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The Contract

I yam what I yam: Character as motive

by J.S. Majer (editor, Drew Meger)
August 14, 2001  
"I am Kile Atreau and I want my daughter back, you son-of-a-bitch."

Shakespeare has a lot of famous and important plays. I know this, because I have a college degree. The most useful to discuss is Hamlet. Why Hamlet? In my highly biased opinion one of the reasons for the durability of the play on the stage is that every actor wants to play Hamlet. An actor cannot watch Hamlet strut and speak and not think "wow, that's cool, but I would have done it like this." And not just Hamlet, but any character in Hamlet.

There are no bad roles in Hamlet. When even virtual spear-carriers like Horatio seem fascinating, when characters whose main purpose is to die at the right moment are somehow vitally interesting, when I would love to play Fortinbras, whose primary purpose in the play is to invade Poland and show up in Demark with a mop, Shakespeare has done something right.

What is it that he has done right? Figure that one out and you'll never lack for a good role playing game. I do not know, nor do I plan on telling you what I do not know. But for what I want to discuss - motivation - I need to be discussing theater. And Hamlet is a ripe choice for discussion, because motivation in Hamlet is a matter of primary importance.

One of those questions that gets whipped out every so often in discussions about Hamlet is whether Hamlet is mad, or whether he is only pretending to be mad. Now the most inane response to this question goes something like this: "Of course Hamlet is not mad. He says so much in the play. He says that he is only pretending to be mad, that it is all part of his game. Since he calls himself not mad, he must not be mad. To think otherwise is to misread the play, to not trust the words of the author and the character." Is this view that bad? Not at all. You can still produce a damn fine production of Hamlet with that assumption. But it defeats part of the complex brilliance.

The clearest statement of fact that Hamlet is not mad comes from Hamlet himself. Not a character in the play other than him is completely in on the plan. Horatio, somewhat, but not enough. We might go by the Freudian notion that a denial is just as good as an affirmation, but that seems somewhat unnecessary. After all, in our behind the scenes looks, Hamlet does not seem mad, only too cunning for his own good. To everyone else in Denmark, Hamlet might just well as be mad.

Running around half-naked, moping, talking all funny except with these moments of lucidity that strike a truly fearful chord, the works. Let's call a spade a spade here - a vision of his dead father inspired him to this state. This is not normally counted in the purveyance of the completely sane.

Go beyond his actions and into what he wants to accomplish. He wants to kill Claudius, but cannot seem to bring himself to. He keeps waiting for the right moment, for the perfect moment, obsessing with planning an ultimate demise. Someone who had all his ducks in a row would have just done the deed. And refrain from offering some two-bit historical interpretation to try and explain his indecision. Shakespeare has near to nothing to do with history.

Shakespeare knew as much about Denmark as Sophocles knew about Thebes. Historically speaking Mac Beth was the good guy and Duncan the tyrannical overlord. If you talk to the conspiracy theory crowd they will tell you how the story of Hamlet is actually an analogy explaining how ancient peoples actually knew about astronomical precession and the way that it fit with periodic world cataclysms.

The long and short is that Hamlet is acting funny, but we can understand his funny. His funny is a human sort of funny, and he can tell us all about his funny. But to the characters in the play he looks and acts a whole other sort of funny. Welcome to the seeming/being argument. What does it mean, to seem one way and to be another? It is one thing to say that you are a good soul, but what if there are no actions to prove your goodness? Does that mean you are bad? We can only tell one another by our external actions, while our internal processes might be quite different. So which is reality? Deed or thought? Action or intention?

Have we come too far from role playing games? Not quite. We are in the realm of motive, the izaiton in characterization. Any player of a good character should be able to espouse what their character's motives are. No amount of background or detail can make up for it. Without motive you are a set-piece, part of the atmosphere of the game. It takes a motive to inspire meaningful action.

I recall an article in the magazine "Metagame," the publication of the now-transformed ILF, regarding the question of women in LARPing that made this statement: "Pregnancy is not a plot." What they meant was some male Referees thought they could get away with putting a woman in a typically female situation and letting that be the end all be all of a character.

I read more in the statement. No fact is a plot. Pregnancy is not a plot, but neither is being the heir to the throne. Pregnancy is not even a plot when you are illicitly carrying the heir to the throne. Pregnancy becomes a plot when the fact is used to create a motive, such as what the character wants to have happen with the child or how the character wants to be treated because of the fact.

The backgrounds of a character give us clues as to what the motives might be. The enacting of those motives is the sort of thing that we call "playing a character." Now, I do not want to dismiss outright the set-piece quality. Not everything that takes place in a game relates to motive. Something like in game banter between characters can largely be outside of motives, such as when the scientist and the soldier argue about which sort of fusion rife does the best job. Talks like these can make a game memorable. But when it comes to the actual play, when the two have to argue about what to do about the hostile natives on the planet that they are visiting, motive better rear its head.

However, there is always The Contract to remember. How many times have you heard something like, "I'm sorry, but Zardan would never sign up for this mission, so he's walking."? There is a necessity to cheat somewhat in terms of motive so as to keep a unity at work. But too often I have watched games devolve into something else, where motive had no consideration because the accomplishment of the assigned goal was tantamount. That should never happen.

The reasons why a character is participating should always be kept in mind because they change the way the character will participate, what sorts of outcomes they will find acceptable. This is also a Contractual obligation of the Referee, because if the Referee can only allow one outcome, then that is the only one that will happen. Referees must seek to foster strange results, ones based upon character's desires, as opposed to just following a plot line. The best is of course a sort of median, but a median is always hard to define.

"The play's the thing," is oft quoted from Hamlet. But follow it up with the remainder of the line, "wherein to catch the conscience of the king," and it holds meaning for our discussion. The play is the thing, because the manner in which you play your character defines whom your character is more than whom you describe your character as. Actions speak louder and all that. Morality, ethics, values, ideas and concepts: all the elements of definition only go so far, because it is only in playing your character that such ideas live.

Know motives, but also consider just how they are lived up to. A motive is a dream or a desire. Holding strongly to single motives is more acceptable, but only the beginning. We all have goals. It is part of the human condition to think about where one is going. It is equally human not to achieve those goals.

This is another sort of thing that we can learn from Hamlet. Hamlet's motives are one thing but his actions are another. Now, there is the banal thing to consider about this, that if one is distracted from one's character they will not play a good game. It is one thing to create a complex motive system; it is another to live up to it. I can think of many characters, both my own and of others, who, even though their concept was sanguine and illuminated, their actual performance was substandard. Par cannot always be met, and the reasons are varied. Sometimes we take on something that is too great for us to handle, a character concept that we cannot make fit. Sometimes our intentions are circumvented by bad play, people dwelling too much in non-game issues.

But an equally incorrect sort of composition comes in holding to too hard a line. It is not sufficient to find a motivation for your character and live up to it. That leads to a one-dimensional character. No one can perfectly hold to one motive all the time. That would be something too close to perfection. We make mistakes. We do not always live up to our goals. We hold contradictory ones. And sometimes the ways that we fail in our motives makes for the greatest sort of story, and the best kind of character.

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What do you think?

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