Gallant's Character Primer
Thoughts on Characterization
Nobody really asked me to write this, but as I have a somewhat overactive mind and finals are coming up, I tend to loadshed stress in odd ways.
The purpose of this excerpt will be to detail my method of character creation. This publication should be most useful to people who are trying to create new characters but should perhaps also help to spruce some life into old ones. Being a writer and a lover of fiction I use this method primarily when writing short stories and forum roleplaying, which means that most of the methods I use are applicable not simply to CoA but also on a broader scale of fiction.
I hope they are both relevant and helpful.
Conception and You
"It came to me within a Dream,
I saw the Slayer rise and scream,
Over the Shattered Kingdom.
His Prophet to Rise
In the wake of the Vindicated Warrior."
So, who is Lesair?
If you are like most people, when you read the above prophecy, you thought something along the lines of “that sounds really cool and ominous.” Then, you looked down at the name ‘Lesair’ and said, “that’s got to be a prophet, like Alaundo.” Well, at least you might have thought that if you had played the Baldur’s Gate series of games. The format is familiar, so your brain jumps to the format and automatically draws connections. ‘Like Alaundo.’ ‘Sounds like ______’. You’ve seen it before – it’s old hat. But there’s something new about this prophecy, too – something fresh and foreboding that you would probably like to read about. You don’t know what it’s about – it doesn’t just tell you “The spawn of Tzintich is going to come up in the year 1230,” and the meaning isn’t obvious. Interest, and possibilities, bloom in your mind. Even though you might already know how the story ends, or some parts of the story, you still want to read it.
You can excite this same amount of interest in your characters if you really try; the same feeling, the interest, and the idea can be called forth with a well thought out character concept, free of – or in spite of – stereotypes that make some characters boring.
Stereotypes crop up in our minds when we think about characters. It is so easy to place characters, even interesting ones, in the camp of stereotypes. And as there is only a limited amount of paper to put our characters onto, we must be able to convey them concisely every time, in such a manner that they appear in our readers’ minds as clearly as they appear in ours, and to that end we must often resort to stereotypes.
That’s not actually a bad thing.
Take a few minutes to think about why some famous characters over the centuries have been memorable. Just stop reading, and think about it for a few minutes. What did you like about these characters? What did you dislike?
Those traits, and traits like them, are what you should be trying to convey with the characters you make, to make them interesting. Some people call them 'stereotypes'.
It has been written about in explicit detail that we shouldn’t use race-class combinations to create characters because they call up tropes we sometimes think are too familiar. Take, for instance, the quintessential elven ranger. Or the dwarf fighter. Or the Halfling rogue. We can immediately call to mind some of the traits of these class-race combinations. The elven ranger is probably an aloof loner. The dwarf fighter is probably a drunk, smelly, ale-quaffing hard ass. The Halfling rogue pinches everything not tied down, and probably smokes and wears black and uses a pot helmet.
The ironic thing is that we like those characters, sometimes. In fantasy if you say 'elf' it calls to mind certain traits. So does 'ranger'. We're working with comfort-food, here, and it's time to progress onwards. Everybody knows what an Elf Ranger represents, but can you take that to the next level of character development - past the normal and into the interesting?
What if I told you that the elven ranger I wanted to play was cosmopolitan? That he was actually extremely social – wore colorful clothing, smooth-talking his way into upper circles as a falconer for nobility? What if I told you that the dwarf fighter was a coward, an exile running from his shame and trying to learn how to be courageous in the face of danger and stop hiding behind his tower shield? What if I said that the Halfling rogue was actually a scout for a nest of hin and… well, okay, nevermind (all halflings are fucking thieves).
We love these types of characters because they offer something fresh, new, and a little bit novel – even if they’re not really new, only rarer. They take our expectations, and play off of them just enough that we find them interesting, but because of those differences from the stereotypical norm we can also expand much further into their backgrounds than would otherwise be done.
The primary reason I believe the DMs steer people away from playing the race-class combinations or even thinking in race-class combinations is because people don’t get creative with them. “Elven ranger” isn’t the end-all of character conception, there are many further steps to take to make such a character playable and fun not only for you but for everyone around you. Unfortunately if you’re like me, sometimes a race/class combination is all you have going for you.
So let’s look at some of the things that set really good characters off from mediocre characters.
Goals and Motivations
I don’t mean planning out how your half-dragon were-tiger is going to eat all Selunites – I mean, what makes your character tick?
Essentially, an interesting character has what we’ve been talking about before; a sort of vague air of mystery that can excite interest, that can get readers (and roleplayers) invested in them, and a little shine of new or at least odd. You’re not writing NPCs, here, so your character is going to progress beyond the typical few lines of stereotype/anti-stereotype mumbo-jumbo that most NPCs never break free of.
In Arabel, your character, Exam’pol the Elf, is the Evereskan Ranger with both word and frippery at his disposal. He’s a smooth operator. But he didn’t get that way just because you hit the ‘create character’ button and jogged into Arabel from day one, so it’s time to do something most people take for granted; ask the question “Why.”
Ask it often enough, and loudly enough, and you just might get some interesting answers. I’m sure you’re wondering why the normally-loner-stereotype-elf is wearing a funny hat and acting charming in front of humans. Heak, I am wondering it myself, so it’s time for you to fill in the details. Is he a wanna-be bard that never got into bard college? Is he gay? Was he shunned by other elves for not being a pointy eared human hating prick? Did someone steal his sweetroll so now he’s trying to get all sweetroll theft outlawed?
I’m sure your imagination is running wild. Good. Keep it up. Find something that fits, and that’s his background – the reasoning behind his current actions. It can be as long, as complicated, or as simple and short as you want it to be. The fact that it exists is a ‘motivation’. He acts this way, progresses towards these goals of his, because of something that’s happened to him or some stance he’s taken on something, or maybe just because he’s bored. All of these things included in history can be considered motivating factors.
However, because of his motivational history, Exam’pol wants to spread the word of Charmander, his divine god of firebreathing, to the circle of lords and ladies of Arabel. That’s a ‘Goal’.
Goals are firmly rooted in motivations. In order to make a good character, a relatable character, there needs to be a link between his past and his present and his future. People shouldn’t know this from the get-go, of course, unless the character is very talkative, but having relatable histories and goals are like having paints. You can brush with your roleplay onto the canvas of minds, but people usually provide their own colors, and so it’s up to you to suggest good ones. There’s no way to paint the character directly into other people’s minds, but having relatable goals and motivations helps.
When writing characters, interesting characters, the goal isn’t to make them as cool or novel as possible, it is to make them as relatable as possible. In addition to writing in order to sidestep stereotypes, or play off of them, it’s also important to remember that the character has to be relatable to the audience. Nobody wants to read or write about a character they can’t personally connect with on some level, and nobody wants to play that character or play with that character if they aren’t relatable, either. We’re not all hundred-year-old elves, but when we learn that Exam’Pol was bullied as a child-elf and called both fat and ugly, we begin to understand why he wears such gaudy clothes now, vying for everybody’s attention – or at least everyone’s attention that matters.
Suddenly the character matters. Not just to others, but to you, they matter. You want to know what happens to them.
Exam’Pol has progressed, now, from a character that’s just a couple of words ‘elf ranger’ to an almost fully fleshed character that’s capable of wowing people, by simply looking at his motivation and goals. The character has gained Depth. This not only assists other people in relating with the character, it assists you in relating with the character, which leads me into my next point.
Roleplaying ‘Deep’ Characters
Ultimately the difference between a good and a great character is how well they deal with the environment and other characters, and the story of their lives – that is, the story we’re able to play through and watch happen – is ultimately how they’re changed by them.
Now that we have both a motivation and a goal for the character, we have to allow ourselves a little bit of flexibility with that as our framework. You know what your character wants – you know where your character has been – but how do you deal with the setting? What if there’s a Senior Courtier blocking Exam’Pol’s path to being the lead falconer? What if that lead Courtier calls Exam’Pol ugly? How is he going to deal with it? Is he the sort of person that is going to kill the Courtier, is he going to try to win him over, or is he going to ignore his existence entirely?
Well, either way, he’s going to deal with it IC. What Would Exam’pol Do, and Why?
Although other players may not be able to see the Reasons, it’s generally accepted that those reasons exist. Sometimes things that happen in the game world can affect your character’s motivations, or goals – and that’s okay. If we were playing an ‘elven ranger’, we might not know how to deal with the problems that our characters run into in actual play, but thankfully we’ve got a good character concept going here.
Perhaps Exam’pol decides to try to impress the Courtier by going out and taming a white Cortessan falcon. That’s reasonable, given the character’s background. Or perhaps, against all odds, he decides to have the Courtier assassinated. Are we playing a good character, or an evil character? Yes, we’re going to talk about alignment now, a little bit – but not in a black and white way. Often while roleplaying we run into dilemmas and have to figure out what to do about them, in an IC manner, and many people will default to their alignment as a guideline. The actions of NG Exam’pol and NE Exam’pol are definitely, clearly different, in this case. NG Exam’pol is going to try to solve his problems in a reasonably good way, and NE Exam’pol sees killing the Courtier as an option.
But alignment, in my opinion, isn’t something that’s hard and fast. The question here is, again, ‘Why?’ Remember how we said earlier we should ask this question often, and frequently? This is one of those times.
Why is death an option? Why does Exam’pol want to catch this falcon? This isn’t something that you need to decide immediately, but usually by this point you’ve already got a feel for the character and a good idea of what his alignment probably is based upon his motivations and goals. The alignment we choose during character creation, afterwards, becomes a mere checkmark in a box rather than an iron, hard and fast rule, because we already know what the character feels is important. Because we know what the character feels is important, even though we might not be able to live through his or her history ourselves, since we identify with the character’s motivation and goals we can reasonably act as they might, in nearly any situation.
And that’s what we need to look to when we’re making decisions as this character – consider what is important to the character, rather than what is expedient or good or evil on a meta level. Some people call this ‘Do Not Afraid’, which is the general theory that you should play a character as the character would be played in spite of all opposition and even if it could get you killed. I’ve always preferred ‘Adventure & Intrigue’, the idea that you should be looking for what’s interesting or compelling in characters, but whatever theory floats your boat you can ascribe to, if you want. Both theories require that you play your character true to the hilt. Would Exam’pol really consider killing the courtier, or is he actually trying to get the courtier’s approval?
Likely in this instance, Exam’Pol would grab his jessies and go out to find that falcon. His action isn’t ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but it stems, we can reasonably imagine, from his desire to be accepted by polite society. We can reasonably take the measure of men by how they handle problems.
Similarly, we can take measure of ‘deep’ characters by how they deal with the issues presented in their story, and being able to take that measure goes a long way towards writing good characters.
There’s no rule saying you should take this work as gospel; certainly, everybody has their own way of portraying characters and creating them, even among published authors. All we have to do is switch genres of fiction to discover this, or just compare and contrast the work of two authors against each other. Sometimes the differences in narrative voice are striking.
Overall, take it with a grain of salt.
This guide has been intended to illuminate, in some small part, the way that I personally create characters, and I’ve tried to present those ideas in an Arabel-specific manner. There are already a lot of compelling characters running around in-game that I love to watch interact and I enjoy reading about them. Without naming specifics, I very much enjoy the journal threads. Neither will I name the characters I’ve seen rolling around in-game without all this searching thought and consideration behind them. Everyone has fun in different ways, and so it’s my intention to try and open up this extra avenue of fun and satisfaction for those whom it might not have been previously available to.
If you can take anything I’ve written here, and use it to better a future or present character in any way, I’ll consider the essay on characterization worth having written and thank you for your time.
Again, I hope my thoughts are both relevant and helpful.
Nicely done article. I go through a similar process myself, always important to have a good grasp of whom your character and why he does stuff before you click create character.