What makes a good NPC?
It is tempting to say, "a funny voice". That's only half-facetious. In my experience, a funny voice is often what makes an NPC memorable. But let's go deeper, because otherwise this will be a very short post.
Certain writers have an aptitude for writing good supporting characters - people who feel like, well, people, even though they aren't the main focus of the story. Jack Vance was notably good at this. (If it feels like I'm writing a lot about Vance recently, it's because I'm currently half-way through a quest to read or re-read all his work.) Everyone who appears in a Jack Vance book, right down to the lowliest hotel receptionist, tramp, waiter or shopkeeper, feels like they could be the main character of their own novel, and it is only happenstance that this particular story is focused on somebody else. This technique reaches its apogee in the Alastor books, which have a setting writ large across thousands of inhabited worlds, with a population in the trillions; one almost gets the sense, reading these novels, that Vance was simply plucking one of those trillions at random and writing their life story, and except for a different result on the d1000000000000 it could have been another person entirely.
George RR Martin, however, is also a dab hand at achieving this sensation; it is not just his viewpoint characters who feel "real", but the incidental mooks too - all of whom tend to have wills and motives of their own. (One of the things I still like about A Song of Ice and Fire is that what happens to people like Hot Pie, Polliver and Rorge actually seems to matter.) And it's intrinsic to good crime fiction also; any crime writer worth her salt knows how to craft characters with desires and plans, as it is the interaction between those different purposes that often produces the mystery.
(Other writers either cannot pull this off, or do not intend to. Tolkien, whose characters are mostly just walking archetypes, is the obvious example of the latter category [it is committing a category error to complain that none of the dwarves in The Hobbit appears to have genuine agency, other than Thorin - they're not supposed to]; China Mieville, who simply seems to lack interest in human beings, is the one that comes to mind with regard to the former.)
When trying to create good NPCs, then (and I do not lay claim to be a special expert in this regard), one can do worse than simply trying to bear the basic motto in mind: an NPC is a PC in his or her own campaign. Every single human being who you meet in life is living their own story, and has their own purposes and their own will. This is what gives real people their vitality, and there is no reason why imaginary people will not also feel vital if they are imagined to be following their own path in exactly the way that real people do.
Steven King is excellent at this, at least in his early writings (I haven't read any of his stuff from the last decade or so). It's one of his strengths as a writer/storyteller.ReplyDelete
I remember some awesome examples on the Dark Tower IIDelete
I remember some good examples of this on the Dark Tower II, yeahDelete
Agreed. In my experience, a funny voice helps me to find and flesh out an NPC's character and backstory too.ReplyDelete
Also, I find NPCs that really sing are those that have differential interactions with the party, reacting negatively to one PC in particular, and/or palling up others.
That's a very good point. A party of PCs gets treated as a corporate entity for purposes of social interactions far too often IME. Sometimes you see an NPC who reacts better or worse to specific classes or races (or ancestries, or heritages - boy this is going to get hard to talk about as we keep adding terms) in the group, but even then a "face" character tends to define things more often than not. Which is weird - no matter how charming that bard is, the racist ork-hater NPC ought to be having issues with the bard's orc barbarian pal standing quietly in the background.Delete
The game that builds this in best, I think, is RuneQuest. The classic modules (Pavis, Big Rubble, etc., Apple Lane, etc.) are rich in NPCs with motivations of their own that are usually neither in alignment with nor in opposition to the interests of the PCs. And that sets them up for much more interesting interactions than the conventional "with us or against us" dynamic.ReplyDelete
As I run our D&D party through Pavis and Big Rubble (just imagine the groans as I converted their stats to RQ and 54 hit points became 14!), I'm consistently impressed by how often the characters surprise me in how they interact with NPCs. A huge part of that is how the NPCs' motivations interact with all the moving parts of the setting: its cultures, its political groupings and - especially - its cults.
Well noted! I'd disagree somewhat about Miéville: I think his books vary greatly in this regard. The first two Bas-Lag novels and maybe Kraken are full of characters who could each easily be a protagonist of their own story, while The City & the City and Embassytown not so much. And for the first quarter or so of The Iron Council we are tracking a journey of a bunch of dudes without even learning their names and personalities.ReplyDelete
I think part of Vance's effectiveness stems from how real even his most exotic settings and cultures feel. His minor characters fit logically within the worlds they inhabit, and even the ones who clash with their own cultures feel like they have personal grounds for doing so. You can generally imagine how they'd react to one another even if they never do so in the course of the story.ReplyDelete
In contrast, the world-building in many RPGs leaves NPCs feeling like they're strangers to one another and only exist to occupy a narrow niche that the players interact with them through. Makes them far less convincing as people, although games seem to be getting better about avoiding this pitfall over time.
A funny voice could also means a peculiar wording or way to speak. The master of making such voices is Gene Wolfe, and the Long Sun is a great textbookReplyDelete
Vance is pretty good at that as well. So is Rex Stout, if we take a stroll over to the mystery genre - Wolfe and Goodwin are the standouts, but almost all of the recurring characters have their own distinct style of speech, as do many of the one-shots. The guys was hot stuff when it came to writing dialog.Delete