Character Development

June 2, 2013

My friend over at The Wrathful Blogger had a post about approaching character building, so I thought I’d touch on that. More, I started to write an essay in his comments section and decided instead to make my own post.

I think there are a lot of ways to approach character building, much like world building. I won’t speak for others, but for me I like the character I play to be a strong departure from myself. The character I create will naturally have some elements of myself, but I like to get far from playing “myself”.I try to write a person, and I don’t worry about what goes into portraying them very often. I’ve played many heritages, male and female and other, and had to do quite a bit of research for some, even going so far as to reading multiple books about a subject just to have the correct seeming familiarity that my persona would.

Once I’ve built a person, I shed who I am and step into their skin, so to speak. This is the most comfortable method for myself. And while most start from some interest of mine, others will begin as vague ideas that evolve out of a random idea and compound into a person. The character I will be bringing into the Camarilla Club’s new Changeling chronicle shares effectively only my race and interest in Korean pop music. Beyond that, we have little in common-I doubt we’d like each other much, in fact. A previous character was a type study of a much more aggressive form of my own issues as discussed in this previous blog entry.

And what I am doing in creating a character is trying to explore something specific, or experiment with a specific concept. I’m used PCs to explore homelessness, gender identity and religion, cultural displacement, and my current Changeling character is an examination of combat-induced post traumatic stress disorder. Characters are each stories, in my eyes, and a good story needs a point, a theme. But it needs more than that, it needs subplots and nuances.

Doing that requires work, and a lot of thought. For portrayal and preparation, I focus on three layers of character design which I’ll explain by building a character from scratch, as I write this post:


1: Big things.


These are the themes and what I’m trying to really explore. In our example, we’ll create apolitical who is wrapped up in his identity as a public official. Being in this office is this person’s, we’ll say male, entire world. He maintains an appearance of being “a man of the people” and the dissociation with this assumed identity is eating at him, and the mask is becoming harder and harder to maintain. He is an honest family man, though, and the strain of maintaining his office and his family, keeping the two in balance, is taking it’s toll on his will power.

Right there, we’ve defined his major traits, the things that will come across the most powerfully in his story. And we’ve chosen what this story will be about, it’s a story of a person who’s “Identity” is a mask, and a destructive one-something which Jung would argue we all have to be wary of and deal with to some extent

This is important, that a character have the “Big things” about them. You have to have something to make you worth interacting with-something that makes the character fulfilling to role-play with. If your “Big thing” is that you hate talking to people and you’re a lone wolf and don’t play well with others, that’s at once really tiresomely overplayed and boring, and also going to mean you get very little engagement with other players. you may handle a lot with NPCs, but is that really the goal? Are our LARPs not social events? Make your “Big things” something that you’d want to interact with if you were someone else.

Another note, “I have a huge secret no one must ever know and there’s no way anyone could ever discover it” is just as boring and trite. Secrets are fine. But if they are your “Big thing” there are really two results: someone finds the secret out, and secrets rarely stay that way once multiple people know and your “Big thing” stops existing. Or you never lose the secret, and your “Big thing never comes into play. More on this in a bit.


2: Motive things.


You need something going on when you aren’t engaging the “Big things”. This is your subplot, the important, character shaping and moving details that maybe aren’t the core of who you are, but are a bulk of your day. Our politician is actually brilliant at making groups work his district, he’s seen as the political firefighter, calming disagreements between parties and mediating issues before they can break the party or inter-party dialogues. He also does some volunteer work with his wife, but his ever shifting schedule puts a lot of strain on their marriage as he has to cancel a lot of appointments to attend sudden problems. He’s also a devout Methodist and pushes a number of social justice platforms as ouch as he can without alienating his constituency-another point of contention in his marriage as his wife would like him to do more, and so would he.

Now you’ve rounded the character. He has depth and personality. The “Big things” might leave us with the impression of some soulless bureaucrat with a failing marriage, but now we have a person who has a good heart, a social-minded individual who’s relationship is suffering though he works very hard at it all because his identity has become too wrapped up in a mask he feels trapped into maintaining.

Perhaps more than your “Big things”, your “Motive things” are essential to creating a real person. There are characters who “Discover” a “Big thing” as time moves on, but our “Motive things” change slowly and less drastically. This is how a character lives, what they do most of their life. This is the face people get to see when they take more than a glance, and is important to keeping role-play going after the “Big things” have drawn other players in.

On secrets: this is the place for them! If you’re going to have a secret, it can be a “Big thing” so long as keeping it a secret is a “Motive thing”. If your character is secretly racist, having that discovered negates the secret, not the racism. Now you create a new “Motive thing” to confront the “Big thing” being public. Bam, character development. But if your character’s concept is keeping the secret, you’ve got nowhere to go. You’ll need a new “Big thing” when you’re discovered.


3: Flavor things.


Our politician is a big Yankees fan, he loves baseball in fact. He’s got season tickets but usually lends them to friends as he can’t make most games. His favorite color is, unsurprisingly, Yankee Blue. He’s a fan of the Rolling Stones and never really got into newer music except by contemporary artists. He’s left handed, but pretends to be right-handed for the most part, since that plays better. He was born in July. The sound of metal on metal makes him cringe.

These are little things, they don’t matter much, they won’t usually, if ever, really come into play. But they can be included in small ways that make the character feel more like a person and less like you in a vague costume. For myself these little details, the small things, help me “find” the character, rather than express them. “Flavor things” are just that, they add a bit of flavor, a touch of context for the character as a person.

Never expect these things to be noticed. They’re small, and are only noticeable to those looking for them and many not even then. That’s fine. These shouldn’t be plot items, this ought to be something that someone notices is different about you when you’re out of character. All of a sudden you don’t have that subtle limp or that nervous flick. You cross your legs differently. Small things fill a character’s reality out.


A note about scale before we move on. Props should be big to small in terms of importance as well to an extent. Really important props should never be small. That tiny ring is never going to be noticed amongst all the costuming. The Yankees cap or cauldrons with the Lorraine Cross on them will be noticed. If it’s character essential and to be noticed, make it big. If it’s a minor character prop, something for flavor, it can be small. Unimportant things can be big, though. The pouches you wear, if pouches are common in your game, won’t matter (if they aren’t common, that says something else). If your character likes a particular color and wears it often, that’s fine. But if your character is incredibly fanatic about something, and the prop to represent that is small I can guarantee it’ll usually be missed unless you point it out often, which comes across as fairly boorish.

So now we have our character concept rounded. From there, I tend to build my sheet based on what the character would have balanced against what I can afford in XP. It is important to now what your spendable XP allowance will be at creation, so you know how advanced you concept work ought to be. If you have a small amount of XP to work with, bringing in someone who’s supposed to be a master warrior is a poor choice since you’ll not have the stats to back up the backstory.

Further, you may have certain skills your character might have by your concept, but aren’t mechanically very valuable and others might take precedence. Balance carefully. Min-maxing (starving some areas just to have one ability over-powered) is often looked down upon simply because it breaks the immersive and realistic feel of the characters.

I’m not going to get into much of the mechanical build process simply because every game has remarkably different needs, but hopefully this possibly too long analysis will be something that you can use to help build fuller, more fulfilling characters to play.


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