Telling Stories: Thinking like a television with your characters

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.

Playing my main character in Star Trek Online has been illuminating.  She had her own gig for several seasons, and it was interesting, watching her go from a fresh-faced Lieutenant to a Captain through sheer pluck and determination.  Season 1 was mostly about her sorting out her crew and how she related to officers frequently trained not to accept a Cardassian in command; season 2, meanwhile, was much more focused around her past and what she actually intended to do with her command.  It wasn’t until season 3 that she really started exploring how she interacted with other officers, developing friendships and rivalries; but she left a lot of that behind when she climbed just a little higher.  Now she’s in season 4, and she’s learning that it’s quite lonely at the top of the ladder, and perhaps not as focused on what she actually finds important.

Obviously Star Trek Online focuses its updates into what it calls seasons, but just as obviously not what I’m talking about here.  Organizing your character’s past and present into seasons and story arcs can be a major boon to playing your characters while keeping a strong sense of their development over time.  Even though much of the time you’re going to be imposing order after the fact, it’s still a good way to organize your thoughts and get a good sense of the past without becoming overly bogged down in details.

But can you blame them?  I can't.

The “green surfing” season lost a lot of viewers.

I haven’t done this in a while, but let’s use LOST as an example.  (Longtime readers remember I used to do this all the time.)  The whole series is structured as a single long-format story, with every single moment flowing into the next, meant to be experienced all at once.  In light of that, the whole idea of seasons seems irrelevant.  John Locke, for instance, develops over time, but he’s a contiguous character.  How much can be gained by looking at him season by season?

Quite a bit, actually.  In the first season, he’s a man with faith but without conviction, perfectly content to wander and wait for revelations that are dropped into his lap on a regular basis.  By the second season he’s questioning his faith, going so far as to throw it away entirely in the face of someone with stronger and more absolute conviction.  By the third season he’s found his nerve again, but still finds himself wandering without purpose beyond flashes and starts, and by the fourth he’s following his purpose even though he doesn’t know where it leads.  In the fifth he’s all but broken, following that purpose, feeling abused, unsure of why he serves this particular set of goals and just wishing for some ultimate clarification.

Does every moment of the character in those seasons conform to those broad strokes?  Certainly not.  But it provides a helpful way to think about the character, a way to organize what happened to him mentally.  Your characters can benefit from the same approach, especially as their adventures have not been televised and thus are not available for immediate review by anyone with a Netflix subscription.

So how can you organize these seasons?  There are two ways, both of which I’ve used from time to time.

Arc-based approach: A major character usually has some kind of arc over the course of a given season, either some major development or just a series of things that happened to them.  So it only makes sense to organize your character arcs into seasons, drawing the dividing line between each of those major events and treating each one as a distinct unit.  This works particularly well when you’re only focusing on one or two characters anyhow, since they’re the ones doing things in the first place.

Jot down the major arcs the character has been involved in on a personal level.  Those form the backbone of your season structure.  This doesn’t mean that all of them followed in perfect sequence – your romance with Sven became a major focus after you betrayed the Secret Assassin Order, but you were already flirting with a relationship beforehand.  The trick is dividing up the broad strokes of the most significant happenings.

I'm kind of sad I never quite got to reach the conclusing of the arc with her very Asperger-ish non-apprentice, but that's another story.

Most seasons of Micharan’s Jedi life involved her taking someone under her wing, because that’s how she rolled.

Time-based approach: You might, of course, wind up with a character who’s been played for a year but only has two arcs to their name.  This is where a more time-based approach can be handy, because you don’t have to focus on the what quite as much.  Instead of dividing up by major arcs, you divide up by blocks of time and figure out what your character was doing in that region.  Sometimes this means filling in some offscreen blanks with speculation, although don’t do so if that involves attributing actions and thoughts to other people’s characters.  (But you knew that.)

This can be particularly helpful with a large group of characters you play at the same time, naturally – in any given group it’s likely that not all of them are equally active, and trying to form a season based on one person’s emotional arcs means that everyone else gets a disjointed mass.  So you decide on a reasonable unit of time, and then you edit the details of what happened to stretch things into the right timeframe.  Sometimes it means a bit of wink-wink nudge-nudge, but that’s not such a bad thing.

Note that these methods are not mutually exclusive.  If you’ve played the character for two years with five major arcs, one which stretched for most of a year, there’s every reason to chop up that long one into more meaningful segments.

Having seasons can help with two major elements.  The first is plotting a trajectory.  I’ve said so many times that roleplaying isn’t the same as storytelling, which means that you tend to do a lot more wandering hither and yon; figuring out where you’ve already been helps make the next steps that much clearer.  We do it all the time with our real life, editing the narrative of our past to see the shape of it more clearly and guiding our next decisions as a result.

Dividing up into seasons also does a good job of summarizing and contextualizing the important parts of your character’s backstory, something that can get very unwieldy over time.  Organizing and clarifying by imposing structure helps the whole thing feel more approachable.  Do you want to read a wall of text about someone’s backstory, or would you prefer a quick set of snapshots that give you a clear sense of the character without getting bogged down in details?  I know which one I’d prefer.

Oh, and it lets you cut together exciting trailers in your mind about the epic things your character will be up to in Season 7 or whatever.  That’s not really useful, but it might be fun.

Feedback can be mailed along, left in the comments, whatever strikes your fancy.  Next week, I’d like to talk about weapons, which can be a bit more of a discussion than you might have expected.  The week after that?  The power of fear.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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