Characterisation In Interactive Fiction

2016 Artwork Characterisation in interactive fiction

Well, since I still seem to be going through a bit of a “point and click” adventure game phase at the moment, I couldn’t help but think of the interactive gamebook-style story that I wrote and posted online in October. So, I thought that I’d look at the subject of characterisation in interactive fiction today.

Although I’ll mostly be talking about gamebook-style prose stories here, I’ll also be talking briefly about “point and click” adventure games too.

Anyway, interactive stories offer all sorts of possibilities for characterisation that more traditional linear stories don’t.

This is especially noticeable in “point and click” games because the high level of interactivity means that literally every interaction with another character and every witty observation of the game’s world can reveal more information about the characters and their worldviews.

Likewise, because computer games are a visual medium, you can also reveal a lot of character information through the actions, appearances etc.. of all the various characters.

But, I thought that I’d talk about a slightly less interactive, and much less visual, type of interactive fiction for the rest of the article. I am, of course, talking about gamebooks.

Gamebooks are kind of interesting when it comes to characterisation since, although you can include interactive dialogue (eg: “to ask about one thing, turn to page 34. To ask about another thing, turn to page 86”) the limitations of the format mean that this kind of dialogue can’t really be as extensive as the interactive dialogue in “point and click” games.

Likewise, it’s more difficult for interactive gamebooks to include the kinds of witty observations that “point and click” games do. Yes, you can include witty descriptions in the narration but, since these books are narrated from a second-person perspective, all this does is give the narrator (rather than the main character) more characterisation.

Since the main character in a gamebook is supposed to be the reader, there is traditionally very little characterisation in order to allow the reader to immerse himself or herself fully in the story. Although I kind of ignored this rule slightly (for comedic purposes) when I wrote my interactive story, the main character in a gamebook-style story is supposed to be something of a “blank slate”.

What this means is that virtually all of the characterisation in a gamebook-style story has to come from the supporting characters. Although you can pretty much write these characters in the same way as you would write a character in an “ordinary” story, you will probably have to place more emphasis on distinctive dialogue and quick characterisation for the simple reason that your readers are probably only going to see these characters for a couple of pages.

Another interesting thing about gamebook-style stories is that, because the reader can usually take several different paths through the story, it’s possible that they might not meet all of the characters. What this means is that, if a character is essential to the plot, then you have to structure your story in a way that makes it impossible for the reader to avoid them.

On the other hand, you can take advantage of the branching nature of interactive stories to convey the same information to the reader in a variety of different ways. For example, at one point in my interactive story, you can choose to take one of three possible routes to the last part of the game.

In two of these routes, you get to meet one of two different characters ( either the Dungeonkeeper or High Priestess Lachard, depending on the route you take). During your dialogue with either character, they will give you a clue which will help you with a puzzle later in the story. But, more than that, their dialogue also discusses the same event from two different perspectives.

If you talk to the Dungeonkeeper, he’ll talk about a mistake that he once made and how High Priestess Lachard still mocks him about it. If you talk to Lachard, then one part of the dialogue will remind her of this mistake and she’ll suddenly burst into laughter with relatively little explanation.

Since you only get to read one of these two dialogues when you’re reading the story, you get a slightly different perspective on the same part of the story’s backstory. Not only does it provide extra “value” for people who are re-reading the story, but it also emphasises the fact that the characters knew each other and existed before the events of the story. In other words, it makes the “world” of your story feel more like a real, living world.

Likewise, because gamebook-style stories are interactive, you can get a lot of character information across from the way that other characters react to the player’s decisions. You can show whether characters are quick to anger, whether characters are always suspicious etc…

These are, of course, just a few of the advantages that interactive fiction has over linear fiction when it comes to characterisation. But, you’d be surprised at how much more you can do when you’re telling an interactive story.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (25th February 2016)

Well, although I’m not sure if this will turn into another art series or not, I made a 1980s/90s-style digitally-edited gothic painting that was a bit like yesterday’s one.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"And The Lights Were Blood Red" By C. A. Brown

“And The Lights Were Blood Red” By C. A. Brown

Comedy And Shock Value – A Ramble

2016 Artwork comedy and shock value article sketch

Well, I’m still in the mood for writing about the comedy genre. So, for today, I thought that I’d look at the subject of comedy and shock value. As with all creative things, there are no absolute “right” or “wrong” answers here and this article is just my opinion. After all, everyone has a different sense of humour.

Like with the horror genre, one of the things that good comedy has to do if it wants to work well is to shock or surprise it’s audience. Like good horror, good comedy often relies on playing with the audience’s expectations. To use a non-controversial and well-known example, just take a look at the classic joke “A man walks into a bar… Ouch!“.

As you probably know, this joke works because the beginning of it is similar to many other jokes (eg: “A man walks into a bar”), but the audience’s expectations are suddenly proved to be wrong when it’s revealed in the punchline that the “bar” is actually a metal bar. Although it’s comedic power has long since been blunted by common use, this joke relies on (mildly) shocking the audience in order to amuse them.

Of course, comedy often works in much more subtle ways than this. Good comedy is unpredictable and rebellious in one way or another. Whether it’s something as simple as a writer telling a story which occasionally goes in whimsically surreal directions, whether it’s a parody of a “serious” story or whether it’s very cynical and irreverent humour about a taboo subject, good comedy often relies on “shocking” the audience in some way or another.

Like with the horror genre, comedy – by it’s very definition – can’t be too “realistic” (unless, of course, you’re parodying an unrealistic movie or story).

Comedy has to rebel against expectations, conventions and realism to some level or another in order to work. Comedy relies on exaggerations, twists, taboos, irreverence, offence and other such things. It’s an anarchic and impishly unpredictable genre.

Of course, the real art form here is trying to find funny ways to shock your audience. Merely shocking an audience is not always, in and of itself, funny. After all, horror stories also rely on shocking their audiences too.

In other words, you have to find clever ways to either create expectations (or to go along with your audience’s pre-existing expectations) and then to break them in well-timed and unexpected ways. The only real way to learn how to do this well is to read, listen to and/or watch as much comedy as you can.

But, to give you an example, an ordinary person saying a four-letter word isn’t inherently funny. After all, unless you’re an extremely prim and puritanical person, you probably use your fair share of these words on a daily basis. It’s nothing special and nothing shocking. But, if a prim and puritanical person was to use one of these words, it would be funny because the audience wouldn’t expect it.

This contrast between a person and their actions is also why, for example, things such as [NSFW] these widely-publicised allegations about the (British) prime minister from last year resulted in widespread mockery, ridicule and general merriment rather than disgusted outrage.

If an ordinary person was accused of doing something like this, then it would quite rightly be considered to be disgusting rather than funny. But, because a prime minister (let alone a conservative one) allegedly did something revolting – but also technically harmless – it’s absolutely hilarious because it’s literally the last thing that anyone would expect.

Then, of course, there’s the somewhat trickier question of what is and isn’t “too shocking”. My personal view on this is that, because everyone has a subtly different sense of humour, there shouldn’t really be any formal or informal limits on comedy.

It’s kind of like food – I mean, you can buy hot chilli sauces and you can buy very mild types of mustard. Both of these things are spicy, but you probably prefer either one or the other or, more likely, something in between. If you’re more of a “mild mustard” kind of person and you accidentally end up eating chilli sauce by mistake, then it’s probably not going to be a pleasant experience.

No one would bat an eyelid if you then made the decision not to eat chilli sauce again as a result of this or even if you said that you personally don’t like eating chilli sauce. However, most people would consider it to be laughably ridiculous if you then earnestly called for chilli sauce to be banned from supermarkets and restaurants just because it didn’t fit into your personal tastes.

Not to mention that, as soon as you start trying to put limits on comedy, you also set up expectations… which comedians will just end up breaking for laughs. So, trying to censor or restrict comedy – however shocking it might be- is something of a fool’s errand.

So, yes, whether it’s extremely shocking or very mildly shocking, comedy has to be shocking.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (24th February 2016)

Well, thanks to suddenly running out of inspiration halfway through making the lineart for a painting, I decided to end my “awesome stuff” art series earlier than I expected. So, I eventually ended up making this digitally-edited gothic painting instead.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Gothic City" By C. A. Brown

“Gothic City” By C. A. Brown

Why You Need To Use Eccentric Characters When Writing Comedy.

2016 Artwork Eccentric Characters And The Comedy Genre

Although this is an article about writing comedic fiction and/or comedic comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about TV shows for a while. There’s a good reason for this that I hope will become obvious soon.

Anyway, a few days before I wrote this article, I started watching an American sitcom called “30 Rock“. Although I could spend a while talking about how Tina Fey is a comic genius, I’m mentioning this TV show because it’s a really brilliant example of one of the central parts of writing good comedy that can sometimes be overlooked by writers and/or audiences.

I am, of course, talking about eccentric characters. One of the brilliant things about “30 Rock” is that virtually all of the characters are eccentric in one way or another – in fact, the character list on Wikipedia actually points out exactly how each character is eccentric.

If you look at virtually anything in the comedy genre, you’ll see that it contains at least a few eccentric characters. In fact, the comedy genre is one of the few genres where at least some of your characters are required to be eccentric or strange in some way or another.

It doesn’t matter if they’re eccentric in a subtle way or if they’re eccentric in a really obvious way, they have to be eccentric. There are several reasons for this:

The first (and most obvious) reason is that the contrast between the eccentric characters and the “normal” characters can be played for laughs in all sorts of different ways. In fact, the technical term for this contrast between characters is a “foil“. Curses! Foiled again!

The second reason why eccentric characters are such an important part of the comedy genre is because they are inherently fascinating and very memorable. Since a good eccentric character is totally and utterly different from any character that your audience has seen before, they’re probably going to both remember these characters and want to learn more about them.

From a writing perspective, eccentric characters are great fun to write for the simple reason that you don’t have to worry too much about whether they’re “realistic” or not. As long as your eccentric character has a distinctive personality and they don’t act out of character too often, then you can do a lot of things with these characters that you can’t really do with “normal” characters.

Finally, eccentric characters are an integral part of the comedy genre for the simple reason that they make the audience feel better. There are two reasons for this and they both rely on the fact that literally no-one (no, not even you) is a completely “normal” person. We all have our strange quirks, fascinations, mannerisms, ways of doing things etc…

This means that really eccentric characters can make the audience feel better about themselves, because these characters make the audience feel more “normal” by comparison.

But, much better than this, the audience can often see a reflection of themselves (or parts of themselves ) in subtly eccentric comedic characters (like Liz Lemon from “30 Rock”). This can be a strangely uplifting and reassuring experience, especially since most of the mainstream media tends to promote hyper-“normal” characters.

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Sorry for such a short and basic article, but I hope that it was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (23rd February 2016)

Interestingly, this painting in my “awesome stuff” series wasn’t actually the painting I originally made for today. I’d made another painting, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with the quality of it, so I made this digitally-edited painting (which was vaguely inspired by old 1990s/ early 00s survival horror/ horror games) instead.

I’m sure that the original painting I made for today will eventually turn up in one of my articles sometime though.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Survival Horror Awesomeness" By C. A. Brown

“Survival Horror Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

Why Sketching Is A Useful Skill – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Why Sketching is useful article sketch

Although this is a rambling article about how useful it is to learn how to sketch quickly, I’m going to have to start by talking about my dreams (of all things). As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

The night before I wrote this article, I had some rather visually-interesting dreams. One dream involved accidentally inventing some kind of bizarre cocktail (that probably defies the laws of physics) and a later dream involved looking out of a window and seeing an abandoned, fog-covered “Silent Hill“-style version of the school that I went to when I was a teenager.

Anyway, when I woke up, I did what I sometimes do when I have interesting dreams and I wrote down a brief description of them in my sketchbook but, more importantly, I also sketched parts from both dreams. Here are what my sketches looked like:

The perspective is slightly wrong in the lower image [and the window frame gets in the way], but this doesn't really matter too much because it's only a quick sketch.

The perspective is slightly wrong in the lower image [and the window frame gets in the way], but this doesn’t really matter too much because it’s only a quick sketch.

By making a sketch of these images from my dreams fairly soon after I woke up, I was able to remember them more clearly.

This also meant that when I made a digitally-edited painting of the second dream later, it was easier for me to make this painting because I’d already set out all of the visual information that I needed to use. If you’re interested, here is the painting:

"Through A Window In A Dream" By C. A. Brown

“Through A Window In A Dream” By C. A. Brown

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The thing is that I used to sketch things from my dreams long before I ever really thought of myself as an artist. Yes, my sketches back then were even cruder and far more technically terrible than my current sketches are. Since sketches are meant to quickly present visual information in a visual way or to help you remember something, you don’t actually need a huge amount of artistic skill to make sketches.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a quick sketch of Aberystwyth pier that I made in 2009, when the only artistic experience I had was doodling on my lecture notes at university, making sketches of my dreams, making sketches when I wanted to plan out a short story and drawing silly little cartoons when I was bored:

 I was planning to use the pier as a setting for a short story, so I made a few sketches of it and wrote some descriptions of it.

I was planning to use the pier as a setting for a short story, so I made a few sketches of it and wrote some descriptions of it.

Of course, when you practice making art and learn some of the “rules” of making art, your quick sketches will improve as a result. But, even if you just make your sketches using stick figures and simple shapes, then they can still be a useful way to help you remember information (or to quickly communicate that information).

Seriously, pretty much everyone can make sketches. Since they’re not meant to be works of art, no artistic skill is really required (although it can certainly help).

So, why is sketching so important and useful?

can’t remember where I read this, but I remember reading somewhere that quite a few of the world’s greatest inventions started life as a small sketch. Historically, when people thought of something that they wanted to invent, one of the easiest ways to record this information was to literally draw a quick picture of it in their notes. Again, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Not only that, drawings – however simple- are pretty much a universal language. There’s a reason why instruction manuals for things often include small line drawings of what you’re supposed to do (and what you’re not supposed to do). It doesn’t matter if something is being sold in another part of the world, or even whether the person looking at the manual is literate or not, if you can see the drawings then you can almost certainly understand them.

In addition to this, if you happen to be the kind of person who thinks visually (personally, I seem to think visually, verbally and – for want of a better description – in a tactile/ physical way), then adding sketches to your notes can be a great way to record information.

For example, back when I thought of myself as a writer, I’d often draw (badly-drawn) pictures of my characters beside my notes since, although I sort of knew what the characters would look like, I didn’t always know that much else about them. As an example, here’s an early sketch of a character I came up with in 2010:

This was one of the earlier sketches of the main character of a series of narrative poems I wrote in spring 2010.

This was one of the earlier sketches of the main character of a series of narrative poems I wrote in spring 2010.

Another cool side effect of adding sketches to your notes is that your notes look a lot more visually interesting. Back in 2009 or 2010 I remember randomly showing my writing notes to someone and being surprised that they were surprised that the notes were filled with drawings. I don’t know, I guess that I just assumed that most writers did this kind of thing.

So, yes, even if you aren’t an artist – you can still make sketches and sketches can still be a useful way to record and present information.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂