This is Part 3 of a multi-part series that discusses how to write effective characters for video games. Find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Continuing our Writing Characters series, today we will discuss the importance of character gimmicks.

What is a Character Gimmick?

A "gimmick" has come to be known in the gaming industry as a shallow and easy way of drawing attention by giving a thing different characteristics and making it stand out. However, the word itself really means something that separates or distinguishes a thing from the rest of the group. It didn't have the negative connotation of "being shallow" or "easy to use" until the gaming industry started abusing the word.

So, when I say Character Gimmick, I don't mean that it is an easy and shallow way of giving your character personality. A Character Gimmick is any property that separates a character and makes them unique.

Gimmicks are mostly popular in character design than in writing. Buster and his big sword, Bayonetta and her sentient hair, the Pyramid Heads of Silent Hill with their head shaped like a pyramid, etc., are all examples of character gimmicks in action. These distinct characteristics give all of them a unique identity.

Gimmicks in writing, however, are rare but equally effective. We will be discussing two such examples and what makes them so effective.

What is a Bad Character Gimmick?

I will not be looking at a bad character gimmick example in this blog because the poorest character gimmick is no character gimmick. So, the absence of a gimmick is the worst gimmick of all.

Many villain characters labelled as "generic" are examples of unused potential. All major story characters need to stand out, not only in design but also in their backstories and personalities. Furthermore, bad character gimmicks are defined by not making the characters stand out. So, the characters with bad gimmicks are those that you don't remember after completing a game.

So, let's look at some great ways of making your characters memorable.

Handsome Jack - Borderlands 2 and 1.5

Handsome Jack is the face of Borderlands 2, where he serves as the main antagonist. In Borderlands: The Pre Sequel, he starts out as a manipulative "ally" who turns evil at the end. His character gimmick is that he is a psychopath with manic tendencies with a long history of abuse and trauma.

He possesses many character traits that separate him from a generic "crazy" antagonist.

  1. His craziness is nuanced in a way that makes him manic. It's not just doing random things for the sake of chaos. Therefore, he cannot be put into the same category as a "crazy" villain who wants to watch the world burn.
  2. He has a range of personalities. He can laugh, get angry, express his frustration, insult you, and express a wide range of emotions while still sticking to the gimmick of being an unhinged psychopath. There is a dimensionality to his gimmick that makes him unique in every emotion he conveys.
  3. While being crazy is a part of his personality, his wit and charm almost make him seem harmless. Meanwhile, his part in the story is consistent with how he was able to manipulate people with good intentions to do his bidding. He genuinely believes he is a good guy, which, again, separates him from other villains.

Let's look at another "crazy" villain to see how their individual gimmicks make them stand out despite their similarity in personality.

Vaas Montenegro - Far Cry 3

Like Handsome Jack, Vaas Montenegro is the face of Far Cry 3, where he serves as the antagonist. He is a pirate band leader addicted to drugs and violence. His character gimmick is that he seems to be a sadist and a psychopath, with a dark sense of humour and a deep infatuation for his sister.

Here's how his gimmicks make him different to Handsome Jack.

  1. His sense of humour is completely different. Vaas jokes only when he knows he is on top of the situation, but he is seldom self-deprecating. Vass has a huge and unfaltering ego, even when compared to a guy named "Handsome" Jack. A man so obsessed with himself that he feels like his romantic feelings can only be directed towards his sister is terrifying.
  2. His range of personalities does not follow a logical path. Unlike Jack, who you can see going through the range of emotions regularly, you never know what the tone of Vaas' next line is going to be. He almost seems to be disconnected from the world and in his own bubble.
  3. Vaas is dangerous, and his humour and personality do not make him look safe. While he shared these qualities with Jack, Vaas' dark humour makes you fear his mental state, and his distinct inability to fake an emotion means that you are always on your toes. Vaas is intense and forgiving, while Jack is methodical but slightly more humane.

Use Gimmicks in Moderation!

While I did mention that the worst character gimmick is no gimmick, this doesn't necessarily mean that all your characters need to be distinct from each other. Save the most interesting gimmicks for the most important characters – this way, they will get noticed and remembered when the game is over.

Be it a mad scientist who is out to save the world or a tortured artist that wants to be left alone, character gimmicks give video game worlds colour in wonderful ways.

Take care, and I'll see you in the next one, where we will talk about the final aspect of a character's writing – their significance in the story.