Telling Stories: I have sunk so low
Your character did something very bad, and now she needs to pay the price.
Every character screws up sometimes. I’ve talked extensively in the past about the fact that characters need to be able to make mistakes and fail at various point, and I stand by it; a character who never fails is a character who isn’t interesting to hear about or interact with. You will fail. Just like in real life, your characters will wind up making bad choices, backing the wrong horse, and trusting the wrong person.
Next, the part where she picks up the pieces.
A failure that doesn’t have impact on your character’s life is functionally nothing; you want every failure to have some long-term impact. That means that every failure stings, and things don’t just go back to normal the next morning. Sometimes they don’t ever go back to normal. When something gets broken badly enough, it doesn’t get fixed, and sometimes the broken parts will just be lingering with a character for a good long while.
The first step to understanding the aftermath of a failure is to understand how your character thinks she failed. Humans are not rational creatures when we make mistakes; we overcompensate, trying to be sure that we’ll never make that stupid mistake again, even if that leads us into making new and more destructive mistakes. So you have to understand what hits your character the hardest, even if she’s blaming herself for things that she logically should not.
When I learned about the Massively shutdown, my first instinct was to blame myself for screwing up, despite the fact that it literally was in no way my failure. I had done everything I could possibly done, I had done a good job, and it was a decision made that had no bearing on the quality, volume, or validity of my work. Yet despite knowing that full well, I still told myself “this is my failure and I probably deserved it.” Like I said, not rational about failure.
Any recovery from failure has to include some time and space for wallowing. No, it’s not glamorous by any definition of the term, but it also gives the sense of someone who has been hurt. Failures are wounds you feel like you could have avoided. They sting. Especially if you feel as if you should have known better, and even more so if you definitely did know better.
If you want to go into a collapse, that is always an option, even if it’s one that can often lead to the end for the character. It’s obviously not pretty; your character failed in such a way that she simply can’t move on from that mistake, that she devotes her time and attention to trying to correct it rather than learn from it. Which is hopeless, you can’t un-slam a door, but it wouldn’t be the first time that someone spent the present endlessly trying to correct the past.
Assuming that she passes the point of wallowing, though – or sometimes mid-wallow – she needs to try and fix things. How depends on the nature of the failure, of course. If she lost a job she needed, she needs to get another job or beg for her old one back. If she betrayed the trust of her friends, she needs to find a way to make up for that lapse in judgement. This is the most practical part of the recovery, obviously, since you can fit in storylines about trying to find a new job or making amends or whatever went so wrong in the first place.
Remember, though, that all of her efforts are made through the lens of someone who is keenly aware of what she did wrong before and desperate to avoid making that mistake again. You can milk a lot of drama simply from ensuring that she’s trying to correct for something that hasn’t happened yet.
There’s also urgency to consider, because that can change a lot of the dynamics. Repairing failure is something best done slowly over time, but when you’re still coiled up and bitter over a recent loss and you need something fixed now, you tend to not make the best decisions. Yes, it’d be nice to pick and choose new jobs, but if you’re trying to deal with a major lost income and you need more money in the door right away, you’re more likely to take a job that’s transparently predatory or harmful or whatever. You don’t have luxury or space to think things through.
This is why even after a character has picked up the pieces, broken parts still remain. You don’t see them at the time, because your top priority is fixing the immediate problem. You are, essentially, making hasty repairs to a building to make sure that it stays up through the night. It’s only when you look back after doing so for months that you realize the whole thing is a mess, and it would take more work to tear things down just to start fixing the whole structure.
Obviously, you can’t do that. Life would be too easy if that were the case.
Not every failure is a world-shattering thing, of course, but the road to recovery always involves a few steps that wouldn’t be taken in a position of calm. You’re not building, you’re patching. And that’s a good thing, because it gives more hooks for when your character does try to fix those hasty patch jobs that she shoved up in error. Or it gives her plenty of space to utterly and completely demolish herself, wallowing in misery, convinced that the problem isn’t solvable. Which usually just leads to having more things to patch back together…
Failures breed more drama than successes. That’s why you like having them around, after all.
Next week, I want to talk about the responsibility you have to your fellow roleplayers, even if you’d like to think of roleplaying as a sort of freeform thing with no real obligations. (Which, as I’ve already discussed, isn’t the case.) The week after that, let’s start talking about something a little bit different in character concept – the difference between “can’t” and “shouldn’t.”
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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