Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #55:

Interlude: Moments of Character

by Travis S. Casey
March 14, 2003

After twelve columns spent on mechanics, I thought I'd take a brief break to talk about something else. We'll get back to mechanics in a column or two, maybe three.

Role-playing is about characters. More specifically, it's about characterization — making a particular character seem alive, seem real. And even beyond that, we generally want our characters to seem interesting — not many people want to play a boring character! That in turn brings us to communication. It's not enough to come up with an interesting idea for a character; you have to get across to other people what's interesting about that character. So how do you go about that?

In a text-based mud, it's natural to take ideas from literature — and thankfully, there's lots of advice out there for writers on how to make characters seem real and interesting.

The first rule that most writing handbooks will teach you is this: Show, don't tell. Yeah, that sounds a bit odd when you're talking about writing, but let me explain. Telling is making bald statements about what the character is like. For example:

A college freshman, AJ wants to make a big impression, but he's just one of those people who never really seems to get noticed... and when he does get noticed, it's not usually in the way he wants, owing to his combination of clumsiness and bad luck. He also tends to talk to himself.

That tells us about the character, but it's not very interesting to read. More effective is to show things in a dramatic way. For example:

AJ walked up to the gym door, ready to go into the freshman mixer. He paused a moment to check his hair, put on a confident look, and then stepped forward, giving the door a hard push to make his entrance more dramatic.

Unfortunately for him, the door rebounded off the trash can that had been placed behind it, bouncing back and slamming into him, knocking him down. He gets up slowly, muttering to himself. "Way to make an entrance, AJ. What could be more embarrassing than falling down in front of everyone..."

He looks, and everyone's busily involved in their own conversations. No one's even looking his way. "Right. Getting knocked down by a door, and no one even notices, that's more embarrassing. Check."

This tells us the same basic things about AJ, but in a much more entertaining way. It makes AJ feel more real, and gives more of an immediacy to his character attributes than the simple description does.

Another thing to bear in mind is that everything is a chance to show things about a character. Consider a character walking. How does he/she walk? With a strut? Sauntering along? Does the character walk on a direct course, or meander? Where's the character looking? Straight ahead? Down? All around? Here's an example:

Gareth strode quickly through the crowd, head held high, walking straight, letting people get out of his way. Those who wouldn't move he shouldered aside.

And another:

Jenny moved through the crowd like a dancer, weaving in and out of the spaces. Her small form slipped easily through places where others could not go, letting her move through where they would be stuck waiting. But the one thing she never did was touch anyone.

Each of these descriptions tells us things about the characters — but the second one also does something else — it gives us a question. Why doesn't Jenny ever touch anyone?

Curiosity is one way to interest people in characters. Showing instead of telling can leave questions open — why does this character behave in this way? Especially if the behavior is unusual or is described in absolute terms, like Jenny never touching anyone in the bit above, it makes people wonder why. And that creates interest in the character — a desire to see more of this character so you can find out answers.

Of course, it's quite possible to go overboard — a "man of mystery" who we never get any solid clues about becomes boring. It's the finding of clues, piecing them together, and being rewarded with finding out something about the character which is fun.

Character Development

A good character should change over time — and I don't mean just in terms of getting better at what he/she does, although that can be part of it. The events that people go through change them, and the more significant the events, the more likely that changes will be major and lasting. The same should be true of characters in RPGs as well.

Again, it's best to show rather than to tell. A bald description, saying that so-and-so has changed, isn't very interesting. So how do you show change?

One common technique is repetition of situations — put the character in a situation, show how he/she reacts to it. Then, later, put the character in a similar situation, and show how he/she reacts to it now. There's your change. Beware making the situation too similar, however, and of overusing the technique — either one can make it overly obvious that you're deliberately doing this to show change in the character.

Repetition can also be used more subtly, though repeated contact with the same characters or things, but under a range of circumstances. Showing that a character has gained or lost respect for someone, or is now willing to stand up to someone who used to push him/her around, or any of a number of other changes — these can point to changes in the underlying personality of the character.

Another technique is a parallel character — introducing a character who is like this character used to be. As a literary device, that's easy — the author can simply insert a new character into the story. As a player in an RPG, however, it's not quite that simple; unless the game allows players to have multiple characters, you can't introduce a new character, and even if it does, creating and playing a new character just to make a point about your old one is a lot of extra work.

What can be done, though, is to look for other characters who are like your character was. That may be easy or hard, depending on your character and the game in question. For example, if your character started out as an eager young knight, but has become disillusioned, putting him/her in situations with characters who are still eager young knights will let you contrast their attitudes. This can work especially well if the eager young knights are people the character worked with before his/her attitudes changed.

Showing characters and how they change is one of the most interesting parts of roleplaying games, I think. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the forum!

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