LESSON The Art of Creating Organic Characters

Discussion in 'DEVELOPING CHARACTERS & CULTURES' started by fatalrendezvous, Feb 5, 2015.

  1. This is a concept that I always kind of intrinsically knew, but never really applied because I had never put that kind of thought into it. I want to educate folks on it because it DRAMATICALLY changed the way I approach and think about roleplay, and has enriched my roleplaying experience.

    What do you mean by an "organic" character?
    When I talk about a character being organic, I mean that the character feels genuine to the reader, and that just like with a real person we meet in real life, we learn more about them over time.

    Think about the best movies you've seen, your favorite TV shows, your favorite book. You didn't know all about the character when you started. We grow with the character, we go on the journey with the character, and we learn to like or dislike the character based on that journey and how they react. Organically. That's what I mean when I say organic.

    How can I tell if my character isn't organic?
    In most roleplays, this is kind of doomed from the start. Many roleplays that I see get this kind of mixed up - we make bios for our characters before they're even accepted into the game. At that point, we already know so much about your character and the way they think, and what makes them tick.

    The more extensive the character sheet, the more grievous the offense. I have seen roleplays that demand character likes, dislikes, history, personality, etc.

    Think about that for a second.

    If you met someone new today, and that person immediately started regurgitating all these facts about themselves, telling you their life story, telling you how they react to situations and how they perceive things, their likes and dislikes, all within the first few moments of getting to know them... You would likely think that person is absolutely batshit insane. Even if you didn't, you really no longer have motivation to get to know them, because that person has already told you everything. That's boring and uninteresting!

    What can I do create an organic character?
    The first thing I suggest is not to reveal too much too soon. Having a simple character sheet is only the start of it!

    Come up with your character's background and their story, but don't give it all away too soon. Let the readers get to know your character first, and then gradually peel back the layers as you reveal new tidbits about them.

    Also think about things you want to accomplish with your character, goals for them to achieve, and struggles for them to overcome. Consider the ways in which accomplishing these things (or even failing these things) will change the way they think, how they will grow. The important thing about good characters is making them believable, which in turn means making them realistic.

    But I have all these cool stories from their backstory and I don't know how long the roleplay will go on for or I might lose interest or the GM might disappear or---
    Whoa, whoa, hold on! Sometimes, these things happen.

    Patience is a virtue. Plot points about your character or important background points about your character have far more impact when they are well-timed than when they are given away right from the start or when they are squeezed in out of context.

    If you knew Bruce Willis' character was dead at the end of The Sixth Sense from the very beginning of the first time you watch the movie, the rest of the movie suddenly becomes a lot less interesting! That's why being able to time a big reveal about your character is important! Find an appropriate time in the story (or better yet, make an appropriate time in the story) to let out the reveal!

    And sometimes, the time never comes. Roleplays might not finish for a variety of reasons, including loss of player interest, loss of GM interest, time constraints, whatever. It's important not to let this get you down! There are plenty of other roleplays in the sea, and there will always be other opportunities for you to get out that big moment you've been planning. It's worth it to wait! I promise.

    Hopefully if you've gotten this far in this, I hope you've learned a little something.

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

    Shoutouts to @Asmodeus, @Tegan, @unanun, @Zen, @Peregrine
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  2. 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.

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  3. "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.​

    It's fricking clichè.

    (Links to a flash game. This post is generally educational though.)
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  4. 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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  5. 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.

    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."

    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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  6. 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.

    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.