Improve character dialogue – take your character interactions to the next level!
Tight writing is the stuff that memorable RPGs are made of, and good characters are the stuff that fandoms are made of. It’s the stuff that we remember long after the game’s ended…we may not remember events or battle systems very well, but if a character truly resonates with us, we won’t forget them easily.
One of the limitations of an RPG format, though, is that we have a system where “getting into a character’s head” can be awkward and unintuitive. That’s where sparkling dialogue comes in – the gateway to understanding a character on a deeper level.
If you feel like your writing isn’t quite where you’d like it to be, why not take a look at some of the following tips to improve character dialogue? I see a lot of these problems even in large-scale commercial games. Let’s study their shortcomings and make our games the best they can be.
Tips to Improve Character Dialogue
Generally speaking, everything that’s said and done should make the player understand your world a little better somehow.
This is the basis of communication – understanding.
Whether the goal is to explain to the player what to do next (ie, advance the story) or help the player understand why a character is doing something (ie, character development) everything should point toward development of the overall world.
King: Go forth, hero, and slay the dragon.
Hero: Yes, your highness, but first, let me tell you about my pet cat…
Are you writing a comedy? Run with it. Otherwise, aim to remove anything that is pointless and doesn’t really tell you anything about something that’s going on in the world itself.
The old classic. You’d think with such a visual medium like RPGs, this would be intuitive, but oftentimes it’s not. How many times have you started a game only to be greeted by page after page of “in the beginning of the world…” or “there was a big war, and…”
A lot, amirite?
You don’t actually need to do this, believe it or not. If it matters to your story, you can fit it in seamlessly within the story itself. Show the effects dramatic events had on the little guy rather than telling me about it…this creates sympathy by seeing big things impacting a small, relatable scale.
This also applies to dialogue. Don’t spend time having a character give a long detailed account of such-and-such occurring unless there’s no other way to obtain the information.
Let the situation be part of the mystery for a bit…players are generally smart enough to piece things together if you’ll just let them find the data on their own and give them motivation to do so.
This will help alleviate “wall of text” syndrome, shifting part of the burden of storytelling onto the maps themselves and giving them more meaning and the player will gain additional reasons to explore.
And definitely don’t have them repeat to a character what a character should already know.
NPC: Now I know you’ve lived here in the town of Backwater all your life, Hero, but here, let me tell you about the local religion, as if you’ve never heard it before, for the information of the player.
Hero: But I already know…
NPC: No you don’t.
Hero: 🙁 *must listen now*
This is something I see a lot both in homebrew games and commercial games and it baffles me. It’s the idea that if there’s a conversation, every party member needs to participate…even if the situation has nothing to do with them.
Hero: So, about that dragon we’re gonna slay.
Ally Female Character That’ll Invariably Become the Love Interest: Yeah, we need to get rid of that thing!
Third Party Character from the Town Burned Down by Said Dragon: It’s terrible! We should kill it!
Uninvolved Guy Across the Room: Yeah!
Hero: It should be in the caves nearby.
Female Ally: I don’t like caves! Let’s get rid of them!
Third Guy: Caves are bad.
Random Enemy: I just wanted a word in here since everyone else was talking.
Hero: So…we going or what?
When there’s a group of people, generally, only a couple of people are actually conversing at any time. Given the high drama of most RPG situations, it should probably only be the people who are most affected by the situation, or are most empowered to do something about it. The others need to take a backseat and wait for their scenarios to arise.
In real life, people have bland conversations all the time. No one really notices this. In fiction, however, we don’t really have the liberty of wasting time on the trivialities of the characters’ lives. What we could do, though, is interrupt it with unexpected dodges and twists. Use every opportunity to show more about the characters.
Hero’s mom: *comes in the room* Good morning, Hero.
Hero: Good morning, mom.
Hero’s mom: Breakfast is ready
Well, that was boring. Let’s try it again.
Hero’s mom: *comes in the room* Good morning, Hero.
Hero: *busy working* Huh? What?
Hero’s mom: Breakfast is ready.
Hero: *still busy working* Okay, I’ll take out the trash in a few minutes.
*Hero’s mom walks away in exasperation.*
Which scenario told us more about the characters? These little exchanges are excellent opportunities to add personality and to slide in little details that can become important later.
This is a personal request. Please don’t do this.
If I’m supposed to deliver a mysterious package to the town of Overthere, please, please don’t highlight Overthere in red or pink or any other color. Don’t highlight the stuff I’m supposed to do. Don’t highlight the names of people I’m supposed to talk to.
When game designers do this, I can’t help but think, “do they think I’m dumb?” To me, if this is necessary, it’s because there has been a failure to properly draw in and inform the player.
Arguably, it could be said that those who skim text will miss the objective without the highlight, but to that I can’t help but wonder, “if you aren’t reading, why are you playing an RPG?”
Chances are, your party comes from different walks of life. Most RPG heroes tend to be an eclectic mix of individuals with unique professions and possibly even different nationalities. It makes perfect sense, then, that the characters would have different ways of expressing themselves depending on their backstory, ethnicity, and so on.
Try a test: write a conversation between two of your characters. Can you tell who is who without dialogue tags? If not, it might be worthwhile to think up some subtle differences to distinguish one character from another, to give them a unique “voice.”
“I’ma gonna bash in that troll’s ‘ead with my trusty club here.”
“Good sir, I would greatly appreciate it if you did not attempt to randomly converse with me while I am in the middle of reading.”
“Aww, but I wanna come along on your quest. Pretty please?”
What assumptions do you automatically make about each character based only on the way they spoke above? Length of sentence, diversity of words, and slang are each important considerations. (And if you’re really bold, make up your own slang for each of your world’s regions, if that’s appropriate for your setting.)
Every little bit builds separation between your important characters.
These are little devices that can be used with power, but only sparingly. I’ve played a few games and visual novels where, for some odd reason, ellipses (…) were used like a spacer between scenes or events.
I’ll be honest, I’ve been guilty of this one myself.
A better context might be an uncomfortable silence. Did the prior event actually give a character reason to pause? If not, best to skip it altogether.
Like all dialogue, these pauses should mean something. Each single-word text box means another annoying click or button press for the player.
Similar for words like “Yeah.” Unless there’s a weighty reason a character has only one word to say…or perhaps you’re trying to convey that a character is extremely short of words…it might be better to build up the text box with additional meaning or remove it entirely. Make each text box matter!
Don’t have characters use names all the time.
I’m in the process of playing a game right now that does this. Even though the characters know each other well, and may have even been conversing for a bit already, they call each other by name in mid-conversation.
“Hi Ally. How are you today?”
“Great, Hero. Thanks for asking.”
“Want to go slay a dragon, Ally?”
“Sure, Hero. Are we leaving right away?”
Right, that’s…er, natural. It only adds unnecessary words and doesn’t at all flow like a realistic conversation would. Not that a lot of people have had conversations about slaying dragons, but you get the idea.
You’ve probably heard silence is golden. In the same way, it’s best not to info-dump and reveal too much about certain characters too quickly…primarily through their dialogue.
If you, for instance, have a villain character disguised as a good guy, it’s probably best that they say less rather than more to keep from alerting your players that something is wrong…unless you want to do that, of course. For some characters, the best course of action is a slow drip of details that’s just enough to pique curiosity.
The mysterious fellow with the tragic backstory is another good case of this; first of all, he wouldn’t talk about his problems upfront or even hint about them much. Second, you can gently string the player along until you finally give them the payoff in the form of the whole story. Just make sure the mystery is worthwhile.
Another problem in a couple of games I’ve played recently; the tendency to unnecessarily labor over a point.
King: All right, Hero. I want you to cross the river to defeat the dragon.
Hero: Yes, your highness. I’m on my way.
King: That’s across the river. You go north. Through the city wall and…
Player: *not really reading anymore and just wants to find the dragon so button jamming ensues*
*ten minutes later*
King: …and then you’ll arrive at the lair of the dreaded beast.
Hero: *is asleep*
Player: PLEASE JUST GET ON WITH IT AND LET ME GO.
If your game design is any good, just give ’em a rough direction and let ’em go. They’ll figure it out.
First drafts are never any good. It’s just one of those cold hard facts and it’s hard to get around. When you’re making your first pass through your game’s script, there will be things you won’t know yet. You won’t know exactly how your characters react to a certain circumstance and you’ll be in the “dark” just a bit.
Things will roll out differently than your outline (if you have one).
You might not know exactly how the story ends or even who’s left alive.
Rewrites are powerful in that once your first draft is done, you do have this knowledge, and you can use it to your advantage to go back and sharpen everything that doesn’t focus on the ultimate point of the story…whether it’s the character development or the worldbuilding itself.
Take the opportunity to really polish and shine the way each character expresses themselves so that they fit the total image of what you know they become in the end.
Definitely don’t neglect rewriting. You may discover all kinds of hidden gems you didn’t realize were there on the first pass.
Edit. Edit. And Edit Again.
On a more technical note than the aesthetically-pleasing rewrite is the humble edit. If the first draft is batter, and rewriting is the cake, editing is the icing. It’s one thing that will take your game to the next level…mainly because the absence of good editing cuts it down.
Nothing looks more homebrew than poorly-written sentences and bad punctuation (except, perhaps, a title screen written in bright yellow Comic Sans font). Grammar varies by character, but make sure your sentences are well-formatted and everything is spelled correctly. If you aren’t sure, ask someone who does know to help you edit your work.
I’ll be honest with you…if I start a game and it looks like this:
Hero: I, am going to the forest to search 4 hiden treasure!!!
You can bet a fine set of mythril armor I’m going to shut that game down and do something else. Like clean the toilet, maybe.
This isn’t exactly about dialogue, per se, but cutscenes in general. It’s analogous to the idea that in novel-writing, you don’t consistently write dialogue without breaking it up with a bit of action. Characters seldom stand totally still when carrying on a conversation in fiction; it’s understood that little gestures liven up your understanding of who they are.
“Want some coffee?” he said.
“Yes, please,” she said.
“Want some coffee?” He offered her a cup.
“Yes, please.” She took it with an unsteady hand.
Now, let’s apply this same logic to cutscenes.
Hero: Let’s go slay that dragon!
Ally: B-but…I’m afraid of dragons.
Hero: Huh? You are?
During this, no one is noted as moving. Can we enrich the experience by possibly swapping out some sprites and adding some movement?
Hero: (change sprite to fight pose) Let’s go slay that dragon!
Ally: (looking away from Hero) B-but…I’m afraid of dragons.
Hero: (standard pose, question balloon icon) Huh? You are?
Just a tiny bit of motion adds a lot to this scene and reveals personality. It does take time to set move routes and custom poses, but it can truly be worthwhile in the end.
And if you’re really not sure about a scene, why not try acting it out?
Find a buddy who’s interested in your work and try roleplaying one of the scenes out loud. It won’t be perfect and it doesn’t have to be. But if the dialogue sounds awful coming out of your mouth or your loyal buddy’s mouth, it’s not going to sound much better in the game. And if they can’t stop laughing…might be time for a rewrite. 🙂
There we go, a handful of tips that we hope helps you to improve character dialogue and make more lifelike, memorable characters. Did you find anything in this article that might help you take your character dialogue to the next level? Do you have any other tips that might help aspiring writers? Let us know in the comments section!