Creating established character relationships

Some writing craft chat for your Saturday…,

I love in interactive fiction how as an author you can shape MC/NPC relationships even before the time in the game. I particuarly felt the bond between my MC and Rory in Tally Ho, Dev in Heart of the House, Oscar and Roshan in Asteroid Run, AJ in Sixth Grade Detective, Wakefield in Choice of the Deathless, Finch in A Study in Steampunk, and Alexandre in The Eagle’s Heir.

I’m doing this in a few varied ways in Royal Affairs: because the MC is so important in the setting, I wanted them to feel as embedded in society as they would in-universe.

Royal Affairs character craft details
  • Asher has a longstanding relationship with the MC but is also with them for a very large chunk of the story. I wanted to show this history but use a light touch so that players can fill in the blanks with imagination rather than trying to cover everything from the MC’s early life. Asher interactions are therefore put at the forefront of the first chapter; they’re the first character the player encounters. Asher is also a vehicle for a couple of the MC-definition choices - in particular the Queen saying “look after my son/daughter/child”, and it’s through Asher that you access the memory of your siblings fighting that leads to deciding your highest stat. This is intended to highlight the constant presence that Asher has been for the MC. But it’s through the player’s choices in the present that the current relationship is established and developed.

  • You know Dominique already, and I let players choose how they feel about them and how they’ve interacted before: friendly, non committal, antagonistic, or romantic. With Dominique the relationship can vary a lot: I want the player to be able to state how they’ve interacted before, and there’s more variation in how the relationship will play out. This reflects Dominique’s personality: they are pretty chilled out about how they move through the world and tend to be a people-pleaser. At the start, at least, they’ll imprint on someone and be pretty responsive to whatever way the other person behaves.

  • Javi has much more of a specific shape and emotional journey than Dominique and has a much more headstrong, strong-minded personality. As a firm rivals-to-friends/romance character, I wanted to establish straightaway a past interaction that sets the tone for the relationship. There would be no sense having a choice that was “we had a nice chat and everything was fine” but I wanted to give some control to players about how this antagonistic interaction took place. So choosing the way in which Javi was antagonistic to you at Rosario’s wedding is a way of ceding narrative control as an author, giving players a sense of personalising their character, while still keeping the emotional tone intact.

  • In Chapter 4 I’m doing the exact same thing as Javi for a non romanceable character who hasn’t appeared yet, but the opposite tone. For this character, I want to show a long-standing sense of care and affection towards the MC, so I’m giving a set of options about a particular caring thing they did for the MC when the MC was a child. The player can say something about their own character through this choice, and then once we’re in the present, can state how they feel about this NPC now - embarrassed, nostalgic, stifled, affectionate, etc.

I’d love to know how you feel about characters where the MC has a history with them before the events of the game. Like them? Dislike them? Are there times you’ve played something and it really felt like your character knew them even though you’d just “met” them as a player?

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Generally speaking, I like it when authors put things like these in their stories, but I have noticed some exceptions. And said exceptions are when MC and said character are ennemies / rivals / hate each other.
That’s because I almost always have MCs that are nice and caring, and veeeery diplomatic, always trying to have at least cordial relationships with people. And sometimes the narrative makes it seem like the enmity is really heated between MC and that character, and suddenly it feels OOC, especially if the game actually allows the player to have a very nice and mild mannered MC in the present time. Of course, it’s okay if MC has changed a lot at some point, because of some trauma or whatever.

So yeah, as long as it’s written carefully so it won’t feel OOC one way or another, I like it!

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i enjoy it! both reading And writing it. the big reason is because you can write a variety of routes for different characters. for example, you can have your MC dislike two characters, but if one of those characters started off as a friend and the other was one they met midway through the story, different challenges and dynamics are presented for those relationships.

i also think it makes the MC feel less left out of the wider narrative, in the way that they have a defined place in their universe and aren’t just there witnessing the other characters being friends and enemies of each other while MC is just meeting them (unless the plot is that the MC is joining a new group of people, for any reason). they Did have a backstory before the game, after all, and it makes it more realistic to give them some lifelike details and let the player take the reins on their pre-existing life rather than just building them up from nothing. it doesn’t make sense for them to just appear in their universe without knowing at least someone, unless that’s what the novel is about.

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When I was writing my game for the Halloween jam, I found it both rewarding and difficult to write the interactions between the MC and their ex.
Rewarding, because it’s really nice to be able to write a deeper relationship, with more nuances, that isn’t just limited to having just met the person.
The difficulty comes in letting the reader still have a say in how the relationship is, and not alienating them by forcing into a dynamic they can’t see themselves in.
In contrast, every character introduced so far in my old WIP are someone the MC already knows, but I feel more comfortable deciding their relationship with MC, because they aren’t RO’s, and aren’t going to really play a part in the rest of the story.

I am definitely going to have established relationships in most of the WIPs I’m working on, and will create in the future.

As a reader, I enjoy my MC having a past, and people they know, but if a relationship with someone is going to play at least a tiny part in the story, I want to have some say in how my character feels about the character in question.

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I’d say that making a character have a relationship with an NPC is all part of making the story more natural and immersive. However, if you’re making me in a romantic relationship or being someone’s ex or having someone as a friend or an enemy, I’d like to choose the circumstances that led to that.

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My favorite example of established relationships are where you get to choose the relationship with the character. The Odessa Dating Games with Odi/Odanna and Wayhaven Chronicles with both your mother and Bobby are the only examples I can think of right now. I also really enjoyed being able to change the relationship with your mother as the story went on. Some characters you end up disliking after getting to know them, so it’s nice that you don’t have to stick with a certain relationship. Plus, I generally just enjoy relationships that grow and change over time.

I wouldn’t say that I dislike established relationships where you don’t get an option to define the relationship, but the characters always seem far less impactful to me when I don’t have the option. It could be a coincidence of writing or characters I just didn’t enjoy, but that’s just my thoughts on it. The only example I can think of that I enjoyed an established relationship was with Jun/Junko in Samurai of Hyuga, but you also get options to define your feelings and relationship with them as the story goes on, so that could have deepened my enjoyment of interacting with the character.

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I’m the same with unwanted rivals (although it’s fine if I can choose to be rivals, or if it’s one-sided from the other character’s side), I just… don’t like being forced to hate a character I don’t hate.

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I really like when there are characters with established relationships to the MC, for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, it’s an opportunity for player choice with high emotional payoff. It feels more impactful to decide the context of an MC-NPC relationship than say the MC’s drink of choice. (Not to be down on choices like that, I also like when those are included, I just mean they serve a different purpose.) The text doesn’t even necessarily have to react very much to the choice, if I’ve been primed to view a relationship as friendly/antagonistic/etc, the imagination does a lot of filling in of tone and implicit meaning without having to strictly call it out in dialogue or narration. For example the Wakefield dialogue can read quite differently depending on how you view the relationship: are they genuinely condescending, just teasing, or being flirty?

I agree with the point about how having established relationships helps to embed the MC within the world. I’ve played some stories where the MC felt extraneous to the core cast, who all had existing relationships with each other. The MC-NPC relationships weren’t as compelling as the NPC-NPC ones, kind of felt like playing a third wheel. Not that I don’t think the MC-as-outsider thing can’t work, I’ve also read stories that do that very effectively (Wayhaven!)

I also like how an established relationship can allow the author to play with the pacing of a romantic relationship. In Tally Ho there’s a number of points at which the MC can realize they’re in love with Rory and I like how that changes the feel of the relationship. It can be a long-simmering love that finally boils over, or a shock of realization, or a number of other things. Same romance route, different flavours.

In the ‘What makes you fall in love with an NPC?’ thread, a common theme has been It’s All About the Yearning, and what could be more yearn-y than your MC being in love with a character before you even pick up their story?

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I’m keeping an eye on this thread as its an important topic. Especially as all of my potential next games will feature established characters in some form or another but will allow for customisation.

Personally I don’t mind established characters as long as we get some input on how the relationship is.

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Personally, I like it. Unless the MC just got teleported to Jupiter or some strange place, established relationships help ground the MC in their world, and shows that they have their place among all the characters. They’re another cog in the universe like all the others, instead of an outsider passing through without interacting (until the game starts, anyway). I am obsessed with making up backstories, so that’s that, too.

I haven’t seen this happen in any CoG stories before, but pushing it too far the other way and the MC not having a say in the relationship will likely annoy me, too. Author’s favouritism?

To be honest, this isn’t something I’ve given much thought to before. I’m sorry if I’m hijacking the thread here. My MC has a brother who he is close to at the beginning of the story. This is required to set up the plot. I hope this doesn’t sound too shoehorned? Three years would have passed in-game before the MC sees him again.

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I like them, when the relationship is well explained and not just “there”. The only ocasion when i dislike this is when the MC character already have a romantic relationship or a rival where i have no input. Personally, if these relantioships are important to the plot, i can accept them, but i love when the author give us some choice, like you did with Javi.

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