Telling Stories: I wish I was

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.At its most basic level, all roleplaying is a form of wish fulfillment.  Sure, you may not want to be your characters, but you presumably enjoy slipping into their heads for a little while.  It’s a chance to step out of yourself and engage in behavior you never would in a normal setting, whether that behavior is something you’d personally find reprehensible or just something different from the norm.  (Slaying monsters, for example, does not form the foundation of a solid career path in modern society.  I’ve checked.)

That doesn’t mean it’s always a good thing.

Wish fulfillment is a tricky thing to discuss when it comes to roleplaying precisely because it’s always there, even if it’s usually a background issue.  You can’t pretend it has nothing to do with your characters, but you also don’t want them to be nothing more than pure self-serving fantasy engines.  So let’s talk a little bit about wish fulfillment in games, how it works, what you can get out of it, and how you can avoid making your characters into the gross sort of wish avatars.

Technically she would not like a girl who looked like anything, but I didn't feel like messing with Skee-lo's lyrics.

I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller, I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her.

So how can I say that every character is some form of wish fulfillment?  Because they are.  There are four(ish) categories that pretty much every character falls into, and every one of them involves wanting something and then seeing it in action.  There’s wanting to see this character, wanting to be like them, wanting to be them, and wanting them to be what you want.  But I should elaborate.

I want to read about this person: This is the basic level, the easy stuff.  Any character you create for roleplaying is a character you find interesting enough that you’d like to keep seeing what they do next, because they’re fun or awful or interesting or insightful or whatever.  Roleplaying is all about making the character on Page 1 that keeps you turning until Page 47 when she shows up again, that one who you know you’re going to find fun to read about.  You have decided to give that character a story, and that’s wonderful.

Sometimes, it’s even just about taking an existing character, tweaking the sliders, and unleashing them on a different setting whilst letting them be the main character.  Again, that’s harmless.  It’s wish fulfillment (“I want to see this character in the lead”) but of the sort that’s done with an eye toward loving a character and keeping things interesting.

I want to be like this person/This person is a part of me: At this point, the character is either an aspiration or an investment.  You’re putting part of who you are or wish to be inside of a character.  And that’s legitimate, too.  “Me without social anxiety” is a fine basis for a character, or “exploring my fear of isolation through a character,” or “the sort of person I hope to be in two decades.”  Often there’s a lot of overlap between this and the previous category, since we like reading about characters we think of as awesome role models.

This can get a little gross at times if you overextend the comparison, feeling that your character should be universally loved or that no one treats your issues seriously, but the core is still innocent.  Extend too much and you wind up in the next category.

I am this person/This person is me: In very limited circumstances, this can work out all right.  If you’re going through a really difficult time in your life, sometimes it can serve as a decent brief stopgap measure to more or less lose yourself in your character.  But more often than not, this category is where players have tied themselves so deeply to a character that attacks on said character are personal affronts and vice versa.  The character isn’t your positive aspects without the bad – it’s you, pure and simple, and you don’t think they have any negative aspects.

In other words, you think your character is awesome and you are awesome, and you’ve made your character even more awesome, and how dare anyone question your awesomeness.  And that isn’t okay.  More than that, it’s actively problematic.  This is the point wherein people start backing away, because your character serves no other purpose than self-aggrandizement.

Dance for me, puppet!: This one never works out well.  These are the characters created solely for ERP or to talk up your other characters.  They have no motivation or personalities or anything like that, they’re just around because you want them to serve a purpose.  They’re not characters, even; they’re wrenches with legs.  Tools.  Mechanisms for producing a specific set of results.  Usually fantasy characters bumping uglies.

So much potentia, but so much wasted.

If I had it all again, I’d change it all.

When we talk about characters being nothing more than wish fulfillment, it’s these last two categories that we’re thinking of, because they’re the point where the character starts being wholly and visibly subservient to the player.  In the case of the fourth one, it’s pretty transparent, but in the third category it can often be subtle.  A good roleplayer with a big investment in their wish fulfillment avatar will often find lots of excuses to justify why their character believes everything that they do and is exactly the same, only more awesome.  (To parrot The Office: “He’s a great deal like me… except he can fly.”)

As a spectator, there’s not a whole lot you can do about this beyond handling the player in question with kid gloves.  If they’re a good enough roleplayer in general that you enjoy their company just the same, you can gently raise the subject, but once a character passes into being wish fulfillment any criticism of the character is by nature taken personally.  If you don’t have a personal investment, cutting out purely wish-fulfillment characters is a good idea.

But let’s assume you don’t want to be veering into that territory and it’s your character.  If that’s the case, you need to keep an eye out for the differences between what you want and what the character wants.  If it turns out there’s a near-complete overlap between the lists, you might have an issue.  If all of your personal wants involve what happens to the character, again, that’s a red flag.  Both of these are good places to take a step back and determine how much of yourself you’re investing in one character and how “real” they feel for you.

A bit of wish fulfillment is a good thing, yes, but the goal of roleplaying is not to provide a long-term alternative to all the things you feel you can’t have in the real world.  And for most people, it isn’t.  But you do need to always keep your eyes open if you want to avoid creeping into that territory.

Next week, it’s time to talk about tragic characters and how tragedy is not the be-all and end-all of dramatic situations.  The week after that, I want to explore making roleplaying work on a limited amount of time.

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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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