Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On the Player Character

This is going to be a fairly basic, commonsense guide to writing a player character for an RPG (play-by-post, or tabletop, or what-have-you). Some of you are going to read this and think, "well, duh!" And that's fine. Not all of this is obvious to everyone, though, so I'm just aiming to help.

So, you want to create a player character! Depending on the game, you may have a class system to work with, or you may have free rein. Regardless, you'll want to create a character that's believable. So, onward!

I'm going to stress two key points: plausibility and limitations, which are really just a more specific section of plausibility.

Who is your character? How old are they? If they're going to be some sort of adventurer (and in RPs, a player character usually is) they'll need to either be of a reasonable age to go adventuring, or else have a really good excuse; young children or elderly characters will not realistically do well on an adventure.

Where do they come from, what is their culture? You need to consider this carefully. Where they come from will affect many things: what language they speak, what their accent is, what local culture they're used to, what food they like. If there are multiple races or ethnic groups in your campaign's world, where your character comes from will likely affect their view on different groups. While traveling, it will affect things like what weather they're used to, what flora and fauna they know, and what customs they will and won't know about where they are. In combat, it will affect what weapons they may know, and how they fight; a character from a culture based on Europe is not going to fight with a katana, and a character who comes from a culture where honor is important is unlikely to throw sand into someone's eyes in in a fight, unless they've decided to abandon honor.

It may be tempting, if the character comes from a culture with a lot of aspects you consider to be negative, to have a character refute all those aspects. Don't do that, it's usually not realistic. They may disagree with some aspects of their culture, but when I see a character who goes against every negative aspect their culture has, I know something's up. The thing is, both positive and negative aspects of culture tend to be ingrained and enforced. Maybe your character has the fortitude to stand up to her culture's rampant misogyny, or classism, or racism, or slavery, or xenophobia, or emotionally restrictive formality, or concept of honor that often bars her from doing what's right. I really doubt she'll have the time or energy to attack all of them at once. I also really doubt that, when people put pressure on her to go back to conforming to those norms, that she'll be able to resist all of that pressure. To do so would be superhuman. Which leads into...

What are your character's flaws? They need them, and there is a balance to be struck. A character without enough flaws, or who only has "interview flaws" (i.e. things like "too compassionate" that aren't really flaws) will not be well received by other players, even if they are fun to play-- they're not realistic. A character with too many flaws, on the other hand, may not be fun to read, or play, and they probably won't get much interaction with other characters, or come across as particularly heroic if that's what you're going for. Certainly some people have more flaws than usual, but it may not be realistic for them to be one of the good guys. If your character is intended to be an antihero, more flaws than usual may be acceptable, but be aware that these flaws will have an impact. To elaborate:

Flaws have consequences. If you're writing a story on your own, you may write a character with a character who is irritable and gets angry at his friends a lot, yet his friends never call him out on this, or get frustrated right back and leave. In an RP, you had better be prepared for those friends to get angry, because they're controlled by other people, and they don't exist to make your character well-liked. The consequences of flaws can provide some really interesting conflict, though. They can provide incentive to improve (and your character can improve from their flaws; just remember that it takes time, and they won't be able to get all of them.) If your character's flaw affects another character, the inevitable change in those characters' relationship can provide some really interesting character development.

A note on the aforementioned "interview flaws": Certainly too much of a good thing can realistically be poisonous. If your character is so compassionate that he gives the last of his food to starving refugees, he's got a bit of a problem. A character that cannot tell a lie can get herself into all kinds of trouble. But it's not realistic to have a character whose only issues are too much of a good thing. We all tend to be a little mean occasionally, for one thing.

Does your character fit a stereotype? Really pay attention to this one. If you meant for a player character to be a stereotype, there may be a problem, unless this is a more lighthearted RP-- and even then, watch out. If you didn't mean for them to be one, make doubly sure that they really aren't. Certainly they may conform to some aspects of a stereotype, but people don't tend to actually be walking embodiments of stereotypes. Characters are meant to come across as realistic people, not cliched devices.

Be especially careful of negative stereotypes. If your female character is unusually hysterical/obsessed with shopping/frivolous/weak/whatever, and a point is made of this, I'm going to want a real good reason for it, and I'm going to be very dubious even then. If your character touches on some sort of negative racial stereotype, I'm probably just going to start throwing things. Likewise if your non-heterosexual character is depraved and perverse. There are all kinds of stereotypes that just need to die. Don't perpetuate them with your characters; it's both adding to discrimination and bad writing. In general: If your character has a trait associated with a negative stereotype of group X that they belong to, there had damn well better be a very good reason for it besides "because they're an X". I can take a woman who faints when surprised if it's caused by a medical condition (no, "hysteria" is not a medical condition); not so much if it's because she's a "fragile woman." Write a person, not a caricature, not a device, not a trope.

What can your character do? Hint: Not everything. Outline what your character is capable of, what skills they have. You don't necessarily need to tell anyone everything at the start-- you can keep things secret, as surprises-- but figure out what your character can do, instead of pulling skills out of nowhere as you go. Knowing beforehand will be useful, too; if you know all your character's skills, you can immediately try and figure out what they can use in a certain situation. Make sure that it makes sense for your character to have the skills they do. A country boy in a setting where reading is mostly restricted to nobility and clergy needs a good reason to know how to read. A young noblewoman in a society where women are barred from combat needs a good reason to know how to use a sword. Unusual skills are not impossible to have; you just need to think of why the character has that skill. Maybe the country boy was training to join the clergy, but dropped out; maybe the young noblewoman's parents want to quietly begin to break down the gender restrictions, and tutored her secretly. Also, if a skill is one that society says your character should not have, they need to act like it. If the young noblewoman is going to be lose her status or be branded a criminal for learning swordplay, she's probably not going to openly talk about what she knows.

It's certainly possible for your character to learn new skills, but learning takes time. If your character picks up a sword for the first time, she's not going to be a master in a week. A character can be well-suited to something and take to it "naturally"; they can be talented, certainly; but that's still going to take time and hard work.

On the flip side, what can't your character do? Certainly they can't break the physical (and possibly magical) rules of the setting. If they're young, it's unlikely that they'll be a master of anything, or at the front of an academic field. If they're physically out of shape, they're not going to be able to outrun an athlete. Limiting what your character can do is not a bad thing. If your character can get out of any scrape he gets into, he's going to get boring. Having limitations introduces conflict. Conflict is interesting. Having your character figure out what they can do about their situation within their limitations is interesting. And if your character somehow doesn't have limitations, if you let them do anything, it may be exciting for you for a little while, but nobody else is going to want to read that. In an RP such behavior tends to be called out as godmoding and condemned. A character that can do anything is boring and unrealistic.

In conclusion, just keep in mind that you want your character to come across as a person; you want them to be believable and three-dimensional, not incredible paragons or flat caricatures. Hope this was useful!


Writing rant disclaimer:
Some of you may have read some of my fiction or participate in an RP I am part of. If you notice that something in my writing has something I have labeled as a problem in my rant, go ahead and tell me so! I may not have noticed that I'm doing whatever it is, so that can help me! However, I do want to keep this place polite, so please no unnecessary bashing of my characters, or, for that matter, anyone else's, be it a fellow commenter or a fellow RP'er.


  1. Good post. A few comments:

    1. With regard to elderly characters, while it is true that very old people are unlikely to be able to adventure properly, this does not mean that all PCs have to be within the 18-25 range.

    There's nothing wrong with having characters be young adults, but mature adults are often similarly capable (trading experience and wisdom for the vigor of youth or something). I could see viable PCs up to 60 or so if they are trained military people or are magic users who do not require much physical strength etc.

    From the RPs I've seen, people seem to be fixated on younger characters though this is probably in part due to RPers feeling more comfortable roleplaying characters close to their own age.

    2. Regarding stereotypes, I think it is important to think about how your character's traits work together. A specific problem I've noticed deals with the overfeminization of female PCs. If your character is a military woman, she is probably going to be more emotionally hardened than a "typical" woman, and thus is probably less prone to crying hysterically about her boyfriend leaving or whatever. She also is probably more concerned about her job than her appearance.

    Also, if your character has been in combat/seen heavily injured people before, please do not have them faint/get sick at the sight of blood unless they have a specific medical condition or something (yes even if they're a woman). Normal people do such things, but your PC is probably not a normal person. In most typical fantasy RPs, your PC has some sort of combat ability and there's a good chance they've used it and should be somewhat numbed to the effects of battle. Now if your character hasn't experienced combat before, having a significant reaction to the slaughter around them is perfectly acceptable.

  2. Re part 2: Heh, I was already planning on doing an extra rant for that. I may have to do something about part 1 as well, you bring up an interesting point.


Just remember Rule Zero, guys: Don't be a jackass.
And check back occasionally! I do reply!