds and speaking styles may sound drastically different depending on their respective reactions to what’s going on, to the Player Character, and so on.

An educated, absent-minded shopkeep may be thrilled to see the player if he’s had no customers all day; or he might be irritated to have his day interrupted, if he only wants a few moments of peace. A soldier under fire may be gung-ho or terrified. If all of your characters default to emotionally neutral, they not only all feel the same–they also end up feeling as if they have no lives or history beyond the purpose of their one scene.

When writing a game with large numbers of minor roles, it can be well worth the time to select a few lines at random from a variety of characters and put them all side-by-side. Without focusing on content (that is, specific people or events or quests those lines mention), can you tell who’s speaking just based on the tone and style? If you can’t, you’ve got some work on your hands. Consider how you can adjust NPCs’ voice, attitude, and context to make each one unique–and, if not the star of the game, at least someone who’ll catch a player’s interest for a little while.

Additional Reading: The great Patricia C. Wrede has articles on similar topics (from the perspective of a prose writer) here and here.