A good story not only thrives off its plot, but also off its characters. This is true for the hero themself, but especially for the secondary characters. In most interactive stories, the heroes are no more than a blank page that has to be filled by the player and their decisions. Therefore you will need strong and memorable characters that are part of the plot and interact with the player in the world of the story.
When designing your secondary characters, you can use the known archetypes as an orientation and then expand upon those by deviating from usual preconceptions and giving them unique characteristics. Try to avoid stereotypes as much as possible. Really strong characters will be able to evoke many different emotions within the player.
The Player Character
The player character needs a clear objective and a motive that the player can sympathize with since they should be able to identify with the hero. To achieve this, the player character should not be too predefined. Create them in broader strokes and with less details, leaving it to the player to define his personality through their decisions. Biographical data and background of the hero you can either decide upon yourself or have them be determined by the player through a preceding character generation.
This character generation can be combined with the way the story will play out. For example, you could offer the player three available characters or character classes that will lead through the story in different ways. As the wise mage, your player will have to solve a greater number of riddles while in turn being rewarded with a deeper knowledge about the world. As the charming and versatile thief, the player can approach most situations through conversations with different dialogue options which will also lead to hidden Player Choices and new events. And, as the warrior, they will solve conflicts through violence. This will probably be more dangerous but also give them more influence over how the story will end. These different approaches and their advantages and disadvantages can be presented to the player in an introductory text or a short tutorial chapter before the start of the story.
Below you will find two examples of how weak or how strong the back story of a main character can be worked out.
The Hero Without a Name (“Gothic”)
The nameless hero of the computer RPG “Gothic” is presented to the player as a blank page. We do not learn anything about his background, not even his name. That he is being interrupted every time he tries to say, “My name is…” is one of the best running gags of the game.
In a magical open air prison, where all places and characters are new to him and therefore completely separated from his previous life, he has to fight for his existence. The salvation of the world either happens out of necessity in order to survive, or for nobler motives. This choice, like the moral behavior of the player, is entirely left to the player, giving them a lot of free space to develop the character’s personality.
Commander Shepherd (“Mass Effect”)
The protagonist of the sci-fi RPG “Mass Effect” and his crew are fighting against an alien invasion. As an already esteemed and respected commander, the survival of the galaxy and the fate of mankind depend on him. How exactly Shepherd reaches his goals and in which way his personality manifests, is left to the player, however. Just like the outcome of the brilliant story.
The villain is one of the central elements of almost every tale. Good stories require conflict, and this conflict arises from the competition and interaction between protagonist and antagonist. An opponent makes each story more interesting and focused. And the optimal scenario is when this opponent is also designed as a multi-layered and multi-faceted character. This makes them believable and tangible. If you succeed, the player will not only experience the opponent as “evil”, but will also find them fascinating.
You should ask yourself the following questions about the opponent of your story: How did they become who they are today? What are their goals? Do they attempt to manipulate, deceive, or persuade the hero with their wit and charisma? Is there a connection between hero and opponent (e.g. through another character or a shared past)?
Below, you will find two examples of fascinating opponents. Both have in common that their multi-layered personality makes them very appealing to gamers and audiences.
Handsome Jack (“Borderlands”)
One of the most fascinating game villains is the character of Jack from the shooter “Borderlands 2”. This psychopathic opponent joins the player several times during the story via radio transmissions, provoking them more and more. His demeanor, language, and personality are born of such absurd madness that he appears both spellbinding and repelling, both sympathetic and threatening at the same time.
Darth Vader (“Star Wars”)
The Sith Lord is wearing a mask that makes us wish we could look behind it and see his true self. With every screen appearance, he emanates incredible power, being feared even by the other villains. In his greatest moment he turns against the Emperor to save his son, Luke Skywalker, achieving a victory over his own self. A terrifically ambivalent character design.
If you want to introduce further plot-relevant characters, the best choice for this would be a companion who lends support to the player as their friend and helper. Many games and movies are known for their funny and likable sidekicks who get the hero out of a jam or cause even more trouble, give them useful clues, or just advance the story.
There are some interesting examples of companions as well:
This little robot is probably one of the funniest sidekicks ever created. With its goofy behavior and quotes it lightens the atmosphere of the action shooter “Borderlands”, causing side-splitting laughter.
If the secondary character upstages the main character, then there is nothing else left to be said. In the animated movie “Shrek”, the true favorite is not the strong ogre Shrek but his companion. A brazen, naive, and way too talkative donkey called… Donkey. Unlike Shrek, the audience can barely wait for Donkey to start the next conversation.
Spot (“The Whispered World”)
Not only is this little caterpillar extremely cute, it is also very helpful. In the adventure game “The Whispered World”, it can take on many shapes and thereby help the player solve puzzles.
The companion can also inject humor into your story, provide clues, or cause conflicting emotions in the player by starting arguments. This narrative element is especially useful for interactive stories because it can generate many new player choices without necessarily creating new story paths. Dialogue options are a rewarding tool for authors that, at the same time, provide the player with varied choices.
Helpers and Mentors
Other archetypes in stories function as helpers or mentors. As such they provide assistance to the hero, but can also challenge them. More often than not, it is the helpers and mentors who will send the hero on his journey in the first place.
Gandalf (“The Lord of the Rings”)
Gandalf is a powerful wizard and part of the group who fights Sauron. His key feature is his great knowledge about the past and the One Ring. Gandalf instructs the fellowship about the ring as best as he can and appears at moments of crisis to prevent catastrophe in the last instant. Otherwise, he stays out of events. His great power is limited by the fact that he is susceptible to the temptations of the One Ring. This explains why such a powerful wizard like him has to rely on the help of four unremarkable hobbits.
Helpers and mentors are usually older and wiser than the hero and have a greater trove of knowledge and experience that the hero is lacking. Mentors can be male or female, but they can also be animals, aliens, artificial intelligence, or whatever fits your story. You create suspense by revealing the knowledge of the mentor bit by bit.