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The Culture Beneath The Stairs

Developing Character: Reasons for why we play certain characters

by Conan McKegg
Jul 23,2004


The Culture Beneath the Stairs

By Conan McKegg

Developing Character: Reasons for why we play certain characters

One of the cornerstones of roleplaying is, naturally, the player character. Without player characters there is no game after all, just a setting waiting for something to happen in it. Yet how seriously do we consider our characters? Some players seem to put vast amounts of time and effort into developing their player characters - even to the degree of acting out mannerisms and voices. But how often are these supposedly well thought out characters based on stereotypes and misinterpretations?

Today I want to discuss some of the possible reasons we choose certain types of characters; how we perceive human nature; and what we need to consider if we decide to play a more challenging character than we are usually used to. This is not going to go into a lot of depth today, as I'm laying groundwork for later articles where I'll revisit these ideas in light of what people say in the forums.

Needless to say, I don't expect to provide some transformative revelation about gaming here. Roleplaying is a hobby, not a religion. Even if some people seem to treat it as sacrosanct in certain areas. What I am endeavouring to do here is merely get people debating and thinking about what they can take from their games and choices.

Today is to kick-start discussion to learn a little bit more about people's choices.

Why do we choose the characters we choose?

I think that this is the first and most important question to answer whenever discussing player characters and the players who create them. By understanding why a player has chosen a particular character we can then tell how seriously we need to look at the character.

If we look at a player who is in a standard dungeon crawl game with a lawful good paladin who stomps around and likes to "SMITE EVIL!", I would say it is fairly straightforward to say he chose the character for pure entertainment. But if a male player of Unknown Armies takes a young woman who is an ex-rape victim, then I think there is something more to discuss and explore within that choice.

There are many, many, many reasons for why we choose characters. The decision is partially based on the type of game being played, partially about what the player feels comfortable playing and partially to do with what the player hopes to get out of playing the game.

For the most part, players choose characters for the fun. After all, roleplaying is a hobby. Something we do for enjoyment and entertainment. I think that even the most symbolic, metaphorical choices are still about gaining enjoyment. Some people do gain enjoyment out of challenging their perceptions of other people and trying to play something that is wildly out of character for them.

Leading on from that concept of fun is also the idea of escapism, the chance to be someone other than you. Many players choose characters that are diametrically opposite to themselves just because it is a chance to escape from being Harry or Sally.

Which then leads me to a third reason - wish fulfilment. How many players have you played with who have, at some time or another, taken a character that represents the person they most desire to be? I have seen this time and again in roleplaying groups, where there is the hope to play something that you always wanted to play.

Also we have to consider the setting. The initial examples I gave show this. A game of Paranoia is unlikely to contain the same character ideas as, say, a game of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or Spycraft. Setting does also have a big part to play in character choice.

Then there is the challenge of taking on a new character that you might not normally wish to play.

For the Challenge

I remember one game where I decided to take this route - because it seemed like a great chance to really put myself on the block and test myself as a player. Normally I play the happy-go-lucky fluffy character or the wiseacre trickster type. So I took a different character altogether in a Sabbat game, taking a rent-boy who had been a victim of abuse. It had been a challenge for me to keep from being fluffy and nice, instead having a character that worked hard to hide that he was really emotionally dead inside.

For many there is a sense of accomplishment that comes with playing a challenging character that then lead to a sense of satisfaction from having done it. I still hold that character as one of the best I have ever played, just because it was uncomfortable to think about what he had been through and then to try and portray that in the game.

But there is also a risk in taking this particular path in choosing a character - one that I will discuss in a moment, and that is the risk of making such a character become a trite stereotype.


If there is one thing that annoys me more than anything else, it's people playing uninformed stereotypes. To a degree there is a benefit to playing a stereotype - it can make character generation easier, and it can also provide you with a base to build a character from.

But one needs to be careful with their generalisations. You can go too far and instead of a stereotype, you end up playing a caricature. The number of times I have seen limp-wristed, queenie gay characters in roleplaying games; or angst-ridden suicidal goth chick has been almost depressing.

People are not so easily stereotyped in real life. It's okay to have one or two - but if every person of a particular stereotype is the same no matter which game you run/play, you need to seriously reconsider what you know...

Understanding the problem with Human Nature

In a way this leads me to the core concept I wanted to discuss today. Human Nature. Something that I often hear is "Oh, its just human nature to be greedy/selfish/ignoble/violent/etc." What annoys me is that this is often said quite flippantly with an obvious disregard for the reality of what we know about human nature. Nothing.

No, really. The court is still very much out on what exactly is human nature and what is simply learned behaviour. The theories behind what it is to be human and what is our nature continue to be posited and argued over. This is an important thing to understand if you intend to play a character of any particular depth, because understanding what theory that person subconsciously subscribes to will help you to better understand how to play that character.

Now I'm not saying that this is necessary to play a good character, but I do think that it can help to play a more fleshed out character if you are aiming for something with depth.

If you intend to play a character solely for the fun of it - then there isn't any need to really understand what that character believes about the fundamentals of human nature.

So how do you choose a theory? Should you even put this much effort into a character? Well I'm not going to tell you what the best theory would be, or even what theory I personally prescribe to. If you choose to take the path of the gritty, three-dimensional character - and if this much thought appeals to you as a player - then there are some things that are important to consider...

So you want to make a real character?

The most important thing to remember is that human nature is still a hotly debated issue. People tend to behave based on how they perceive human nature rather than by any particular nature. If a person believes that greed is a part of human nature, they will often be greedy and then explain it away as "but it's just my nature to be this way."

Do some research into the various psychological and philosophical theories regarding human nature and pick one that best relates to your character. Don't feel that you need to go into great detail - you aren't writing a thesis. Just get a general overview of what that theory says and let it flavour your character's behaviour.

Here are some theories in brief to get you started:

There are many, many more theories out there. I just wanted to list a few to get you started. When creating a three-dimensional, in depth character you must consider the basic belief that person has about humanity as a whole - because it will dictate, largely, how that character will act to other people.

We rarely come up to a person and say "I believe that human nature is related to the existentialist dilemma." More often we show it through our actions. A character who follows a Freudian paradigm may tend to suspect that the other player characters always have some deeper issue behind their choices and as such will often challenge their actions. "Why did you really want to attack the beholder? Why do you really think the king is a doppelganger?"

But I don't care for all that deep thinking clap-trap!

Okay, so some of you might not care too much for that kind of character design. You don't want to be making any kind of social commentary, you don't want your character to be based around some high-falutin' theme. But you still want to make your character have a little more depth than your average bunch-o-stats. Fear not. Here are some other tips for you to consider...
  1. Everybody has goals and desires. Face it even a slacker has a goal. Sure, it may be "sleep today." But it still is a goal. Look through some of the novels on your shelf or take a closer look at the characters in the next movie you go to - every character has some sort of driving desire or goal that makes them do things. For some it may be something as simple as "get a cup of coffee." Others may have very high ranking goals, such as "Save the world!"

    Goals give characters drive, and they also benefit you as a player because it means that your character should never simply sit and watch a scene play out around him or her. You have something to drive you into action. Good goals tend to be long-range ones. This is because once a person achieves their goal they then create another.

  2. Everybody has a certain way of looking at the world. This relates to my previous discussion on human nature. But now let's look at it from a less academic position; most people tend to fit into one of three broad categories of behaviour. Optimistic, Sceptical and Pessimistic. Yes, these are very artificial divisions - but we're looking at player characters - not a theory about the true depth of human understanding.

Note that a sceptic is not a pessimist! Optimistics will have very bright, happy views on the world. Everything is seen with rose-tinted glasses. This doesn't mean that every Optimist is a bubbling ball of energy - rather it means that your character always assumes the best outcome. They can be surly and rude - but at the core, a warm softy.

Sceptics Tend to sit on the fence. They don't necessarily think the worst, but they require definitive evidence to sway their view one way or another. A Sceptic is likely to be slightly optimistic or pessimistic until proven otherwise. But in the face of a strong case, they will take the side that is most likely to be the right one. So a Sceptic would be the character who never takes people on face value, but rather treats all newcomers in the same manner until something happens to make the Sceptic decide to trust or distrust them.

Pessimists are always negative. They tend to be cynical and no matter how they portray their view, they will naturally assume the worst. A Pessimist will never trust anyone or anything to work out. They are only happy or satisfied when they are proven correct - and in many cases they will then see this as a sign that something else horrible is about to happen.

These are very general classifications - but they can help you to give your player character more life and energy in play. Over later articles I'll be revisiting this idea of creating characters with depth, but there will be a closer look at how we tend to stereotype characters. Much like I have just done here... *chuckle*

In closing

The main goal today has been to raise some questions about how we look at our character choices. For those players who don't care for in depth characters, I hope that this has still given you some things to think about. For those of you who like to write epic character backgrounds, I hope this has inspired you to think about the deeper things that drive characters - their goals, their beliefs regarding what makes up human nature.

Next time I'll be beginning a three-part look at the Gaming Contract. Until then, take care of yourselves and I hope you enjoy your week! TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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