Character Creation & Growth 101

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Brovo, Dec 31, 2015.


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  1. Disclaimer
    As is standard with my other guides, I'm putting a disclaimer here to remind everyone that I don't have a degree or other credential to lord over other people. I have plentiful experience in writing long term role plays, which many seem to aspire to and few ever achieve, so I'm here to offer a few tips about how to possibly improve your writing. Keep in mind that no rule is universal, there is no "best way" to write a story or create characters. This is simply what tips I can offer on the subject. Take some of it, or all of it, or none of it. So long as it helps in some way, I've done my job. :ferret:

    I've written other guides on how to improve your characters and writing in general, but now I'm going to offer some specific tips about how to increase the versatility of your characters, right from the get go. Use this guide to help improve the writing aspects of fields like your biography/history/personality. Use this guide to help figure out how to create interesting group dynamics, and how to avoid creating dud characters who go nowhere fast.

    Also, there are spoilers to other, older TV shows and what not so I can cite examples. You have been warned, but, again, older: I won't spoil anything released in the past five years. :ferret:

    So, without further adieu, we are going to take this one step at a time. Starting with...

    Rule #1: Characters have a shelf life.

    Something a lot of people don't understand (and really for good reason, you've likely never been taught this) is that most characters... Have a shelf life. Not just the literal "they can die of old age" deal, but as a character grows stronger, it becomes more difficult to throw appropriately leveled obstacles at them without breaking the universe. After a certain point, no matter how ludicrous the story's scale, you will reach an upper threshold. At which point the character can no longer grow beyond their limitations: They've become the master, they've achieved all possible power growth, they are at the top of their game. Therefore, the more powerful a character is, the more personal conflicts they have already surpassed in their history, the less shelf life they have as a result. This is why mentor characters like Obi-Wan die anywhere between the early to mid point of a story: They already start pretty high up on their shelf life, and so, the only logical course of action for them typically is to die to create drama in the story and create a new conflict for the younger, weaker protagonist.


    Rule #2: Less is More.

    A typical protagonist in a story adopts a great deal of skills and achievements over the course of a story. Protagonists need obstacles that are appropriately challenging, so they can attempt to overcome them, grow, and thus tell a story as a result. Therefore, when inputting information about your character into the biography/history field, or describing their powers, keep in mind that the less power they have, the more potential they have for growth. The less obstacles they have already overcome, the more conflicts can be created that will challenge them, and thus the more storytelling you can get out of a single character. If your character is a black belt in three different martial arts by the age of seventeen, there's not much that can reasonably challenge them, and thus their shelf life will be very short: They don't have anywhere to grow, there is nothing that can really fuck with them save perhaps the final obstacle, and so they have no reason to change. Which brings me to the next point...

    Rule #3: Change is the basis of storytelling.

    If a character is a static brick for the entirety of the story, there is nothing interesting about them. I think everyone can agree that Mary Sues are loathed in spite of the lack of a universal definition for what they are, because they never change. They never need to grow, they never adopt new personality traits, they never have to question their world view--they remain static, unchanging, and boring. Therefore the key to a good and memorable character, is that they change over time as they train, adopt new skills, overcome obstacles, and so on. The obstacles should force a character to make tough choices, whether that's cheating to pass a school test, or having to choose between saving the damsel or killing the villain. This is why it's important that your character's power is as restrained as it can reasonably be if you want a long shelf life: Because if you can both save the damsel and kill the villain, or pass every school test with flying colours without ever needing to sacrifice anything personally, you have a character who will never need to change. Who will never be confronted with a situation, that causes them emotional distress.

    Which means...

    Rule #4: The biography is not a story.

    The only objective you should have with a biography/history/personality field entry on a character sheet, is to explain what they are, and why they're interested in resolving the conflict in the plot. That's it. The less you have to explain about their family life, emotional scars, hopes and dreams for the future, and so on, the stronger the character you will have. Use the biography to explain only what is absolutely, strictly necessary: What powers, or skills, or abilities, or so on they have, and why they have an interest in seeing the plot resolved. Nothing else. Keep family history (positive or negative) to yourself. The more you don't say in a biography, the more potential character growth you have with other players. For instance: If in your physical description your character has a scar running across their cheek, and you don't mention why they have it in your biography, that becomes a talking point in the story. Something for others to discover about your character, and a point upon which you can start to build a background on in character. The more unexplained material your character has, the more you can explain later, the more growth you can potentially crank out of the character. This increases the shelf life of your character, by simply following Rule #2.

    Therefore, do not write your biography as a complete life's story. The job of the biography is to give a list of interesting things to explore later, not to be explained immediately. "I have a family but I left them" leaves a lot of possibilities. Going on for four paragraphs about how abusive and evil they were and how you eventually overcame them to escape, starts and wraps up an entire major conflict with your character before the story even begins, thus rapidly diminishing your character's shelf life.

    Rule #5: Avoid going too extreme in the opposite direction. (IE: The five second/minute rule.)

    It is possible to go too extreme in anything, and curbing your character's power/personality/achievements is no exception. Use a rule of thumb: If your character would die within the first five seconds or five minutes upon encountering any conflict in the role play, you've dun' goofed and gone too far to increase their shelf life. You should probably give them a little more power. The reason being that if your character cannot resolve any conflicts, then they're just as dis-interesting as a character who can resolve all conflicts perfectly. For example: If your character is a morbidly obese man who is prone to panicking and feinting at the sight of blood in a zombie apocalypse, with no useful survival skills or weapons to speak of? They're going to die, painfully, and nothing of value will be gained. They'll just be yet another civilian fatality. That's not really an interesting story in terms of a long term role play.

    Rule #6: Names do not (and usually should not) "mean" anything.

    Unless your character comes from a culture where it's traditional to name people after things (ex: "He Who Runs With Wolves"), naming your character after a thing they will do in the distant future only creates many more questions than it ever will provide meaning or depth. Your parents didn't name you Sarah because they somehow knew you would become a magical princess later, they likely named you Sarah because it was the first name that came to mind that they could agree on. If anything, making your character's name after their future profession or something else like that, only implies a complete lack of subtlety on your part, as though you think your audience is too stupid to understand that Sarah is a princess without making her name literally mean "princess." Simply give them a name appropriate for the setting, it fits nicer that way, and will ultimately make more sense.

    Rule #7: When deciding a character's age, keep in mind how much stuff they know, and how much they've already done.

    Practical example? Your character is not going to become a fully trained and employed medical doctor by the age of twenty. Medical school takes eight years. That means that they would had to have started college at the age of twelve. Therefore, keep in mind how long it would take for your character to learn all the stuff they know right from the beginning. If they've been a truck driver for "several years," they probably aren't twenty. So on and so forth. As a special caveat for long lived races (ex: Elves), this can mean adjusting your mindset to try and explain why a 600-something year old is still only on par to that of 20-somethings.

    Rule #8: Figure out the group dynamic.

    Once you've established who your character is in your mind, and filled out the character sheet, look at other approved characters. This is another thing that you're probably never taught, but should do. You need to figure out what everyone else has done to see how your character will fit in. After all, role playing is a group activity, character interactions are the primary reason to even bother with role playing. Therefore, ask yourself quite simply: How will my character get along with everyone else? Who will they feel romantic or sexual inclinations for? Who will they get along with, who will frustrate them? Who will lead, who will follow?

    This is important because you can create characters which, technically, follow all the above rules, but which still completely fail to succeed in a story. You need your character to be able to establish relationships with others, and so if you end up creating a loner, or someone who will feel detached from the conflict, they'll have no reason to stay and be part of a group environment. While it's possible to create interesting loners, they're probably the hardest archetype to actually pull off in a role play environment, because it's entirely about interactions. Which, as I've gone on about in a previous guide, actions and reactions--interactions--are the very heart and soul of role playing. If your character doesn't fit, and there's no group dynamic, it won't matter how interesting they may be: Their shelf life will be cut short, because the story will have no group cohesion, and it will completely fall apart.

    Rule #9: Have social skills beyond those of a halfway retarded lemming.

    An important aspect of character creation and growth--again, usually overlooked entirely as a complete unknown by role players--is to actually talk to other role players. You don't all have to become the best of friends, but having friendly associations to fellow players will greatly improve your odds of success. Make plans with other players, discuss potentially interesting group interactions, possible relationships, and attempt to strive together towards interesting scenes. One does not simply "poof" good stories into existence: Ass pulling rarely produces good content, and that goes for character creation, growth, and interaction as well. If you want to write a compelling scene full of feels, you'll want to set that up first, and plan it out a little with the other players. You don't have to plan everything with grotesque levels of detail like some sort of fucked up meat puppet play, but have a general, shared idea, of what everyone wants to accomplish on the individual level, and achieve those things together. The GM wants to complete his plot, but believe me, as a GM, I delight when I see players try to advance their own subplots, and interact with each other. It makes causing their characters harm all the more impactful when people actually give a shit about each other.

    Talk early, talk often, and talk productively. Plan, remind each other, and work together. You're a group, role playing is a group activity, and if you find you're not talking to anyone else in the role play, your interest will diminish to utter nothingness nine out of ten times, even if you really like the story and your character. Guaranteed. I mean, think about it: How interesting would it be to do any hobby with complete strangers if you never talked to them and felt no compulsion to do so? Would you even bother to continue going with them, or simply attempt to do it on your own, or even give it up entirely?

    Rule #10: Ferrets are adorable, and you should love ferrets.

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