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How to build secondary characters using your setting: Notes from Ghost of Tsushima (Part 1)

Hey friends! After a brief hiatus from writing articles, I'm back with a new series and a new project. At the beginning of the year, I kicked off a small project to study storytelling through video games. I started with Ghost of Tsushima, a game acclaimed for its storytelling, art direction, and voice acting. No doubt it has all of these things, but what struck me as particularly effective almost as soon as I started playing was its cast of characters, and it sent me down a rabbit hole of exploring cast design. While I have by no means finished my exploration of this topic, what follows are the notes and insights I've gained so far.


When I say cast design, I mean developing the cast of characters that surround your protagonist, from your major secondary cast all the way down to one-off characters who populate the environment.


For context, here is a brief summary of the game's premise: after the Mongol invasion of Japan in the 13th century, our protagonist, Jin, is on a mission to drive the Mongols out of his homeland. However, the overwhelming power of the Mongol forces requires Jin to betray his values as samurai and nobility if he has any hope of succeeding.


What's interesting, and so effective in the storytelling, is that everyone he meets is trying to survive in this environment proliferated by a foreign invader. Every single character you meet, from the main secondary cast to the miscellaneous people populating the towns, has experienced this event and is finding their own ways of coping.


This leads to the basic premise I've been working on, which involves two different approaches to cast design.


You can start from the setting.


Or you can start from the protagonist.


If you're feeling sneaky, you can start with one and use the other to finesse the details of your characters. We'll dive more into developing the cast from the protagonist and combining protagonist and setting in future posts.


I had already started on this idea of characters as a part of the setting awhile back, and you can see that post here. But I'm continuing to lean into the concept that people are products of or shaped by their environments (hello, anthropology background).


What Ghost has done so well is representing the fact that even people who come from or inhabit the same environments think, behave, and experience that environment differently. Many people honor Jin because he comes from a noble family. Perhaps just as many hate the aristocracy, especially those coming from regions that were "subdued" by the samurai during the shogun's unification campaign across Japan, and each of them has a memory or a reason that produces this perspective.


Thinking about how the characters in your story relate to the environment, and how that differs from or is similar to your protagonist, can give you a great start on developing distinctive characters that seem to have their own lives and thoughts. It's also a great way to generate allies and enemies that your protagonist will run into along the way.


Two of the prime examples from Ghost are Yuna and Kenji, both of lower classes with limited means of survival. While Jin is on a mission to drive the Mongols from the island, Yuna, who lived in Yarikawa during the samurai invasion to quash a rebellion, has no affinity for the island at all. Her only goal is to survive and protect her brother, and escape is the most expedient means of doing so. Her commitment to survival means that she also lacks Jin's obsession with the samurai code of honor, and acts as the first character to introduce Jin to covert combat. This mode of combat becomes imperative to defeat an antagonist who is wildly more powerful.


Kenji, a mischievous merchant, is a more minor recurring character who survives by selling sake to the Mongols, among a number of other enterprises of questionable legality. When Jin initially confronts him for fraternizing with the enemy, he replies, "I keep them drunk, they let me keep my head." Needless to say, whatever Jin's objections, Kenji's skills and connections become yet another critical resource in Jin's quest to overthrow the Mongols.


Both of these characters, not to mention many others, serve as a challenge to Jin's samurai ideals, which his noble status has enabled him to maintain until now. As Jin's world is increasingly shaped by invaders, he is forced to change.


Already, you can see how these characters engage both the environment itself, the events that take place within it, and the protagonist. Spun differently, you could turn these same characters into enemies, but notice how powerful they are as allies.


Think about your environment.

  • What are the key parts of your story's setting?

  • What key events have shaped that environment?

  • And who are the key people within your setting?

Limit this to the most important parts of the setting to keep you focused! Then start brainstorming the perspectives of your cast and compare and contrast it with your protagonist's.


Stay tuned for my next post, where we'll talk about developing your cast through the lens of events more specifically!


Want more story talk? Curious about storytelling in the video game medium? Got questions? Come join me on Twitch!


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