How to Write Characters for Social Simulations

Creating characters for a simulation can be simultaneously fun and frustrating. A social simulation succeeds or fails based on the plausibility of its characters, so creating realistic interaction can be a daunting task. Here are a few items to consider as you build your own story.

Don’t be afraid of Backstory

When you build a character, think about where that person comes from. Having more detail can help the character feel real to you and to the student. Answer the basic reporter questions to create your character’s story:

WHO are they?

Think about who you’ve encountered in similar circumstances. Consider the characteristics of the people in those experiences to highlight the objectives you want the student to achieve.

More specifically, you can use the answer to this question to address relevant personal factors unique to your character. Is there relevant professional backstory, such as how long the character has been in the position or how they perform their work? For example, a farmer who has graduated with an agricultural sciences degree may approach a problem differently than a farmer who inherited the job from a relative. Whether the character has kids or knows kung fu may also have a bearing on how they respond. Some of the information you sketch won’t be mentioned directly in the conversation, but may have an impact on that character’s personality and perspective.

WHAT do they do?

This talks more to your character’s professional (and sometimes relevant personal) interests. What is your character’s role in the company or the community? Can “what they do” include non-business interests that may have a bearing on your student’s ability to, for example, connect with the character?

WHAT is your student’s role in the conversation?

When you fully understand the student’s role in the simulation, it’s easier to imagine the character’s side of the conversation.

WHERE would they meet your student?

This question will generate information about the way your character may respond in the environment. A character will probably act differently in his or her office than in a café or even in your student’s office.

WHEN would the encounter take place?

Ask this question to find out when a conversation would likely take place. It may be a little detail to some, but to those who have similar real-world discussions, details matter.

WHY are they talking to your student?

Consider why the character is talking to your student. Are they dissatisfied with their current service experience? Are they looking for advice? Is your character forced to have this discussion by a superior? This will help you determine the motivation of your character and how willing he or she is to resolve the problem or even listen to what the student is trying to say.

HOW many people are involved in the encounter?

This information can affect how many characters you create for your scenario, as well as how your character may respond. Whether your character has the ability to make decisions without consulting with others may impact how he or she responds to your student. Also, keep in mind that the number of characters in a simulation doesn’t have to be one hundred percent realistic to the number the student will encounter in the scenario. What matters is that the simulation fulfills the objectives in a memorable way that helps the student retain the information.

Fail Forward

An important element that we try to incorporate into our work at NexLearn is encouraging the student to “Fail Forward,” especially when we’re creating simulations designed to teach new concepts. We want to make an experience challenging enough that the student will struggle with an encounter—and conceivably fail—at least on the first time through a simulation. Students typically remember more when more effort is required to achieve a goal.

Consider that your simulation doesn’t have to deal with an “average” encounter to teach the objectives. The challenge of a more difficult experience will prepare students to excel at all types of situations.

Act it out!

It may seem a little odd at first, but acting out and recording role play dialogue between subject matter experts may get you out of a rut if you are still having trouble creating a realistic scenario. Capturing that dialogue may give you inspiration for creating realistic conversations for your simulation.

Spending a little time thinking about the characters you’ll include in your simulation will pay off in greater retention and more willingness on your students’ part to participate in training.

About the Author: Sara Crow is an Instructional Designer at NexLearn. She has been creating characters since she described her imaginary friend's backstory to her mother when she was three years old. With an English degree and formal understanding of story and characters, a favorite part of Sara’s job is helping clients build interactive simulations with characters that feel real and dynamic dialogue that invests students in their learning experience.

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