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Deeper: Getting More from your Character

Posted on August 7, 2002 by Flames

Have you ever noticed how some types of characters seem to lend themselves naturally to stereotype? In Vampire you can easily find multiple-personality Malkavians, limp-wristed über-goth Toreador, street-punk Brujah, and so on; in Changeling (which I play the most often) there’s big, dumb trolls and horny satyrs, and so on. Every clan or kith or tradition or group has a stereotype.

I’m not saying stereotypes are necessarily bad—they’re great for helping new players keep all the groups straight, and they can help new players come up with their first character for the game. The problem with stereotypes is that many players leave it at that, and never bother developing their characters. These tend to be easy to spot, by virtue of their forgettability. If you don’t care enough about your character to make him or her distinctive, other players aren’t going to care about your character either.

The easiest solution is to avoid forgettable characters during character creation, which can be done a number of ways:

* 1. Research. Usually the stereotypes are how the other groups see your character’s group. How does the group see itself? Where did the group come from? How have they changed over time? In Changeling, you can take this all the way back to folklore, but every game has at least some source material that can help you with this.

* 2. Get inspiration from outside sources—and they don’t have to be sci-fi/fantasy/horror, either, since memorable characters depend more on their personalities than on supernatural abilities, or at least make for more interesting role-playing. Think of characters from books or movies that you particularly liked, and think about why they stand out. Splice together bits and pieces of the personalities of a number of different characters you like, and see if that gives you any ideas.

* 3. Check out writers’ resources, if you’re really stuck. There are whole books devoted to the creation of memorable characters; you can probably find them at your library. They’re especially helpful for coming up with a detailed background for your character. Background is vital—it helps explain why your character acts the way he or she does. (These books often have character personality worksheets, which are great too.)

* 4. Pick your attributes carefully. Once you’ve finished your stats, if they seem like “the perfect [insert group name here],” change them. Don’t just load up on combat or magic or whatever fits your group stereotype; take some unusual skills or qualities, and fit them into your character’s background.

* 5. What does your character care about? What’s his or her driving goal? Maybe he lives for his art, or she wants to prove her worth to those around her. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as your character cares about it passionately enough.

Let’s put this into action, and make what could be the worst stereotype of all, the combat-monster. Mine’s a Changeling redcap, but you could pretend he’s a Brujah, or anything where the stereotype involves brutality and lots of fighting. Instead of the usual street-thug concept of a tough-guy character, I choose a gentleman-gangster type instead, still capable of unspeakable brutality, but well-dressed for one of his social background. The gangster image leads to him having mob ties, which leads to him worrying about his family, trying to distance himself from them so they don’t get hurt because of him… and there you go. He cares about something, which gives him the spark of life. But he’s still a bit dull, so I give him background—he’s an ex-bouncer, which fits the stereotype, but he was also a paramedic, and truly enjoyed helping to save people’s lives.

“What?” you ask. “That doesn’t fit! He can’t be both.”

Sure he can. I just have to come up with a reasonable explanation for it, and fit it into his background. You can make some really wild combinations work very well, if you put some thought into it.

But what do you do from there? Or what if you already have a character, and he’s boring, but has lots of cool powers and accessories, so you don’t want to get rid of him?

Simple. You flesh him out a bit.

There’s not a single character out there that can’t be made interesting by working out background and personality. If you’ve been playing your character for a long time, it may be more difficult, and require more thought, but it can still be done. I’ll let you in on a little secret, though—the more thought you put into your character, the more detailed the background and personality, the easier it is to roleplay. Here are some tips for deepening your understanding of your character:

* 1. Find some of those getting-to-know-you-better surveys that get forwarded around online; you know, the ones that ask all your likes and dislikes, things like that. Fill the survey out as your character. You can also find similar surveys in some handbooks for writers. Sure, your character’s ideal vacation spot or first love may never come up in the game, but having a rough idea of these things helps you understand where your character is coming from.

* 2. Visit an online quiz site, such as Emode or TheSpark, and take the quizzes as your character. It sounds silly, but it does help, because it gets you to think as your character.

* 3. Get other players together for unofficial roleplaying sessions, freeform, just interacting in character. I learn new things about my characters every time I play them, but the first few times are more of a test-run, to see what works and what doesn’t. Work the bugs out outside of the actual game, so you’ll be able to spend all your in-game time playing your character as his or her personality dictates.

* 4. Write your character’s background out, in the first person. This can be in the form of letters to another character or as a journal, or anything else you like, but putting it down on paper makes it more concrete. (Also, some Storytellers can be persuaded to give experience points for background stories, which is nice too.)

It all boils down to practice, really. Think about your characters, how they are, and how they got that way. Then get into character, as deeply and as often as you can. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and the more you’ll get out of it.

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