Telling Stories: Fitting in the circle

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.I was introduced to the idea of character circles a long time ago, in an essay about writing Transformers fanfic of all the things in the world.  Needless to say, that’s not my usual go-to source for writing advice or roleplaying advice, but it’s still a good idea, and it’s one that I’ve internalized over the years as being extremely useful for both.  Especially if you’re dealing with characters who change a lot over time.

Let’s be honest and admit that characters in roleplaying can be somewhat… fickle.  They’re probably being consistently played by one person, yes, but your moods change, circumstances change, and what seemed like a perfectly good idea with your character yesterday doesn’t seem like one today.  Over time, you get a feel for what your character will or will not do, but that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes you just make a call and it might be almost entirely arbitrary.  What you need to describe your characters isn’t a biographic listing of characteristics; what you need is a circle.

I wanted to see how well I could make a Borg who was not a Borg.  It came out well!

Not quite the same as characters who are using circles as a major element of their design, before you ask.

Character circles are pretty simple in concept.  A character, by definition, is a collection of traits and actions.  At the center of the circle are the traits and actions most vital to defining who that character is, but as you move further and further out from the center you have more and more flexibility.  You can’t change something at the core without having the character go through some major event, but portions at the outer edges can change almost on a whim with little to no explanation needed.

By way of example, I’m going to use one of my own recurring characters, Cetlali.  At her core lie her love of technology and body modification, her geniality, and her ineptitude at any sort of combat.  Just one layer above that lies her unluckiness, her attraction to men that are never the right ones to be attracted to, her love of piloting.  The outermost layer contains more superficial stuff, like her hairstyle, her feelings about drugs, her family focus, and so forth.

If I play Cetlali in one game where she’s a teetotaler and then have her be kind of a lush in another game, she’s still recognizably the same character.  Elements change, but the person underneath doesn’t, and those core ideas are untouched.  Changing stuff in the middle, though, feels like a pretty big shift.  If I played a version of her where she was naturally lucky, it’d feel like a very different character.  Her love of piloting wouldn’t just evaporate, it’d have to be spurred on by something significant (and considering how many ships she tends to lose, it’d need to be really bad).  Pull things out from the core, and she’d feel like an entirely different character altogether.

To hearken back to a column from a few days ago, if I write a story in which Superman was raised by a pair of gay men living in Idaho, growing up to work as a fitness trainer in Florida with a boyfriend named Louis Lane, is he still Superman?  I’ve changed a lot of stuff near the core, but I’d argue that so long as he remains the Last Son of Krypton with a love of all humanity and his characteristic friendliness, the core isn’t fundamentally changed.  He’s still Superman.  The center remains untouched.  By contrast, it’s why a lot of people felt that Man of Steel wasn’t much of a Superman movie, because while the outer layers remained the same for the character, that core friendliness and optimism had been ripped out.

The trick for roleplaying, then, is figuring out how your character circle looks.  What are the core elements that makes your character feel consistent?

Not all circles are great, is my point.

Some centers do consist of “purple” and “chainsaw sword,” yes.

If you like having something tactile for this, go ahead and get a piece of white paper and draw three concentric circles.  In the center go the elements that have been the most consistent over time, or the ones that feel most important to you as a player.  Middle circle is for things that change a bit here and there, but are still important, still define chunks of your character.  The outermost portion is what seems to change on an almost daily basis, the most inconsistent elements, things that have come out via play but don’t hold any emotional resonance for you.

And there’s no value judgement about what goes where, because it’s not a matter of one trait or another being the big ticket.  I have characters for whom their sexuality is a core trait, and I have others for whom it’s on the outermost part of the circle, defined but utterly mutable and irrelevant.  One of my characters absolutely needs to come from money, while another has it in her middle circle and still others don’t even touch upon it.  I have a character whose beard is in the center of his circle, and as silly as it might seem, that beard is a big deal for him.

With practice and time, it becomes easier to think of character circles without the need to visualize them, understanding the core of what makes a character distinct compared to the characters around them.  And keeping this in mind helps your character to feel more consistent, even if you come to it later in your playtime.  Sure, there may have been some early inconsistencies, but you can point to what makes your character tick now, you can avoid any weird hiccups again.

It also makes character development easier.  Things on the outside can change quite easily, but it’s going to take major events to change the middle layer, and things at the center can’t and shouldn’t change.  Or if they do, it’d need to be a massive life-altering event.  We’re talking Bruce Wayne watching his parents die levels of magnitude here.  Big stuff, not just a few friendly discussions.

But you don’t need to change those things.  They’re at the center of the circle.

I hope this column has helped or at least provided a new way for you to look at your characters; you can let me know either way down in the comments or via mail.  Or by Twitter or whatever, I’m flexible.  Next week, it’s time to tackle the question of why ERP has such a bad reputation, and the week after that, I want to talk about being special in small ways and how useful it can be.

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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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