Telling Stories: A little special goes a long way

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.You want your characters to be special.  That’s fine, that’s understandable, that’s even commendable.  So you make your first character a half-dragon spawn of the realm of faeries, and…

Well, no.  No, we’re already clocking out, and no, it’s not just because you’re doing so in a game with neither dragons nor faeries.  It’s because your character is too special.  Your character has broken the Specialometer.  It’s impossible to relate to them any longer, they’re just too special for us to properly internalize what their deal is.

So let’s talk about people who are special in small ways.  About picking out one or two obvious things that aren’t common and then building a character around that rather than trying to be The Most Unique Snowflake Ever.  Because wouldn’t you know it, being less special can actually make your character feel more special in the long run than being a half-dragon faerie spawn.  Unless you’re playing a superhero game, maybe, but even then.

Because this is really what elves needed, more reason to feel special.

No, the special part is not the wings, those are actually normal for elves in this game. Yeah, I know, I don’t know.

The problem of specialness is the same as the frosting problem I mentioned a while back.  Too much “special” makes the whole thing just feel disjointed, like some steady diet of, well, nothing but frosting.  You wind up with the character that everyone makes at age 6, the super-specialest princess in the whole wide world, one that’s impossible to care about in any dramatic context because it’s kind of nonsensical.

By contrast, little bits of special – even ones with large-scale impacts – feel a lot more plausible, because of the same basic principle that street magicians have always used.  There’s a principle called the “Too-Perfect Theory” in magic which offers that people are more likely to believe a small trick with effort than a large trick with none, even if a reasonable audience knows that both tricks are equally impossible.  Think of it this way: if you see a magician make a salt shaker disappear from under a handkerchief, then see another magician make a salt shaker fly ten feet up, circle around, and then turn into a dove, which one makes you immediately scream that it’s fake?

Of course, objectively, we know both are illusions.  In practice, we have an easier time accepting the small one.  And in roleplaying, people will have an easier time accepting your characters if they’re only exceptional in small ways.  It helps ground them.  Sure, your character has an eye that can see the future, but for the most part that character has a normal life.  Wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, go home, read and relax a bit… a normal person.

My main character in Final Fantasy XIV, for instance, has one really special and unusual thing about her – a binding spell on her back.  Yes, she was trained as an assassin, but that’s not really all that unusual in the setting, even if the organization in question was unorthodox.  Her skillset is not exceptional.  Nor is her behavior most of the time.  She lives a fairly standard life – she has a job, she’s in a steady relationship, she talks with others about the latest fashions in Ul’dah and she scours bookstores for new volumes of particular interest.  There’s nothing that flags her as instantly being so special, because she quite honestly isn’t.

Honestly, that’s part of the point to begin with.  I wanted to roleplay in this game because I enjoy the setting.  Why would I create a character specifically to derail the setting?  Isn’t that the opposite of why I decided to set up shop here?

I miss it still.

You might thing that it’s the robot part that’s unusual, bit it’s actually the Victorian trappings.

This doesn’t mean that you should be mundane, exactly, but more that there’s a certain baseline throughout the setting.  In World of Warcraft, growing up as a Draenei literally means that you have grown up surrounded by ethereal beings of pure light and being suffused with magical knowledge.  That isn’t special to you; that’s normal.  That’s just a thing that happens on a daily basis.  Saying that your character wants to be even more special than that is asking a fair bit, as if somehow your divine creature needs to be even more divine than the other ones.  It’s not a contest.

And which one stands out to you, honestly?  The Draenei who wound up becoming a shaman with a fair bit of political clout (her one special trait) who is otherwise defined by her personality?  Or the Draenei who also has wings and has a connection to the Legion and can summon burning flame despite being a Paladin and carries the soul of a great warrior and…

But then, that kind of made my point, didn’t it?  Layering on more special traits is usually just a way of making a character with more adjectives than personal quirks.  It’s like creating a toy character and adding more gimmicks in an effort to make them more interesting.  Thunderwing and Vroom are two characters with identical toy gimmicks, though, and fans only really remember the former.  Why?  Because he was built up in stories to be an interesting character, given a personality and goals and wants, and fans responded to that.

Gimmicks don’t make your character special, they just make them top-heavy.  A fleshed-out character with one special trait is more memorable than someone with dozens, because you’ve got more space to fit a personality in there.

In fact, that one bit of specialness that I mentioned fits in partly because it’s a little reminder that you’re not in the real world.  It’s a footnote, an additional trait, something that can become important or remain irrelevant depending on your personal preference.  It’s also something you can build upon and expand later, if you’re so inclined.  Rather than trying to let your character be defined as a unique island right from the start, it gives you time and space to make your character more interesting over the long run, with just a few exceptional bits for flavor.

Because special anything is like a spice.  Use too much, it ruins the whole piece.

Feedback is welcome down below or via Twitter, mail, whatever you enjoy using for communication.  I don’t judge.  Next week, I want to talk about using your online roleplaying to enhance your tabletop roleplaying (and vice versa, to an extent); the week after that, let’s talk about agency.

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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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