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Tips for writing better marginalized characters

Treachery in Beatdown City developer Shawn Alexander Allen offers advice for well-intentioned creators

As the games industry becomes more aware of representation issues in its games, it's become increasingly common for creators to feature marginalized characters in their games. Unfortunately, those marginalized characters aren't always handled well, and can come off more insulting than interesting or empowering.

To help writers with their attempts at including marginalized characters in the game, NuChallenger president and game design director Shawn Alexander Allen offered a few tips on respectfully writing marginalized characters in a presentation at the Game Developers Conference today.

End cis gender able-bodied white men as the default in your game

Allen said he's often heard in the industry that straight white men are just the most relatable characters to the largest portion of the audience, but he's never seen anything to really convince him of that. He pointed to the common images that circulate online compiling headshots of white protagonists from dozens of successful AAA games to underscore just how similar they typically are.

"It's kind of weird because these characters often play a big helping of generic archetypes," Allen said. "There's Sad, Depressed Dad. There's Angry War Guy. The Guy-who-is-supposed-to-be-Nathan-Drake-but-with-less-of-a-budget-and-a-completely-different-genre-with-a-much-worse-script-written-in-half-the-time-but-hey-Nolan-North-is-playing-the-character..."

Most of these characters aren't that interesting, Allen said, and the few that are interesting frequently aren't exactly laudable. He called Nathan Drake a manifestation of white imperialism, with a destiny to steal from other cultures and destroy stuff while doing it. Max Payne murders hundreds of Brazilians under the orders of other, lighter-skinned Brazilians. Michael from GTA V is a rich complainer whose inflated ego not only gets him into deep trouble but convinces him there's no problem in bringing the game's main black character into the mess he made.

Cover image for YouTube video

"My argument isn't really to just stop making white protagonists; you just need to get rid of making that the default in your head," Allen said. "You have to start working really hard to justify why you have to make a dude who's white. And if you take those steps to really justify why you're doing that, hopefully you're making a character that will be a lot better and won't just start murdering a bunch of brown people for the heck of it."

That's not to say white characters are dull. Allen held up three examples of more interesting white characters, all coincidentally made by Japanese developers: Dead Rising's Frank West, Deadly Premonition's Francis York Morgan, and Metal Gear Solid's Naked Snake. West is a critique of the modern media couched within a game critiquing the US beef industry, Allen noted, while Morgan is a unique ode to Twin Peaks. And Naked Snake is an anti-imperialist who hates the government so much he sets up his own military base in Africa.

Be specific about your characters, be detailed, and be deliberate.

It might sound obvious, Allen said, but even in a game light on text, you can make pretty compelling characters with just a few traits and choice quotes explaining who your characters are.

When Allen started working on Treachery in Beatdown City, he made the main characters he'd wanted to see in games. There's Bruce, a black man born of a Jamaican family who's a millionaire. He grew up in the projects and was good friends with a local Chinese family next door, who introduced him to anime. He excelled in math in school and used his smarts to play the stock market. A lot of those details are pulled from people Allen knows, and the other protagonists in his game have similarly involved stories reflecting diverse backgrounds and interests.

Beyond the heroes, he also focused on providing the game's enemies with a distinct variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, giving each one a one-page description of who they are.

"This helps me not only write their dialog, but also know what neighborhoods they should be in, what it means to not be in that neighborhood, who their preferred people to hang out with are, why would the cops come to help them, will the cops fight alongside them...," Allen said. "It makes for very interesting encounters that lead into the gameplay."

On the other end of the spectrum, Allen pointed to Cole Train from Gears of War, based on the Terry Tate Office Linebacker commercials from Reebok (Cole was voiced by the actor who played Tate, Lester Speight). Remarkably, Terry Tate was more developed in less than two minutes of commercials than Cole Train was in the first two Gears of War games, in Allen's estimation. Until then, Train was just a cartoonish black person.

"When you look at Terry Tate, he is a part of office culture, throwing birthday parties," Allen noted. "He is valued as a team member for his intelligence, which can be seen by him performing presentations. And yes, he tackles people, because he has to uphold civility in an often apathetic and thoughtless office world which lacks basic decency most of the time. He works because you wish you were him, or because you wish somebody like him were around."

Give your character a world view

"It might seem kind of obvious, but player characters' world views should be reflected by the world around them without them having to speak for all people," Allen said.

"[Mafia III's Lincoln Clay] is essentially not a person; he's just a shell for the players to use. He's a black man who murders and feels no remorse, which is a problem."

He pointed to Lincoln Clay in Mafia III, a game that he mostly liked, but had issues with.

"I can't get over the fact that he's very apolitical," Allen said. "Aside from a small handful of missions where he's real mad at really overt racism like the KKK, he's very in-the-middle about his feelings. He's basically John Cena. His beliefs are 'Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect,' and he won't kill women. Those are his only scruples in life.

"And that's pretty weird, because as a black man in the South in the '60s, he should be a lot angrier," Allen said. "And the fact that he doesn't reminisce enough about the war that just transpired, he doesn't have PTSD. It's like he forgot everything that's going on. He's essentially not a person; he's just a shell for the players to use. He's a black man who murders and feels no remorse, which is a problem."

We need more than two marginalized people in important roles in each game.

Marginalized people are not a monolith, Allen said. He pointed to the Fast and the Furious franchise (Furious 7, specifically) as a good example of diversity done right. The characters of Tej (played by Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) are both black members of a group of car thieves, but very different. Tej is an ace hacker and technical expert, while Roman is a bit of a coward who buys into toxic masculinity.

When they rescue a hacker they only know as Ramsey and discover the hacker is an attractive black woman, Tej and Roman both fall for her. When Roman says, "That's not what hackers look like," Tej responds, "What do hackers look like?" It's a brief scene, but it's still a discussion between two black men with checks and balances that manages to take down social norms about who hackers are supposed to be,

Stop murdering us to further the plot

Allen pointed to Watch Dogs 2, which drew plenty of praise for its black protagonist,Marcus. And while Allen was a fan of that character, he took issue with the supporting cast of Dedsec hackers. Specifically, there was just one other member of the Dedsec who was black, and he didn't last very long.

"Immediately after a discussion about racism in tech, the only other black person on the team is killed," Allen said. "His death doesn't matter. His life didn't matter. He is a one-dimensional character, basically there to be Deus Ex Blackina'd.

"He is murdered by this gang," Allen said, showing an image of the crew in question. "This gang is a less-than-one-dimensional Mexican gang that is basically just there to be the bad Mexican gang. Don't do that. You can't just write a black character and then just throw every other minority under the bus."

Avoid defining your characters by trauma and oppression

Allen used his own work as a cautionary example for this one. Treachery in Beatdown City is supposed to deal with fights that come from wrong-headed conversations, but in putting his characters together originally, Allen made the white characters symbols of gentrification and the brown characters symbols of hood mentality.

"If you define somebody by being poor, or being harassed, or by being brown, and the way people treat them, then you're just robbing them of their agency."

"That basically split them up into people of different economic status and social statuses, and that's really bad. If you define somebody by being poor, or being harassed, or by being brown, and the way people treat them, then you're just robbing them of their agency. And I was doing this."

He eventually did a review of all the characters, compared them to each other and the world he wanted them to inhabit, then decided it would be better to mix and match characteristics to make them all a little deeper.

Don't sub in replacements

As tempting as it might be to tell stories about race through proxies, Allen is not a fan of some commonly cited examples of that.

"MLK and Malcom X are not the same as Charles Xavier and Magneto, even though Marvel wants to tell you that Magneto was based on Malcolm X," Allen said. "Because Magneto can throw an aircraft carrier 1,000 miles across the world and blow up an atomic bomb, and Malcolm X just wanted people to start treating black people right. That was his end game."

He also took aim at Zootopia, the Disney animated film that explores racial animosity in a metropolis where different animals occupy different expected roles in the social order of things. One big reason the metaphor doesn't work for Allen is that people are all the same species.

"Black people aren't carnivores and white people aren't vegetarians," Allen said. "That's not the way it works."

Though time ran out on Allen's presentation at this point, he raced through one last point, saying developers shouldn't get white people to voice black characters.

"If someone at the top of a studio is telling you it's totally cool to put people in digital blackface, you need to take a stand about it," Allen said. You might have to quit. You might have to rally. You might have to do something."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.