Freespace characters 101

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Part of a Series on Campaign Design by Nuclear1


Original post by Nuclear1 on the HLP forums, here.

You're planning your campaign. You're trying to figure out how to tell your story...you wonder, what do people like about Freespace campaigns? Good mission design? Got that. Epic story? Check. Shiny mods? Plenty of. What else...

Characters. Memorable, lasting characters.

You want a cast in your campaign. You want to have more than just nameless wingmen and squadron leaders. You want real people for the player to connect with.

But...how to do it? I mean, all it takes is some wise-cracking dialogue out of one, some scaredy-cat words out of another, and a stern leader, right? Maybe have some brave, dedicated captains along with it. Boom! Insta-cast!

Well...sorry to say, it's a lot more complicated than that.

Let's start with Characters 101.


Your Hero, The Protagonist

Probably one of the first characters you'll try to develop is the hero. In most cases, this will actually be the player's character. It's also the one that's going to take the most work to develop, since you'll be spending the majority of your campaign talking about them or having them interact with others. So you'll have to understand what the purpose of your hero is going to be.

In most stories, the protagonist--often, but not always, synonymous with hero--serves as the player's/reader's/viewer's guide to what's happening in the story. The protagonist gives them someone

to connect with, and since we don't live in the GTVA in the 24th century (or whatever setting you're using), we need someone who's as close to an everyman or down-to-earth character as possible.

Typically, a protagonist is somebody who's dealing with an internal or external conflict in their life right off the bat; they're the new guy in the group, they're at a bad point in their life, or they're just not entirely satisfied with themselves.

In short order, they'll have to confront an internal and/or external force that opposes them, and initially they'll resist having to deal with this confrontation. But eventually they'll be left with no choice, and/or otherwise be motivated to deal with this force. It's only after they've grown as a character that they can pull through and triumph.

Let me give you a couple of examples to illustrate. Luke Skywalker is living with his uncle and aunt on a moisture farm on Tatooine. It's abundantly clear he doesn't enjoy cleaning droids, doing nitpicky chores, or living the farmer's life in general. He has dreams of something bigger, of doing something with his life...but his uncle and aunt's livelihood demands that he remains at home living a life he hates. When he's offered a chance by Obi-Wan to leave home and pursue his dreams, he resists, but the deaths of his uncle and aunt leave him no other choice.

He begins training in the ways of the Force, and after a long conflict with the Empire, he learns to let go of his old self. His use of the Force allows him to finally destroy the Death Star and save his friends, all while developing his character as a Jedi.

In Freespace, one of the best examples of this formula is in Transcend's Sunder Marcel. We first meet Sunder at a bad point in his life: he's running escort missions for people who don't respect him, who treat him like garbage. He clearly doesn't enjoy it. However, when Omicron arrives and presents the opportunity for him to leave that world, he initially opposes. He doesn't want to be a part of this new life, but he grows as a character and eventually leads Omicron wing to triumph over the Transcendant.

This is typically what your protagonist should look like as well.

Your Brothers In Arms

Now that you have a hero to help you tell your story, you'll undoubtedly want some comrades for him. You want some people for the player and the protagonist to share this adventure with. But how do you develop them? How do you write them?

Since we're dealing with a military sci-fi setting, I'll use the prototypical military sci-fi character palette: the Colonial Marines from Aliens. Know it or not, most of the characters in science fiction or military works you've seen in the last twenty years have been, in some way, based off of these characters. You have the no-nonsense, strict commander, the arrogant, cocksure young guy full of bravado who breaks down when things go south, you have the quiet one who is unwittingly forced into a leadership position.

Now let me preface this by saying that these stereotypes aren't bad. There's a reason people loved Aliens, and the characters in the Colonial Marines were a huge part of it. However, it's important to know why these stereotypes and character traits work, and why this is sorely misunderstood by a lot of new writers.

The Marines existed as supporting characters for Ripley. Their actions and their dialogue provided a launching pad for other characters to grow. Hudson's breakdown halfway through the movie provided another conflict for Ripley and Hicks to tackle as they tried to step up as leaders. And were it not for Gorman's inexperience as a commander, Ripley and Hicks would never have had to step up in the first place.

The point I'm trying to make is that supporting characters are not meant to just be people who say things when there's no action going on. They exist to provide conflict for the protagonist, as well as to provide support for the protagonist as they go through their journey.

Your Enemies

Alright, you have a protagonist, as well as a cast of supporting characters. Now we need a foe. Someone or something that the protagonist has to confront and overcome.

Creating the antagonist is very similar in many ways to creating the protagonist. All of the elements that go into making the character are the same: personality traits, motivation, and a background are essential in forming an antagonist that the player will not only want to fight, but will remember.

Before we start, it's a good idea to note that we're living in the 21st century. While it used to be acceptable to create villains whose sole intentions were taking over the world or creating chaos, players and audiences expect better out of our antagonists now. We expect some depth to the people our protagonist has to overcome, not just James Bond cutout supervillains. Note that, for the most part, I haven't used the word 'villain' when referring to the antagonist in a story. That's because simply, the antagonist in a story doesn't necessarily have to be a bad person, but just a force that opposes the protagonist (hence the prefix 'ant-'). If this is confusing you, allow me to illustrate.

In Michael Bay's 1996 film The Rock, the primary antagonist is Marine Corps Brigadier General Francis Hummel. In short, the story features Hummel taking over Alcatraz Island, taking hostages and demanding $100 million from the US Federal government, with the threat of firing rockets armed with nerve gas into San Francisco. Just from that description, he should sound like a fairly straightforward villain who wants a lot of money, and is willing to kill a lot of innocent people to get it.

However, there's much more to him than that. Those three elements I discussed earlier (personality traits, motivation, and background) play a huge part in raising Hummel's character from simple greedy madman to a more complex character. Hummel is a veteran of many USMC black operations, commanding many Marines in conflicts around the world that were denied by the Federal government.

Over the course of his service, he's lost 83 Marines in these black ops, and, as a result of their missions and secrecy, the US government has refused to give compensation or closure to the families of the fallen. After attempting to correct these wrongs through other means, Hummel resorts to extortion. In a symbolic act, he lays his Medal of Honour on his wife's grave, as he knows what he will be doing has no honour in it. He demands $100 million to serve as reparations of $1 million to each of the 83 Marines' families, with additional funds to safely get his comrades out of harm's way. He announces to the Marines aiding him that he will accept the consequences alone.

Sound like such a villain now? No, in fact, he actually comes off sympathetic to the audience, someone with a clear motivation not driven by greed or evil, but by a sense of injustice.

With all that in mind, let's analyse our antagonist with regard to his background, motivation, and personality traits. We've established his background as a black ops commander who's seen a lot of Marines die under his command, and who's reached his wit's end for solving this issue civilly or legally. He's seen as someone who clearly cares for his subordinates, as he's willing to engage in the capital crime of treason to see their memories honoured, and face this consequence alone. He's also shown to be a very charismatic and strong leader. His motivation is clear: compensate and bring closure to a number of grieving families.

When all three of those elements are fully-developed and combined, the result is a very memorable and compelling antagonist.

This formula applies to any antagonist in the Freespace universe as well: the GTI, the NTF, the HOL, the Shivans, pirates, mercenaries, the UEF, the GTVA, ad infinitum. A solid antagonist with a clear motivation, strong personality traits, and a known background can make or break a campaign.

Developing a Personality

While we're on the subject, allow me to demonstrate how personality traits alone can make a character (protagonist, supporting, or antagonist) close to the player or memorable.

In their review of The Phantom Menace, Red Letter Media did an exercise intended to demonstrate character strength through traits alone. I conducted a similar exercise with people who were familiar with different Freespace campaigns where characters were necessary for the story. The task I gave these people was to describe certain characters in these campaigns without saying what they looked like or what their role or profession in the campaign was. Basically, to describe these characters to someone that's never played Freespace.

Misuzu Stella (Wings of Dawn)

Happy-go-lucky, likes to play on people's nerves, very competitive, a show-off, a daredevil, insubordinate, reckless, a little stupid at times, flippant, very stubborn.

Mackie Aubrey (Derelict)

Has an obsession with duct tape, jaded, sarcastic, cynical, insubordinate smartass, slightly sardonic, but in the end, has a heart of gold.

Lorna Simms (Blue Planet: War in Heaven)

Strong, full of anger and hate, far on the dark side, dark and tough for the purpose of holding people together, troubled, and jaded emotional casualty of war who copes by being indifferent to others.

Sunder Marcel (Transcend)

Just an ordinary guy tossed into a situation he doesn't understand, has a strong mind to cope with the situation, puts up a fa├žade of leadership and sanity to keep others going.

Aken Bosch (Main FS2 Campaign)

Very charismatic, intelligent, and brilliant strategist. Shaped by a dark past. Callous and indifferent to others, including those under his command. Fully aware of the horror and evil of his actions, but convinced that his ends justify his horrible means. Essentially a monster, though a necessary one. Has a love for humanity as a whole, which is the driving force behind everything he does.

These traits were developed, not by the player being told by somebody, but by the player's experiences with these characters over the course of the different campaigns. Through Bosch's words, we can conclude he's callous and indifferent, as he refers to the NTF as an "army of stupid cattle", and how he leads thousands of his subordinates to their death in his race to the Knossos. Through Simms' interaction with Laporte, we learn how her anger and hate stems from watching her subordinates dying in droves in the war.

The more you can develop a character's personality without blatantly telling the player how to feel about them or how to think of the, the stronger that character will be. As players and as audiences, we like to be able to deduce for ourselves how to view a character. You can tell players through a command briefing how your antagonist is a hate-filled monster, but until we interact with this character or see others interacting, it means nothing to us.

Alright, So How Do I Make My Characters?

Well, there's a number of ways you can go about developing characters in Freespace.

Use Their Own Words

As is evident through Bosch's monologues, sometimes a character's own words can be enough to develop their personality. Most writers and FREDers in the community prefer to use Personal Logs or other self-reflections from the characters. This serves the purpose of allowing the player to see how a character views himself, and to show how a character develops internally over time. Noemi Laporte's personal logs over the course of War in Heaven are an excellent example of this.

Use Other People's Words

While other characters' words alone aren't enough to fully develop a character, they allow the player to see an outside perspective on a character; how others view them. The only way we know that Misuzu gets on others' nerves is by showing how they react to her flippant, happy-go-lucky behaviour. Some other examples: Transcend, referring to Sam Rikas: "Like I said, don't take it too personally. The guy you replaced, Joseph Chassil... he was a good friend of hers. From before she joined the 103rd, I mean." Freespace 2: "Yeah, that was Arthur Roemig's ship. Hard to believe he turned traitor."



Thanks go out to General Battuta, Snail, MatthGeek and BTA for helping out with the character exercise.