Suppose you are part of a development team working on a fighting game, and you're given the role of creating about 30 or 40 unique characters from many different backgrounds from the ground up. It's more story heavy than most fighting games, and it takes place over a large universe spanning many planets, so most characters end up being largely disconnected from most of the other cast.

Being a fighting game, the characters follow some archetypes established from many fighting games, such as:

  • quick characters who relentlessly rush down their opponents. They are often very light on defense (leading to glass canons sometimes), but they make up for it with their speed and their small size.
  • characters who work best with their projectiles or other long range attacks. They shine by keeping their opponents out of their faces as much as possible or keeping them at a distance that's advantageous to them but disadvantageous to their enemies.
  • grappler / heavy-weight characters who excel in close combat. They can take and dish out lots of damage, but they are often slow and easy to hit because of their size.

You also have healers, but it's specific to this fighting game as it features large teams with concurrently fighting characters.

Aside from these archetypes, you're almost completely free to create the characters however you want with whatever backstory and arc you want, as long as they fit the game play of course. For example, sometimes you're given the task of creating a character who needs to have something specific, like a ball and chain user for example, but you can decide everything else for the character yourself.

Regardless whether this game and its story would be feasible to make or not (that's not the point of this question), how would you create all these characters if you're given a specific number of characters you need to make with certain requirements/restraints for some or all of them, like the example above?

The way I'm currently doing it is by having one "main" story and character that drives everyone else's stories to some extent. I have one to four characters per planet and they are just there at the moment, as "character slots" so to speak. Later, when I get ideas for characters, I try to incorporate them into the character slots I created, keeping in mind the requirements or restraints the dev team puts on that character. Once I have a full set of characters, I try to make them work together, so I can tell a cohesive story with all of them.

Side note: I'm more of a discovery writer, hence the approach I take.

  • Is the question about how to make characters visually distinct, or how to develop them (backstory etc.) in the course of the story? – Alexander Nov 13 at 18:24
  • @Alexander The latter. The visual aspects are someone else's job, one I'm not qualified for. :) – noClue Nov 13 at 20:32
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    Saw this question in HNQ on a programming site. Answer: char[2**32]. You can change that 2^32 depending on your definition of "huge." – WBT Nov 14 at 20:02
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    @WBT, the use of "huge" clearly means they're using the old segmented memory model, so it would be something like char __huge array[65537] (exact keyword depending on the compiler). – Mark Nov 14 at 21:21
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    Who else went to this question thinking it was about initializing a large array of chars? – meisel Nov 15 at 4:48

Well, this is quite a project you're working on. Regardless of how helpful my answer is to you, I hope all goes well and I hope to see it one day.

Now, to my answer. Characters come extremely easy for me, so I rarely have to do much to get a lot out of return. However, here are a few things I do when I get stuck.

Start with the base concept

You have three basic types of characters, correct? Start there. I'm going to take you through an example, with the "glass cannon" type because it's the easiest in my mind to do.

Think about what makes them unique

If you have too many of the same type of character, then the audience gets bored. Since you're going for a science fantasy-ish thing, I'll make a feline character who fights with claws.

Give them a personality.

Keeping the other two points in mind, you need to develop a personality. What do they like/dislike? Who do they like/dislike? Since you're making video game characters, you can stick to stereotyped characters. Since this is an example, I'm going to make my feline a brash, up-front character who takes no crap from anyone.

Come up with special moves

Think about it. If it's a fighting game, they're probably gonna have some special skills that set them apart from most of the cast. Think about what that could be, and give them an ultimate, and maybe some other skills unique to them.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head. Hope this helps, and isn't just me rambling!

I think you may need to start with the universe and then find characters to fill the niches it provides. Characters and their styles are going to be shaped by their worlds; you want a number of different worlds (and possibly different species?) so to understand the characters that come from those worlds you need to first know about the worlds themselves. For example what kind of surface gravities are found on the various inhabited worlds of your universe? What kind of economic activities keep their colonies viable?

Some sample characters might include hulking brutes from mining and industrial worlds that engineer their working classes for strength and stamina, quick but fragile beings from low gravity worlds and space habits, rangers from worlds that rely on the tourists who flood their game preserves where getting too close to the wildlife means almost certain death. That covers your archetypes one layer deep at least, there are many other possible options.

Individual planetary cultures will play a part in how characters fight, their choice of weapons and armour etc... But also consider interplanetary organisations, is there a space navy, or several, an assassins guild, a thieves guild, or merchant banks any or all of whom hire locally for security personnel. Even interplanetary security firms who send combat trained people from world to world. Basically you need a list of the wheres and whys that lead to people training for combat and becoming professional fighters.

Filler characters feel like filler character

This is not always true, but a lot of the time it is pretty easy to spot characters that could easily be exchanged by any other character. I mean... if you're careful it can work to create the story first, but I feel like it really lowers the amount of choices you can make for each individual character.

Characters first. Story later.

I usually go the other way around and create the character first and then see where he/she/it would fit in (changing things if necessary).

One trick I usually use when creating a lot of characters for games is to pick two things: An object/element/animal and a catch-phrase. Keep in mind that these two are just for you to know, in all likelyhood, noone else will ever realize them (unless you overdo it).

Let's say I take your Ball and Chain user and he's supposed to be a healer. And now I have to create five of those (annoying, huh?)


For my first one, I pick something random as my object like a half-empty beer bottle. My catchphrase will be something along the lines of... maybe just "Discretion is the better part of valor." So what does this mean? Well the first thing my object makes me think of is an overweight guy who waddles a bit while walking around (and is pretty slow). Because of the catchphrase, he will probably try to avoid direct battle situations, which fits well with him being a healer. It makes me think he will probably get some attacks that will make him use the ball and chain to propel himself away from the enemy (get some distance). Most of his quicker movements should probably be caused by the ball and chain while he himself is a rather slow character. I could also see the ball actually just being something soft, sponge-like, that he might fill with various substances that will either heal or hurt his targets in different ways.


Number 2 instead gets a pair of sunglasses as his object. Our catchphrase would be "Let me through, I'm important!". That mix makes it a character with sunglasses in a nice, black suit. Think government agent. Now because of the catchphrase, I'd probably give him attacks that shove opponents away, so he can 'get through'. His healing wouldn't be with the ball and chain, that would be just his tool to make room. He'd actually have to touch people to heal them. He would be slim and a pretty quick character.


Our #3: Object/Animal: Hedgehog. Catchphrase: What goes up must come down. This might not be the best mix for a healer, but for now we'll just go with it. So basically, his ball gets spikes that he can activate by will. Catchphrase makes me think the spikes will stick to the opponent and he might be able to heave him up in the air with it and make him crash down. Since I have to think of Sonic, this character will be small and quick, with some spiky hair. He still has to be a healer though, so considering the catchphrase, he might just throw small object in an arc that will heal what they hit. In fact, maybe they will heal more than regular healing skills, but part of it gets removed again after a couple of seconds (unless the character was hit during that time and lost the 'extra' hp anyway).


Our #4: Object/Animal: Potato. Catchphrase: I'll kill you all! This time I think it will be a pretty boring looking character, that somewhat hides his ball and chain with his clothes and then when he attacks his expression and everything completely changes making him look like a complete maniac. Since his catchphrase is so aggressive, his healing power will actually come from hitting the opponents. His ball has to be relatively small, but in exchange he gets to attack a lot more often (even though each attacks deals less damage) than the others. Every time he hits the opponent, some drops of blood flow off him that will heal teammates they touch.


Our #5: Object/Animal: Shower. Catchphrase: Only the sky is the limit. This character will be an aerial type. Jumping a lot, attacking from above ('showering' his enemies with attacks from above). He might get some wings that will allow him to float a little. Since he's in the air so much, his ball lags somewhat behind. It's also the reason he can't actually fly for extended periods (because it's too heavy for that). This actually makes me think in his case the ball and chain are actually on one of his ankles. So he will get a design that's somewhat of an escaped slave or something like that. And yes, the healing will be some kind of spray.


Alright, so now I got my five characters that I think are pretty different from each other even though they have the same general role and weapon type.

Now would be the time where I ask more questions about my characters and try to answer them. Was there some place where #5 could have escaped from? Did one of the other characters have something to do with his enslavement or his escape? Did he know someone before? What's the deal with #4? Is he just some psychopath or is there an actual reason behind his character change? Do any of the other characters know him (and if so: do they know the real him?) What does he do for a living anyway? Is #3 some kind of thief? Did he maybe steal something important from one of the other characters once? Is he a relative of someone? Who does #2 work for? People like him have to have orders, right? So what organisation gives him orders and what is their place in all of it? Where did #1 train? Were there maybe a bunch of monks that threw him out because he kept getting drunk and screwing up training? Is the softer ball something that started as a joke because he accidentally kept smashing furniture when he was drunk?

And so forth. In the end, I always feel that I find a place for my character or if not, I will create one. But while you flesh out your character more and more you'll quickly realize what his place SHOULD be.

If you already have a main story (so to speak) you'll want to tailor your answers in a way that fits into that story of course. Which can be a lot of fun.

But especially since we're talking about a game here, it's important that the personality of the character (and his backstory) fit his playstyle and looks. Which is why I'd always do it this way around.

Oh and it doesn't have to be object/animal + catchphrase, you can choose any things you like, just keep it simple.

With that many characters, you're dealing with an ensemble cast. That means you're going to have to carefully structure your story so that each major protagonist is introduced to the story in a way that allows the players to connect with them.

Some good movies and games with ensemble casts that you might want to check out are:

  • The Magnificent Seven (and its spiritual predecessor, The Seven Samuri)
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and the first two Paper Mario games
  • Starlink: Battle for Atlas
  • Mass Effect
  • BlazBlue

Each of these stories shares a similar structure. The first act adds one or two major protagonists at a time, letting them be the focus of an entire scene. This scene showcases their personality, their motivations, and the way they fit into the world. The story proper only kicks into gear once the core group of the main cast has been assembled.

  • The Magnificent Seven is a western about a gun for hire being hired to go to a remote village and rescue it from a viscious band of outlaws. The main character knows that it's too much for him to handle on his own, so before he heads out, he tracks down old friends and asks them to take on the mission with him. One man is reluctantly dragged into a duel with a bully and wins effortlessly; another is a war veteran who turns down the mission when he's told it doesn't pay well before changing his mind at the last minute; yet another is a young kid who gets drunk and decides to join just because it sounds like fun. Irregardless, all of the main characters are introduced one at a time in individual scenes. And each of the characteristics we learn about them come into play again by the end of the film.
  • The Lord of the Rings starts with Gandalf and the four hobbits leaving the Shire. The gradually and organically wind up travelling with Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas, but they don't decide to formally work together until creating the Fellowship of the Ring at Elrond.
  • The Mario RPGs take a somewhat different approach. Mario is the main protagonist, but each chapter focuses entirely on one new party member who overshadows even Mario for that portion of the story. The start of the chapter give the new party member and organic reason to help Mario: whatever problem they're dealing with in their own life overlaps with Mario's goal of collecting a McGuffin. By the end of the chapter, the new party member has tied up all of the loose ends in their own story and have organically formed a connection with the rest of the ensemble, so it feels very natural for them to join the ensemble permanently after that. The ensemble isn't completed until the start of the final dungeon, but each individual major character is still given a thorough introduction.
  • Starlink introduces its cast quickly. The opening cutscene shows all of the major protagonists, already assembled, on the bridge of their starship. Each individual character gets at least one punchy line of dialog that captures their personality, and the way they bounce off of each other so easily makes it clear that there's already a lot of good chemistry in the group. This is enough to get the story started with the ensemble already put together. A little while later, a major story mission is added to the player's quest log. This mission starts with the player collecting McGuffins scattered around a planet, each one containing a spoken diary entry from the ensemble's mentor. These recordings give a brief minute-long explanation of how each character joined the group, what their personalities are, and how they contribute to the whole group. This expands on the very brief introductions in the opening cutscene and lets the player connect with the group more solidly.
  • The Mass Effect games start out with small ensembles. After that, each new party member who is added to the team has their own mission to recruit or rescue them. Notably, the player is able to pursue these missions in whatever order they want, so the ensemble will be put together in a different order for each player. But because each character gets their own introduction, it works effectively regardless of the order.
  • BlazBlue has an individual story campaign for each individual character. The final campaign that brings the story to a close is only available after each individual character's canon ending has been reached, so by the time the story ends, the player is very familiar with each character.

These are just some examples. If you find any of the structures compelling, it might be worth your time to watch or play these stories to get an idea how they work. In the end, what you need to do is find a way to organize your story so that each major character has a chance to be properly introduced to the player. This will tie your ensemble together.


Here are a couple of really unique ensemble cast stories that might come in handy if your game takes off:

  • Avengers: Infinity War
  • Super Smash Bros: Subspace Emmisary
  • BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle

All three of these stories have absolutely enormous casts. Unlike the other examples I gave, they do not structure their stories to give a strong introduction to each protagonist. This is because they are all stories that are based off of existing intellectual property, using characters that the viewers/players are likely already very familiar with. As a result, when a new character is added, the audience is able to immediately recognize and connect with them. The only characters that need thorough introductions are the ones that play the most central roles in the story.

Unfortunately, if you're seriously going to try to have a cast of 30-40 characters, it might be worth your while to see if you can leverage a similar technique. Either get lucky enough to use someone else's established characters, or accept that, at least for now, you're not going to get to thoroughly explore each character's role in your story and hope that your players are OK with some characters playing minor roles in the story mode.

What does each characters want, and how are they trying to achieve their goal?

Every person is their own protagonist. Every person has things that they want. Therefore, the key to making side characters feel like they have depth to them is to figure out what they want, and how what they want leads to their interactions with your plot.

No amount of quirky behavior or unusual knowledge can save a character who exists solely to fulfill a role in the plot. Give them a purpose, and then figure out why that purpose is causing them to further your plot.

Everything else can be built off of that.

What makes characters interesting is usually their relationships to each other. Given that, I would start with one main character per location, develop a complete and detailed unique backstory for that character, and then write the other characters (of that location) in relationship to the main character (family members, love interests, rivals, enemies, mentors, role models, bosses or employees, etcetera).

Generally speaking, people tend to have a network of about 100 people who are significant in their lives, so you could definitely build forty people who all have a meaningful relationship of one kind or another to a single main character. If, along the way, however, you start to get stuck, or find your interest transferring to a new character, just make that character your new central character, and start developing additional relationships/characters based on him or her.

As far as the constraints, it shouldn't be too difficult to fit those in. "OK, he's big and slow, but his brother's quick and fast. They fought hard as children, but now they are devoted to each other..." This way, by the time you have all your characters created, you'll have a complete storyline uniting them as well. It's similar to your approach as you described it, but instead of creating the characters and then trying to make them relate to each other, you start with the relationship and let it illuminate the character.

40 might sound like a lot, but it kind of isn't. Imagine for a moment that you devised a survey with only 10 yes or no questions. Each question is vastly different from every other question so it covers a wide range of aspects of the character's potential back stories.

When all is said and done, you have over 1000 different back stories you can generate from that survey. You only want 40 of them. That's 4% of the possible back story archetypes. That's low enough that no one would reasonably be able to deduce the questions from it, because there isn't a high enough signal to noise ratio.

A potential survey might be:

  1. Did you know your parents?
  2. Would you say you grew up wealthy?
  3. Would you say you're more talented (naturally) or more skilled (learned)?
  4. Would you say you are more logical or more emotional?
  5. Did you enjoy your childhood?
  6. Did you have a mentor?
  7. Did you have a defining traumatic experience in your formative years?
  8. Do you know what you want to do in life?
  9. Do you have a love interest?
  10. Do you have a defining personal quirk?

Now, to get 32 unique profiles you only need 5 questions. This gives you 10, so while many of them will be yes, when you do have one that's no, it will really set it apart from the rest. You could probably come up with better questions (or more questions is even better!!) to make sure you have unique people. Then, once the questions are answered yes or no, compare the results to the other results and make sure it doesn't line up too closely to another character. You could even start the other way around, by choosing to say "let's create 10 characters who all say yes to questions 1, 2 and 3 and go from there." or something similar.

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