Testing Characters, with a Look at Battlestar Galactica
by Shannon Appelcline
For the last few years my occasional articles have mostly concentrated on mechanics--whether they be the mechanisms underlying reality TV shows or the methodologies necessary to create collective choice. However, Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities has always been about all aspects of game design, and so this week I want to return a slightly older topic: storytelling.
Storytelling is, of course, what's at the heart of less mechanistic games such as the roleplaying games that we run at Skotos. Several years ago we published a five-part series called The Elements of Good Storytelling which highlighted the building blocks required for storytelling: characters, settings, plots, and backstory.
I've talked about all of these various elements under the general topic of development, but characters are one element that I've given pretty slight focus to. I wrote one article on Heroic Characters, a second on Monstrous Archetypes, and a third on the Transcreation of characters. However, those were all pretty specific articles, talking about characters in those three scenarios without offering general guidelines for designing characters into your games (or your fiction or any sort).
And, there's a reason for that. Characters have always been somewhat a weakness of mine. It's ironic, because I've been roleplaying for almost 30 years, and that hobby is all about submerging yourself in characters. I even think I've created some vivid characters in that time, people who I could visualize and understand. However, when it comes to writing fiction of mine own--as opposed to participating in someone else's world--I get carried away by plot and backstory, and as a result characterization sometimes takes a back seat.
But this last week, I've been looking at improving the characterization in a piece that I'm writing, and in doing so, I started to muddle over a TV show that I think has great characterization: the modern Battlestar Galactica. I think it offers some good lessons for how to create great characters, lessons that you and I alike could learn from, so I offer them up today.
Making Great Characters
In her Elements of Good Storytelling series, my wife Kimberly wrote a whole article about characters called Creating Vivid Characters. She provides a long list of ways to define characters, among them: name, appearance, props, mannerisms, actions, grammar, vocabulary, exclamations, humor, attitude, and objectives.
I think it's very important to know all those things about a character, but on the other hand if you have only that list you may not know where to start. I mean, it's a lot to try and balance.
And that's what's led me to look at Battlestar Galactica, because I think its writers use a different method to primarily define their characters. Though I'm certain that the writers of Battlestar Galactica have lots of info about their characters in their character bibles, I think they also define their characters in another simple, but meaningful manner: through active personality traits.
I use the term "personality traits" carefully. It's drawn from Greg Stafford's groundbreaking tabletop roleplaying game King Arthur Pendragon. Therein Stafford defines knights by pairs of opposed personality traits, such as "Just / Arbitrary" and "Honest / Deceitful". The game is filled with dilemmas which require players to "test" their traits and thus further define their characters.
Though you could define a character through any number of personality traits, some important and some not, it's the active ones that you want to concentrate on. These are the ones that are tested regularly, and thus really define a character. And, as we'll see, there's a lot of testing going on in Battlestar Galactica too.
The Battlestar Example
Battlestar Galactica takes a step beyond simple character descriptions by creating characters that are regularly in conflict with themselves. This is done, of course, with active personality traits. Though these active personality traits may only be part of each character's characterization, they're very powerful.
What follows is a look at some of the characters in Battlestar Galactica and how their active personality traits have been defined. It contains spoilers up to episode 13 of season 4, which was broadcast last week. If you're familiar with Battlestar Galactica or not, it should contain some good examples of character definition.
Karl "Helo" Agathon. Helo got me started in writing this article when someone over at RPGnet said that his character bible must say, "Always does the right thing." To bring that into my idea of active personality traits, I'd say that the center of Helo's character is morality.
We first saw this in season 1 when Helo decided that he couldn't kill Sharon despite learning that she was a cylon. However, I think the most powerful example of Helo's morality occurred when he stopped the Galactica from spreading a virus which would have wiped out most cylons. In both cases, Helo turned against what he believed in--whether it be a hatred of cylons or his own loyalty to the military--because he felt that it was the right thing to do.
Lee "Apollo" Adama. Whereas Helo's character centers on morality, I think that Apollo's centers on justice. They're very similar, but there's a meaningful difference. Apollo would do the wrong moral thing if he felt like it was required for justice to be done.
We saw this early in the show when Apollo sided with Roslin over his father, feeling that his father was taking more power than was just. However, we saw it most strongly during the third season trial of Baltar, where he again stood against his father (and against most of the fleet) because he felt that Baltar should receive a just trial.
Gauius Baltar. Baltar is a pretty easy character to dissect: his active personality trait is self-preservation. Again and again we've seen him harm other people as a way to save his own skin.
In the last episode of Battlestar Galactica, President Roslin begs Baltar to give her access to his wireless transmitter. He finally agrees. Afterward I said, "Look, it shows that Gaius has some nobility in him; he took the chance that the President might steal his wireless because he knew it might really help the fleet." My wife disagreed, saying that he only helped out because she'd threatened him. She was probably right.
President Laura Roslin. Roslin is a bit harder to fathom because she's a two-faced politician. However, I think that her most active personality trait is faith. In that, she's been perhaps tested harder than any of the others.
Roslin's two greatest crises of faith came when she dreamed of dying and now, when she saw that all of her hopes of Earth were dead. At the moment, it seems like Roslin's faith has entirely broken, but characters usually succeed at the contests created for their active personality traits, and as a result I think that Roslin will regain her faith before the season (and perhaps her life) is over.
Felix Gaeta. Gaeta's main personality conflict isn't as easy to describe in a single word. He tends to put the good of some larger whole (be it his crewmates or the human race) above personal loyalty. We first saw this in his time on New Caprica, when he was aide to Baltar, and there it seemed like a good trait, because he was betraying Baltar to the Resistance, who we knew to be the good guys.
However in more recent seasons, the exact same personality trait has led Gaeta into darker and darker waters. First, on the Demetrius under Starbuck, Gaeta was one of the officers who refused to follow Starbuck's orders, because he thought she was putting the whole crew at risk. Now, on the Galactica, Gaeta is the main instigator of a huge mutiny.
His character--and the conflict it causes--has been very consistent throughout the series, but it's interesting to see in his case how much the situation can change how we view it.
In my view, the characters in Battlestar Galactica usually succeed at their active personality trait tests. However, what keeps them interesting are the facts that the tests are difficult and that the end result isn't necessarily what the average person would do.
Would you sacrifice hundreds to save your own skin? Would you kill a similar number for the good of the whole human race? You might not, but if you're developing interesting characters, they could--after a sufficient amount of angsting and testing, of course.