How to Make a Normal Character

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Revision, Oct 25, 2012.

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  1. How to Make a Normal Character

    We’ve all been there, in the RP where we’re surrounded by characters whose players are all seemingly in a competition to have the biggest badass, the most tragic past, the sweetest power. Many times, this leads to people stepping on one another’s roles, conflicts, lack of character development, and an inevitable fanning out as everyone tries to make their mark. Character also have no way to grow, except by keeping up this competition to accumulate better, more, stronger. This is not only a quick way to make an RP bland, it also causes GMs headaches as they try to juggle all the alphas in the room.

    The “normal” character is often neglected in favor of the special. This can be a bad thing. Stories need normal characters, not just as NPCs, but as part of the team. This isn’t to say you can’t have powers, abilities, etc. It is, however, saying that there is a baseline and RP success is based partially upon someone or someones sticking to this baseline, or at least its existence. If the baseline for a world or game is normal human with no special stuff, that is your normal character. If the baseline is a space elf who can fly, that’s your normal character.

    -Defining Baseline

    Baseline is the Xander. The level one hero. The starting point. It is wherever the GM says “look, here’s what we are going to do.” The baseline is not to be confused with a grunt. You are still part of the story focus, and that makes you a bit better than normal in most cases. (There are some comedy stories where you might play someone very inept, but this workshop is not going to delve into that.) You are already guaranteed a slot on the team. Whatever makes that team special, you have it. You just don’t have much beyond that in the way of super special stuff.

    But don’t confuse normal and baseline for generic. You’re on the team. You’re the Doctor’s companion, you’re part of the Space Marines, you’re in the anime club, you’re on the student council, or you’re part of the glee club. If nothing else, you’re in the same area as the others and fate has picked you to be a part of this story. That’s pretty damn special for normal.

    -Some of the Best Characters are “Normal”

    Some of the greatest characters in literature start off normal. Some remain normal through the entire story. Think of the stories where the normal person is in the wrong place at the wrong time or meets the right friend at the perfect time and ends up pulled along for a great journey. (Chihiro in Spirited Away, Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Alice in Alice in Wonderland). How about the superhero or adventure group where the “normal” guy holds it all together? (Alexander Harris in Buffy, Bucky in Bucky O’Hare). Or the makeover tale where the normal girl becomes a stunning beauty in the end? (Cinderella, Eliza in My Fair Lady, Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries)

    The key here is these characters started normal or remained normal and either became badass or found strengths that didn’t have to be expressed as super awesome.

    Show Spoiler

    -Chihiro was a normal, somewhat timid girl who became courageous and blossomed.
    -Arthur became a globe trotting, flying sex having bunch of awesome after starting with a rather mundane life and suddenly having his world explode.
    -Alice is a daydreaming girl who becomes the hero of another world/her own imagination
    -Xander is the heart of the group, but has no superpowers or strength. He also saves the world a couple times.
    -Bucky is the least specialized of the whole crew of the Righteous Indignation. Whereas everyone else is special, Bucky has worked to become a leader and captain. This is one of the few examples of the baseline being the main character.
    -Cinderella is a servant who falls in love and marries up.
    -Eliza steps up in the world, too, but through hard work and stubbornness.
    -Mia starts in a seemingly normal life and finds she is royalty, but this is not what makes her special. Finding her confidence is what gives her the strength to become the princess she’s always been. (Please never make me write that again.)

    -Let the GM make it interesting

    One thing about the stories and shows mentioned above is that each character was shaped by the others in his story and the plot. While you might get lucky and have other characters in your RP help shape your own, it will mostly be the plot and the hard work of the GM that helps your character go from baseline to amazing.

    In life, we are a collection of stories. We are every misremembered anecdote, every flashback, and every overheard joke we tell. We are formed and shaped by the events around us, but moreso by how we perceive those events.

    A good GM can present the events. It is up to you to decide how they affect your character, how he or she remembers them, and how they become a part of who the character is. But it starts with the GM. Be ready to work with the GM, to form bonds or enmity with other characters, to let your character grow based on what happens instead of being so afraid of character shifts that you cling to a pre-made, superpowered stock character. A good GM will give you events that let you grow. Use them.

    -Give your character life

    Before you can hand your character over to the GM, you have to make your character. This is where most people encounter some trouble. You see all the awesome characters others are making and feel you need to keep up or you feel that urge to be unique. But consider yourself. You, as a person are unique. You are also the hero of your own story. You don’t have to be something super special to be that way. You are awesome already.

    Now apply that to your character. Look at the things that make you yourself. Don’t copy these things into the character, but consider likes, dislikes, political affiliations, medical conditions, how the character makes friends, what they do in their free time, and adventures they’ve had. These don’t have to be grand. Keep the backstory baseline. Talk about that time they got stuck on a raft heading down the creek and panicked because they couldn’t swim, even though the water was knee depth. Talk about using mattresses for tumbling mats and breaking a tooth. Talk about the first time they went shooting if the campaign is military. Or the time the whole space station was under quarantine when they were five but things were alright in the end and it lead to them reconciling with a family member. Talk about the time they were walking down the street, saw sunlight flashing through the trees, and realized that they were isolating themselves artificially in darkness.

    All of this doesn’t have to go into the official character sheet, but little things like this, things that could become anecdotes, are the baseline’s alternative to the heroic war story. So jot them down as you come up with them during creation or while playing and keep them in a notepad file.

    You may want to add one or two tragedies or revelations. Those will be covered below. But first, consider looks. You want to be beautiful? That’s fine. Ugly? That’s great. But remember, you are baseline. No odd colors, no tails on humans, nothing like that. (Unless, of course, the species calls for it or it is fake or something of that nature.) Try to find a height chart if you are playing in an established fandom so you don’t tower above or fall below others. (Note: this does not apply quite as much if you are the only halfling in the mixed species adventuring group, but you still might want to try being an average sized halfling. So many halflings are “short, even for a halfling” that I am beginning to wonder if they all shrink an inch a day to keep up with one another.)

    -Tragedies don’t have to be huge

    I’ve had more than my fair share of tragedies in my life, so I won’t say the big ones don’t happen. They do. However, life is often affected more than one realizes by the little tragedies. These are the embarrassing moments, the jilted first love, being forgotten at school. These things shape our lives. They are at the very bottom of our motivations. Remember how much they hurt and how much they can stay with you through your life. Crafting these to be realistic and have realistic effects upon the psyche is hard. It can take having a really detailed history and possibly some psychiatric research to portray accurately, so you might want to think of your own personal tragedies, the small ones, and adapt them, rather than trying to get your degree in psych.

    It’s so much easier to go with big tragedies that most people don’t consider that often, when it comes to very personal tragedies, the little ones made the larger ones possible. Think of the girl who sits alone at lunch everyday. Maybe she was so desperate for validation later that she married a man who mistreated her. Or the young boy left on the stoop at school waiting for hours for his father to pick him up. He might never forgive that slight and it might make him act edgier throughout life and be the start of a rift that a big event will break wide open when it otherwise might have drawn them closer together. Take a small set of small tragedies and talk to your GM about what they affect and how to work them into the story for something big down the line.

    -Big steps and little ones

    This same philosophy can be applied to revelations. We see characters have Aha! moments, but many times it is something that shaped them subtly that allows them to reach this point. A gift at a going away party, a favorite bedtime story, or someone repeating the same unheard advice for years. These things build, slowly make subtle changes that allow that big event, that Aha! moment to happen. You have an epiphany! I’ve had them walking down the street or watching a show, but they’ve been years in the making. Very rarely is an isolated incident the cause of a revelation. It is instead the catalyst for the realization of the revelation.

    -Finding that special something

    In the end, there is still that need to be unique. But what makes your character special, whether it be realized or unrealized, is nothing bold or shiny. A good baseline character has something, some quality, that promises potential. They have the capacity for generosity, the spark of rage, or the open mind.

    We are not our circumstances. We are what we make of them, and what remains when we shine through them.
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