LESSON Creating Compelling, Engaging, and Relatable Characters

fatalrendezvous

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This is a lesson that I think many writers kind of intrinsically know, but don’t apply often enough. I want to try to educate folks on it because it can DRAMATICALLY change the way we approach and think about roleplay, and enrich our roleplaying experience by creating characters that are much more relatable and genuine, which makes them much more engaging.

What do you mean by a "relatable and genuine" character?

When I talk about a character being genuine, I don't mean as one of their character traits. I mean that the character feels genuine to the reader, and that just like with a real person that we'd meet in real life, we learn more about them over time, watch them grow, and watch the events of the story shape them as a person.

Think about the best movies you've seen, your favorite TV shows, your favorite books. You didn't know all about the characters when you started! We grow with the characters, we go on journeys and adventures with them, we learn their histories and their past, and we grow to like or dislike the character based on what we experience with them. Organically! That’s what I mean when I talk about genuine characters.

A character being relatable, is mainly about the execution of those journeys and adventures, the details of those backstories. Are those things believable? Are they things that your reader has experienced, or can imagine experiencing? When we can’t understand how or why a character made a certain decision, we tend to feel sort of disconnected from them. Keep in mind, our characters can still make bad decisions and be relatable, as long as they make sense given the context of who the character is and how they behave and react.

Why does this matter in roleplays? Why can't I make my character whatever I want them to be?

As roleplayers, we have a tendency to think from inside our characters' heads, and to center our decisions around them. But it's important to remember that you are crafting a story - one that you share with other people. Of course WE want our characters to be awesome because they're ours, but in order to keep and maintain interest from our writing partners, they need to think our characters are awesome, too!

When we encounter characters that are believable, that are relatable, we connect with them. We grow invested, we get engaged. We immerse ourselves in the story with them. When this happens in a roleplay, your writing partners are more likely to stick around, because when we're engaged like this, we're having fun!

A story is nothing without our characters. If the characters themselves are flat and uninteresting, it doesn’t matter how exciting the premise of the story is. Likewise, you could have a very plain, slice-of-life story and as long as the characters are fun to follow, it will still hold up.

How can I make my characters feel more organic, more relatable, or more genuine?

One of my biggest pieces of advice is for the time before your RP even begins.

Simplify your character sheets.​

Just like the movie / TV show / book example I gave above: when you start a story, you usually don't know much about the characters in it. You start to make judgments about them based on how they behave, how they react, how they talk, et cetera. Learning about a character organically this way makes it so much more satisfying when you reveal snippets about the character's past and backstory later on, and your readers can piece together their lives to understand how those things shaped them as a person.

It’s just like when you meet a person in real life for the first time. When you first meet someone, you don't know anything about them other than some things you can deduce or infer by looking at them, and some surface-level information they’ve given you in basic introductory conversation.

If a person you were just meeting for the first time started regurgitating facts about themselves, explaining significant events in their past, their likes, their dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses, their character traits and so on, most of you would nope out of there in a heartbeat and likely never interact with that person again.

Why? Because nobody does that - so don’t do it with your character sheets, either. There’s no need to bombard your readers with all of this information at once. It’s unnatural, uninteresting, and it’s also a pain to slog through and can make looking through character sheets feel like a chore.

Keep in mind, I am not advising you to do less work! As writers and the principal roleplayers of our characters, we need to know our characters' pasts and backstories, but our readers and writing partners don't need all of that info right away. In your character sheets, give them the core of who that character is. Let the readers peel the layers back as the story develops.

Challenge your characters and let them grow.​

Everyone has flaws and weaknesses. A character that is perfect in every way is uninteresting because there is usually nothing left for us to learn from them, and they have little room to grow.

Every character needs a struggle or conflict. It can be external, like a war they are fighting, an opponent they have to defeat, or a love interest they need to win over. It can be internal, like a moral struggle, an emotional attachment to something they can’t let go of, or a fear or addiction.

Not everything needs to be difficult for our characters, but some things do need to be hard for them. When our characters finally manage to overcome these weaknesses and struggles, it usually marks a pivotal moment in a character’s life or story arc. It’s a moment of growth for them.

It’s worth noting, sometimes our characters will fail to overcome their weaknesses. Some of them never will, or they’ll die before they get a chance to. While these are sad outcomes, it’s important to include failure sometimes. The contrast makes the stories more believable, and makes their victories that much sweeter.

Be consistent and realistic with your character's decisions.​

Part of what helps us connect to characters is being able to understand why they make certain decisions. In the real world, when we are confronted with a task or problem, the way we deal with those tasks is largely influenced by our experiences with similar problems in the past. Our experiences shape the way we view and approach the world. The same goes for our characters.

When our characters are faced with a task they need to complete or an obstacle they need to overcome, the way they approach these problems should be consistent and realistic given their experiences, skillset, wishes and hopes, etc. It's sort of the classic idiom, "When all you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails." Our characters should be approaching problems with the existing tools they have.

For example, a corrupt politician or ruler who routinely gets away with lying and scheming will likely try (or at least consider) doing that again. A soldier or assassin who routinely resolves conflict through combat or violence ought to, generally, weigh that as one of their options. It's not until they learn a new way, or when their normal options are taken away, or when they have a change of heart, that they'll consider other avenues.

Note that when I talk about a character being driven by their hopes, I do not mean OUR hopes for them as the writers! If our characters don't know their strengths or their weaknesses, or they haven't learned enough yet to resolve their conflicts, we can't let them off the hook and allow them to overcome conflict and struggle just because we want them to! Freebies like that can be a turnoff for readers because it feels like the character hasn't fully EARNED their achievement yet.

When I say we need to be consistent and realistic, I almost mean we should let the character sort of control themselves, to an extent. Sometimes we put our characters in a situation expecting a certain outcome, only to find as the situation develops, that the outcome we want doesn't quite make sense. When we get to moments like this, we need to carefully think about what the character wants, what they've learned, what they have yet to learn, etc., and make a decision that aligns with the character. Even if that decision isn't the result we want as the writers.

After all, we're the writers! Even if the character isn't ready yet, it's our job to make them ready later.

Thanks for reading!

If you've gotten this far, I hope this has been helpful to you! Again, I think a lot of the things I've talked about here are sort of common sense, intrinsic knowledge that most people already kind of know and understand. It's important to have a reminder every now and then to stay on track!

If you have any other questions or comments, feel free to reply and I'll try to address them as I see them!
 
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Asmodeus

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You should also add that most roleplayers are between 14 and 30... the time in life when you CHANGE the most. Having to play the same rigidly pre-defined character week-in, week-out while real life morphs you is neither realistic nor satisfying. Everyone changes.

What you should establish with a character sheet is the KERNEL... the core of who they are.... the things that would never be compromised. That's where you can use back story, OR, as I prefer, role and archetype. It gives the other players enough to know what function you'll be serving in the narrative. But a mentor could be a thousand different things; so it also gives yourself room to breath.



STOP UNNECESSARY CRUELTY IN CHARACTER SHEETS.
 

Ser K+

Bleh.
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No that one refined as I doesn't like to dip my crisps in other sauces.
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Modern fantasy or Sci-fi, related to school and shit.

I despise that.
Unless it's more Fate/ and less SAO.
"Brief" Add-ons​

•When making a background, make it sensible! One does not become a master at anything in just one year.

•Don't randomly make up skills that don't fit the character's background! One couldn't possibly be good at Tae-Kwon-Do or Violin without taking alot of classes or being taught! No exceptions!

•Don't make them perfect! No one likes a super attractive, super athletic, super smart, super virtuistic, super artistic, super sociable, and super rich uber butt head!

•Don't make them horrifically imperfect! No one likes a downer that couldn't possibly do anything! In real life average people just let them be!

•Don't give away key self plot points or what you have in store for your character!
It takes away from the dramatic effect when it happens.​

Also,
NO ONE HAS TO DIE, DARN IT!
It's fricking clichè.

(Links to a flash game. This post is generally educational though.)
 
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Kestrel

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Well, I can't say I agree with all of the advice.

A character sheet is similar to a resume. While it would be great if we could just skip out on it, that sheet is something you can use to grab someone by the collar and say "Hey, hey, hey! No time-travelling demon overlords in disguise, no matter how epic of a reveal you think it is." Sheets are also telling to me if someone has decent reading comprehension, which is a big, big issue. Demon overlord example? Got that one in a game where the OP makes it very clear we're only playing humans (also we don't have modern firearms).

Also, not everyone can play every archetype. When a mentor charges into battle without thinking and teaches you armour only slows you down, like hell I'm letting my squire character become their apprentice. I'll metagame that knowledge into finding someone who knows what they're doing instead. Predefining someone's role in a story is asking for trouble, unless of course, trust and relations between players has previously been established.

If trust has been established previously, I think limiting the information you broadcast is a great idea to make your story more exciting (though I still recommend people to document character traits for their selves to keep it consistent and understand how/if what develops). In that sense I would agree. And hell that would be ideal.

Also, because I just gotta nitpick, this limiting what you show on your CS is not so much a tool to creating an organic character, as it is to using it as a tool for storytelling. The organic character is simply having a character with strengths, weaknesses, potential for growth (or decline) and goals to work towards to. You mentioned this in your guide, but I think it deserves more of a spotlight than the whole CS-thing.
 
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fatalrendezvous

Mother Knows Best!
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A Few Posts A Day, One Post a Day, A Few Posts a Week, One Post a Week, Slow As Molasses
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Intermediate, Adept, Advanced, Prestige, Douche, Adaptable
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Male, Female, Futanari, No Preferences
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Favorite Genres
Fantasy (High and Low), Sci-Fi, Modern Fantasy, Modern Realistic, Apocalypse, Drama, Romance... I have lots of interests!
Genre You DON'T Like
I'll consider just about any genre, although generally I'm no longer interested in anime-esque roleplays or high school settings.
Well, I can't say I agree with all of the advice.

A character sheet is similar to a resume. While it would be great if we could just skip out on it, that sheet is something you can use to grab someone by the collar and say "Hey, hey, hey! No time-travelling demon overlords in disguise, no matter how epic of a reveal you think it is." Sheets are also telling to me if someone has decent reading comprehension, which is a big, big issue. Demon overlord example? Got that one in a game where the OP makes it very clear we're only playing humans (also we don't have modern firearms).
My primary point is that it all begins with the character sheet.

Your argument about the character sheet being a resume and it being an indication of whether or not someone has read relevant info is a fair one, but our ideas are not mutually exclusive. As a shameless plug, I will point out the 100+ different character applications we have had for the Iwaku Mass RP, Ilium, which is nearing one year of running continuously. We follow the creed of minimalist character sheets, and we STILL go through them with a fine-toothed comb! We find things that don't mesh well with the setting, things that aren't plausible, things to improve, as well as things that clearly demonstrate a lack of reading or comprehension on the player's part. There have been applications that have literally taken weeks to fine-tune. Of course, if the player can explain a concept that they had in mind to us, we do still take that into consideration too.

Certainly, a large part of that is GM-driven, which is also an important factor, but that's for a different discussion. It IS important for a GM to understand how to handle these issues, but if it's something as drastic as secretly being a demon-lord that was conveniently left off the character sheet and not run by the GMs and instead the player just suddenly sprang it on everyone in the roleplay... I mean, I hate to be harsh, but that guy's either going to edit it out, or he's out of here.

Also, not everyone can play every archetype. When a mentor charges into battle without thinking and teaches you armour only slows you down, like hell I'm letting my squire character become their apprentice. I'll metagame that knowledge into finding someone who knows what they're doing instead. Predefining someone's role in a story is asking for trouble, unless of course, trust and relations between players has previously been established.
I don't understand the purpose of this paragraph at all. I'm not trying to be rude, I just honestly don't get it. I think you may have misunderstood Asmodeus' point about the character sheet establishing a role and an archetype.

When a player submits the sheet, whatever they list for their occupation is generally very closely tied to their character archetype. This gives the GMs and other players an idea of how a character with that occupation can fit in to the story. This is because people within a particular occupation usually have certain skills that we can assume they have if that's what they do for work.

The way a player actually plays an archetype is irrelevant. If they created the character, then that's the character we assume they're going to use. Poor play and poor character sheet construction aren't related (in this sense, though they do relate in other ways). I apologize if I made it seem like the roles in the story should be pre-determined, because that's not the intention.

Separately, I will say this is also on the GMs to enforce this by being willing to give the offending player a slap on the wrist (something we call the karma system) - "Hey, you charged into battle without thinking, your character is going to get some pretty severe injuries, and if none of the other characters come to help, he might die."

If trust has been established previously, I think limiting the information you broadcast is a great idea to make your story more exciting (though I still recommend people to document character traits for their selves to keep it consistent and understand how/if what develops). In that sense I would agree. And hell that would be ideal.

Also, because I just gotta nitpick, this limiting what you show on your CS is not so much a tool to creating an organic character, as it is to using it as a tool for storytelling. The organic character is simply having a character with strengths, weaknesses, potential for growth (or decline) and goals to work towards to. You mentioned this in your guide, but I think it deserves more of a spotlight than the whole CS-thing.
Trust point is well-taken, but having clear rules, and proper enforcement of those rules makes trust less important. 95% of the players in Ilium are ones I'd never played with before Ilium.

You are right about the fact that a minimal CS is a tool for storytelling. I totally agree. However, it IS ALSO a tool for creating organic characters. Because I don't want to know everything about your character when we start playing.

The classic saying in art and literature is "Show, don't tell."

A minimal sheet (like the kind used in Ilium) is enough to give us a sense of what the character is like. We can learn more about them as we go, just like with every other story. The CS is a springboard for other things to develop. As the saying goes, show us, don't tell us.
 
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Kestrel

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We follow the creed of minimalist character sheets, and we STILL go through them with a fine-toothed comb!
Skills are actually a pretty big one, and hiding those until plot relevance (or bragging or whatever) would also fit in very well with the general idea of what you've got going in this topic. So to a point they are mutually exclusive.

But yeah. I don't know Illium beyond a glance or two myself, but this largely depends on how accessible a setting is. One major issue I've ran into was the idea of nobility being nothing but a useless title in a certain world. You have no idea how many applications were for characters of nobility, relying on said nobility for status, possessions, plot relevance, etc. Even though it was clearly stated in the OP. Multiple times. Many people tend to mesh settings together into one big brew of "What I think is fantasy." I think it's cause RP's die so quickly that people become more invested in a certain concept than a world itself. The more backstory people have, the less interesting reveals you can make, sure, but also the more reference material you have to that person's understanding of the established world. It saved me a lot of headache, at least.

I don't understand the purpose of this paragraph at all. I'm not trying to be rude, I just honestly don't get it. I think you may have misunderstood Asmodeus' point about the character sheet establishing a role and an archetype.
Yeah, I probably shoulda worded this better. Point being is that a sheet can be a good reference point for other players as well. The previous example was negative, but for a positive example, I played a couple games on RP gateway, where it's quite common to have people create pre-RP relationships between their characters based on their bio's. I've had a lot of fun writing pre-RP collabs, which would later be used as flashbacks.

Pre-defining roles, in my experience, doesn't work out very well when a lot of people who don't know basic tactics go for generals and mentors. A lot of people have ridiculously old characters who think, talk and reason like... Well, teenagers. I once had a guy who said his character was intelligent and charming, but in-game came across as creepy, blunt and stupid. Hell, there was even one time someone going for an explosive experts-role needed to be told what C4 is. I kid you not. I really have a lot of bad experience with this. Maybe yours is different.

Also yeah, consequence to actions is good. That's how I like to deal with it as well. It's just easier in my experience to reject a player before they can fuck up than to deal with it later when they're a lot more invested already. It just goes like "Okay guys we're going to ignore this post." "Please don't engage him, I will talk to him." etcetera.

Overall though, any amount of information you reveal has it's pros and cons. The points you raise are mostly valid, I simply have different experiences and methods to go about it. Between the pros and cons, GM's (or partners) should be able to find what works best for them personally.
 

fatalrendezvous

Mother Knows Best!
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Intermediate, Adept, Advanced, Prestige, Douche, Adaptable
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Male, Female, Futanari, No Preferences
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Both. Aggressive about seeking plots and interaction with other players, but willing to follow if others want to take the lead.
Favorite Genres
Fantasy (High and Low), Sci-Fi, Modern Fantasy, Modern Realistic, Apocalypse, Drama, Romance... I have lots of interests!
Genre You DON'T Like
I'll consider just about any genre, although generally I'm no longer interested in anime-esque roleplays or high school settings.
I've made some updates to this post, added a few notes for clarification, and expanded on a few segments. Hope you guys find this helpful!
 
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