In a novel, there are lots of ways to reveal information about a character. The narrative can get inside a character’s head, show thoughts, emotions and reactions, and then switch to another point of view to show how others think of the character. Movies have fewer tools – to truly get inside a character’s head requires a voice-0ver, which involves first-person narration, which is always more suspect than an omniscient narrative voice.
But movies have an additional tool: visuals. The written word can describe how a character looks, but a movie can present the visual down to the last detail and do it instantly.
So let’s narrow it down further to one of the most constraining story-based media I can think of for presenting character, online video games. Generally, each player creates a character to interact with other characters and the game environment. There is no real backstory, the character can only take the standard actions allowed by the game, the tools for expressing emotion are awkward at best and interactive dialogue is frequently (although not inherently) limited to things like “Where are we going,” and “Hey! You got me killed!”
So what tools do you have to make your online character stand out? To make him or her a person and not just an icon? And, of course, can these tools be applied back to writing and other media?
There are three major things you have when creating a character for an online game. First, there is usually some customizability in the character’s appearance. Gender, apparent age, color, and, depending on the game, possibly species. Second, there is usually some choice of occupation/role/abilities/archetype. And finally, you get to name the character.
Is that enough? Actually, it’s a lot. I’ve created a lot of these characters over the last few years (because I often find making ‘em as much fun as playing them) and I’ve found that the ones that I stick with are the ones where the three elements (appearance, role/archetype, and name) come together well so that you immediately get some feel for the character.
Let me give you some classic movie and TV examples. Indiana Jones, adventuring archeologist, with his dusty leathers, hat, and whip. Note the odd name, reminiscent of the pulp heroes of old. How about James T. Kirk, starship captain, in his Starfleet uniform? He shares with Indiana Jones the combination of a common name (James, Jones) and and unusual name (Indiana, Kirk). And Kirk is such a short, sharp syllable. It’s a very strong name. And there’s Luke Skywalker, who, despite being a farm boy, insists on wearing white.
And I don’t see any reason not to name and describe characters in writing with the same degree of care. For a literary example, consider Miles Vorkosigan, created by Lois McMaster Bujold. He's got a great name (and on his planet, names beginning with Vor are significant,) a great visual and role (he's a dwarf soldier/aristocrat) and he wears a wide degree of uniforms, all chosen carefully for the occasion. There's a lot to him, even before you get inside his head.