Telling Stories: Don’t be so hard on your character

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.Don’t be hard on your roleplaying characters.

I don’t mean this in the sense that you should give them all whatever they want and make their lives uninterrupted parades of joy, because that shit is boring.  No one wants that.  Your characters should constantly be facing hardship, struggling, getting knocked down and getting up again.  In that sense, you should be brutal to your characters, relentlessly hard on them, unceasingly on-point about what they’re doing right or wrong.

No, what I mean is that you shouldn’t be so hard on the character you made.  And yourself, by extension.  Don’t berate yourself because your character isn’t as good as they could be, even if your original concept was as gut-shatteringly stupid as “Goku but in World of Warcraft.”  Don’t beat yourself up over poor early roleplaying or changing your character over time or having to toss out some retcons here and there or any of the above.

And then you find out that you fucking hate playing a Geomancer.

“My character is a Geomancer, but that job isn’t in the game” works great up until it is in the game and you have to start over.

Roleplaying, in many ways, is like writing.  Except you’re writing without a safety net.

The characters you see in movies or books are usually characters that have had the benefit of rewrites, revisions, and re-examination.  You don’t have that advantage.  You often don’t even have a complete picture of the world your characters are going to be occupying most of the time.  If you’re making a character on launch day, you have to piece together fragments of knowledge about the game from outside sources, and it’s only once you get into the meat of the game that you can find out how unbelievably wrong you were.

Case in point: I created a character on launch day for Final Fantasy XIV, only to find out that her name, family, and entire way of life didn’t mesh with what the developers saw as the behavior of her species.  I found this out two years later.  There were no indications before then.  Which required several hasty changes to her backstory to explain why this woman who was supposed to belong to a tribe in an entirely different region was, in fact, an urban dweller who had later studied elsewhere in the world and had a long-standing family in the city.

Even if all of that shit lines up, of course, I’ve mentioned many times that roleplaying often tries to drive into otherwise blank spaces in the lore.  Which works great until a developer decides to put something there with an expansion, necessitating another rework from you to explain why your character’s already established history makes no fucking sense.

And that’s not even counting the fact that much like battle plans, no character survives first contact with the enemy, which in this case means the community.  Aspects of your character that you thought would remain hidden get teased out in minutes.  A concept behind your character turns out to not be very fun.  Your original plans for class were terrible.  All things that can leave you lying in the dirt wondering how everything went so miserably wrong without a good answer.

I have more than a few friends who guilt themselves over this, and point to other characters as a gin that “see, they got it right.”  But let me tell you right now, that comes down to two things: luck and lack of shame.

Yes, based on real life.

For all you know, that character concept that you think is so brilliant you wish you had thought of it has a player who thinks “this is so dumb, I shouldn’t have done that.”

If you have space to guess at what the lore is going to look like, some people are going to guess right and other people are going to guess wrong.  It’s rare for anyone to guess 100%, at that, so you have to look for majority.  In FFXIV‘s case, I guessed very wrong about some name conventions, pretty right about Ishgard, about right with most of the cities.  I got lucky.  So I had to re-arrange some things here and there to make everything work, but not too much.

But the stuff I did have to rearrange I just did, and I moved on.  No hand-wringing, no angst over whether or not my concepts were dumb, just making the necessary edits and then moving on.  I don’t care how plausible seven generations of Ul’dahn miqo’te living outside of a clan seems to onlookers; I care about the fact that it’s there and it can’t be changed now.  Asking to accept that slight moving around the edges of lore is easier than asking me to change my character concept from the ground up.  In some cases, the reverse is true.

And it will hit you, and you’ll just have to keep going.  You’ll have to make changes where you can, plaster over the worse bits, and just keep steamrolling ahead.  This is roleplaying, a constant balancing act of editing on the fly and trying to make everything work even when an expansion drops that shoots all of the speculation you had built your character upon to hell.

That’s not even counting if you missed one or two lore references tucked away.

It’s easy to look at your character and see them as held together by gum and baling wire while everyone else has a masterful character hewn from the fabric of the gods, but the fact is that every character is held together with gum and baling wire.  You’re always going to have to paper over one thing or another.  It’s inevitable.  All you can do – ever – is just shrug and keep moving forward.  Contradictions will surface, even ones you hadn’t planned for.  Work with them, work around them, drop a retcon if you need to.

But don’t be too hard on your character.  You’re seeing all of their flaws, but the person you’re roleplaying with probably doesn’t.  Lay back and enjoy the storytelling, and roll with the punches.  Because everyone else has to as well, and telling yourself about all of the flaws of your character is just a good way to demoralize yourself, not fix problems.

Next week, I want to talk about making better liars that provide a better play experience.  The week after that, I want to talk about the tools at your disposal when cleaning up character issues, such as some of the ones under discussion right here.

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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.

One response to “Telling Stories: Don’t be so hard on your character”

  1. Tyler F.M. Edwards says :

    One of the reasons I’ve never got into roleplaying despite having extensive backstories and personalities for my characters is that I don’t think my characters would be well-received by the greater RP community.

    I think they’re too exceptional, and from what I’ve seen lurking at the periphery of the RP community over the years, people tend to only approve of extremely ordinary “Joe Average” style characters. I can certainly understand not wanting to play with a half dragon half vampire who is also the king’s secret lover, but it seems to me like a lot of people go to the opposite extreme. If I want to be ordinary, I have real life for that.

    Aside from which, a lot of my characters just aren’t that interesting. My rogue, for example, is basically just a lawful good professional soldier. Not very complicated. I like her, but I’m sure others would find her quite dull.

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