Telling Stories: Making a guest appearance

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.Your character is the protagonist of their own story.  If that’s not the case, then go play whoever the protagonist is, because they’re the one with interesting stuff happening.  That doesn’t mean your character has to be the super-unique lone heir to some fantastic legacy; it just means that on a list of people who are moving forward in the story, your character should be up there.  What’s the point of making your character just an also-ran?

Most people don’t have that problem, though.  In fact, most people make characters who have tons of stuff going on, backstory, biographical elements, crazy stuff.  Which becomes its own problem when you take into account the fact that if your character wants to get involved with other characters, you want to do so in a way that’s both respectful of the other person’s story and yet still influential.  So how do you walk into someone else’s narrative without being either disrespectful or utterly forgettable?

If it does, well, that's a different discussion.

Just because you’re important doesn’t mean the world starts and stops for you.

When you’re crafting a narrative with someone else, there’s more give and take from the start.  If I start a storyline with Audrey and Dana, we’re all working on the plot at the same time, and so it’s not distinctly mine or theirs.  But if I start getting involved with the epic crime backstory that Audrey’s character has going on, I have to tread carefully, because that belongs to Audrey first and foremost.  Whatever I do has to be respectful of Audrey’s overall wishes and needs, since my actions have consequences on a major aspect of her character.

At the same time, it’s quite possible that my character should be intimately involved with Audrey’s character.  I mean, if you found out that a close friend was involved with the mafia, you’d want to do something, especially if you were also bristling with enough weapons to destroy a small nation.  (Again, roleplaying games.)  So you have to strike a balance between getting involved just enough for it to make sense and also not steamrolling problems.

What do you do?  First and foremost, the obvious thing.  You ask.

Nine times out of ten, backstories are in place to be just that until they aren’t.  I spent years with a major character time bomb in Final Fantasy XIV because I knew I would want to use it, but until I did people observed and interacted without explicitly trying to solve that problem.  Having enough respect to let someone else dictate when you can be involved and how goes a long way toward making you presence a welcome one.

You shouldn’t take that as a preventative principle that stops your character from ever presenting potential solutions, just as a way to prevent you from assuming that they’re automatically going to be successful.  Propose ideas, put things out there, offer solutions and approach the problem, but remember that the person whose backstory you’re involving yourself with has veto power at all times.  This remains true even if you’re linking up character backstories for whatever reason – maybe your character’s criminal mentor was from the same group of criminals that Audrey is dealing with, but Audrey still has veto power over how it affects her.

Assuming that asking is not a problem, the next step is to figure out how your character’s particular skills or abilities are in any way relevant to another character’s situation.  You may have a character with the aforementioned nation-destroying arsenal, but despite what the end of many films would have you believe, shooting people is rarely an effective solution to crime.  If your character has actual ties to the criminal underworld or law enforcement, that would be more relevant.  Of course, that just makes you more eager to jump in – after all, you could work to infiltrate the criminal empire and take it over!  Wouldn’t that be fun?

Maybe not.  Because backstory elements are not there as problems to be solved, but as built-in problems to be dealt with.  It’s the same fundamental difference between a level that’s hard to clear due to bugs and one that’s meant to be hard.


Just let me solve all of your problems myself! Jeez, why do you even have problems?

It’s quite possible that what you see as a ticking time bomb that will have to be dealt with eventually is meant as an open-ended hook and motivator for the character.  Sure, Audrey’s character is on the hook for the mob, but that’s just an element of her backstory to give her plenty of reason to engage in potentially dangerous activities.  The real problem there to be overcome is her ignorance about who her father is.  In-character, the character probably considers both to be significant obstacles; out-of-character, the player only wants one actually removed or adjusted.

But let’s assume that Audrey does want the crime thing dealt with, your character has reason and means to be involved, and you know this is something where your presence is welcome.  The key, at that point, becomes making sure that this is not about you.  You are not the central figure in this story; Audrey’s character is.  You are part of her supporting cast.

That doesn’t mean that none of the things which occur can affect your character, but it also means that even if they don’t, that’s fine.  The focus of this story is on the character who is most directly affected by it.  If you’re not able to cede the spotlight for a bit, you probably shouldn’t be getting involved.  That doesn’t mean your character is nor important or never gets to be cool, it just means that you accept that your character has a role and it’s on the sidelines.

Of course, odds are that it’s going to affect your character, which will in turn affect other characters… you know, a cascading circle of constant interaction.  Roleplaying, in other words.  Just remember that you don’t get to be the most important person in the room.

Next time around, I want to talk about how you can smooth off the rough edges of character concepts through play.  After that, I’d like to discuss having realistic arguments without actual tears.

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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