Fleshed out character vs. AFGNCAAP

How do you decide who the main character is? How fleshed out do you try to go - do you provide a full background? Motivations? Intimate thought processes? What’s your thought process like when you create your IF protagonist(s)?

Do you find one or the other easier to deal with as a player or writer?

I think the term “AFGNCAAP” is unnecessarily cumbersome. In light of this, and recognizing that in any event there is a certain vagueness about exactly what defines (or doesn’t define) this type of character, I propose that we instead adopt the term “Featureless Undeveloped Character (Kinda).” This makes for a much shorter and more elegant acronym.

Robert Rothman

As a player, I generally prefer fleshed-out, strongly-characterised protagonists to AFGNCAAP, but it really depends on the nature of the work and the sort of audience you have in mind. Strong protagonists generally correspond to better writing: they give you more to work with, and they help provide motivation and direction for the player. (If you know that the PC is a scumbag, you’re more likely to try scumbaggy actions.) The major risk with a strongly-defined PC is that the player will react badly to them: a lot of people strongly dislike playing unpleasant characters, and a significant proportion dislike any characterisation of the PC whatsoever. But a lot of players will roll their eyes at AFGNCAAPs, or at least take them as strong indicators of weak writing and half-assed implementation.

If you don’t intentionally characterise a protagonist, they may become characterised unintentionally – which often means that they’ll come across to the player in ways you didn’t intend, and which may conflict with other things you’re trying to do. Even if you think you’re doing an AFGNCAAP, it’s worth thinking about what effects the rest of your game might have on implied character.

It’s considerably harder to do strong PC characterisation in sandboxy or self-definition-type games (Choice Of Games, Blue Lacuna).

I let the game decide for me, basically.

Whatever I think the specific game needs.

I think they’re equally easy/difficult.

I just go with the idea as it came to me. Sometimes the idea is a strongly-defined character and the plot arises from that. Sometimes you have the plot first and the character falls out of that. However, I always try to make the protagonist distinctive; that cuts a nice line between the rigors of being strongly-defined and the abyss of the generic character. More detailed characters are harder to write (but they always help you rule out certain verbs, so they’re worth it), but playing one is a mixed bag. Sometimes it sucks; sometimes it’s great. It all depends on whether I can stand the character.

I object to your phrasing, Poster! I object to a phrase, anyway. Specifically: the “abyss of the generic character”? Amnesiacs and their amnesia might be played out in IF, but there are situations where a genderless historyless characterless protagonist isn’t a problem. I am thinking about Myst here, but this is true of lots of other games where the environment or other characters are the real stars.

I separate the issue into categories: The PC’s perception, the PC’s abilities, and the PC’s motivations. If there are significant NPCs, I might also consider how they react to the PC’s personality. I think giving strong characteristics to everything but motivation is a pure win for the player. The problem comes in when the PC’s motivations don’t match those of the player. But smart use of game mechanics can usually bring these in line if there’s not too big a gap.

Some past experience here:

When writing One Eye Open last summer, Colin and I very deliberately removed as much characterization from our PC as we could. We minimized references to the PC’s background, removed all gender references, and never gave the PC a name.

In retrospect, I think this was a mistake. Some reviewers overtly expressed their preference for a stronger PC in the context of the game, and their objections made sense to me. We hoped that a faceless PC would help draw people into the PC’s position, but because of the nature of the game, there were some facts about the PC’s background and experience that reduced our ability for the PC to be truly faceless. (Also, though we worked to remove gender references as much as we could, the PC was gendered in our conversations, and I think that came through involuntarily.)

My PC in my current WIP is still nameless, but much more strongly characterized, and I’m interested to see whether reactions are favorable. (Of course, the game is also wildly different, so who knows…)