Telling Stories: Repair tools
So your character got just plain screwed up.
I’m a big advocate of the idea that however bad things might get with a given character, you can accept the imbalance and move on. Like a cat, characters don’t need a great deal of herding. But just like you may have to eventually address the fact that your outdoor cat stinks to high heaven and does need to be washed, eventually you might have to sigh, grit your teeth, and realize that something is rotten in the state of your character. You’re going to need to repair.
Fortunately for you, there are tools in place to help you do just that. Somewhat less fortunately, those tools range in overall utility from being super helpful to being kind of severe. So let’s talk about your tools, the long-term effects of using these tools, and try to provide a framework for deciding which option is right for correcting your particular problem without the usual costs of labor.
So back in the earliest days of your character, she did something that is wildly out of character for who she is now. My main in Final Fantasy XIV slapped someone for a suggestion; I know now that she would never have done such a thing, even back then. How do I handle this breach of character? Simple: I ignore it.
None of the people who were there at the time in-character are around her now. None of those events have an active bearing on her life. I deal with the situation by just shrugging and moving on. It is, by far, the absolute easiest repair tool to wield, because it involves just not giving it any thought and accepting that you were still figuring things out about your character. Nor does this tool only work when everyone you roleplayed with at a given time is gone; I think everyone gets at least a few passes of “yes, that was a character blip.”
Useful a tool as it is, ignoring something can only be done for isolated incidents. Ignoring big chunks of known backstory is basically a de facto retcon. It’s a tool for fixing momentary out-of-character behaviors, not wholesale rewrites of your character.
Something happened and you can’t say that the whole thing was out of character. It can’t be ignored, it’s too big. This is where the gloss is handy. Like the obvious beer bottles in a college dorm room that you hope your parents just won’t notice, the gloss is the act of hurrying over the details and focusing on the most relevant facts without getting into any aberrations that might have cropped up during past events.
Obviously, the advantage here is that you aren’t ignoring or altering events. They most definitely took place. What you are doing is sort of skating right past the details, especially the details that don’t work with the character that you’re playing. Sometimes it’s not even an older event; it might be something recent, even a case where you were involved with an event but don’t feel you had the space to really let your character develop and react appropriately.
What can crop up with this particular tool is that the details you’re glossing over mattered a lot to another player. It’s not an overt retcon, what happened still happened, but it’s only in broad strokes for you. Not everyone will be on board, and you might have to do a bit of massaging. Such as with the next tool.
The Backward Tweak
If you want to be technical, this is a retcon, but I’m using that for something more severe. Essentially, this is a tool to adjust something that you’d otherwise gloss or ignore. The events took place, but some element of them is not as remembered. The fine details are adjusted. Your character’s actions were slightly different, albeit not enough to change the overall course of events.
On the one hand, this is changing something. On the other hand, it’s changing a detail, not everything going on around you. So you agree that your character was at the Night of Red Blossoms and you most definitely got a scar there, but instead of weeping she was stoic and defiant. Often, if you don’t draw too much attention to it, the players you’re talking with might even assume that they’re remembering wrong. You probably don’t want to trick people like that, but that’s not the point.
At this point, you are editing the past outright. It’s worth doing if your character as played thus far is so drastically out-of-character during something significant that it introduces questions or suspicions that weren’t there otherwise. Just be aware that yes, this is going to introduce some continuity issues, though not as much as a full retcon.
This is wholesale. Basic details about your character are changing. Names in games that don’t allow renames. Big chunks of history or backstory. Fundamental parts of who the character is. You’re really undoing a big chunk of how people see your character, and it goes beyond simple concept drift. Retcons are not always huge, but they essentially mean that your character is different now from what people remember.
Biggest drawback? You have to explain this fact to everyone, over and over. Everyone who roleplayed with you is now dealing with a different character. If you decide to retcon again, you then have to explain it again. It’s a severe tool.
However, it is still a tool, and there are times when a large-scale retcon isn’t just a good idea, it’s the best idea. Obviously, if you find the character as developed to be unfun to play, you need to do something about that. It also lets you go back and edit a bit more selectively, changing attributes without necessarily changing everything. I’ve witnessed a handful of retcons in my day, and it’s a serious tool to be used at times when you like the circle and the current state of your character but not their backstory or history.
You never met this character. Starting over from square one.
To do this is to bust yourself back down to zero. Not necessarily getting rid of the character, just doing a factory reset – back to original traits and no history with anyone in the game. You are nuking everything. This is the sort of thing that has a long-term effect on everyone, especially your closest in-game companions, who have gone from having a friend to having a stranger.
Much like actual real-world nukes, this is one of those tools that gets discussed far more often than it gets used. It’s drastic, and it’s the sort of thing that only works when you’re basically trying to undo all of your roleplaying history and start over while still wanting the same core character. The downsides are… well, pretty obvious. What is positive is that you get to keep a character you like, possibly without the drama and history that made the character less than fun to play.
Next time around, let’s talk about tone policing, one of the more vile things you can do to your fellow roleplayers insofar as it’s gross out-of-character behavior. The week after that, let’s talk about recovering from failure.
About expostninjaI'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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