Telling Stories: No accounting for taste

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.You don’t want your characters to like what you like, usually.  At least not solely. One of the joys of roleplaying is stepping into the shoes of someone different than yourself, which doesn’t work in the event that your character is basically you with a race-lift and possibly a gender shift.  Since one of the things that we use to define ourselves is the existence of distinct tastes from other people.

Of course, the problem there is that you still have to portray the character, despite those differing tastes.  You want other people to genuinely believe that yes, your character likes these things, even if you don’t.  So how do you make your character like things that you don’t when your frame of reference is so thoroughly based upon what you actually like and find interesting?  How do you give a character a new set of tastes being acted out by a person who completely doesn’t share them?

Human beings figure out how to weaponize something, then how to turn it into a game, then how to get porn on it.  Sometimes the last two are swapped.

Don’t try to convince me that this lady does not come from a universe with an adequate set of gaming consoles.

On the bright side, in many settings you don’t have to worry about an exact correlation between what you like in the real world and what your character has available to them. I am relatively certain that my captain in Star Trek Online is not going to be jumping into an MMO and roleplaying in an odd sort of recursive loop, for one thing.  My characters in Final Fantasy XIV do not have video games among their available diversions, and my World of Warcraft lineup will not be concerned about things that happened to their favorite characters in Transformers comics.

But there are probably still games in STO, there are certainly books and plays and such in FFXIV, I would be surprised if no one had started making comics in WoW.  Even if there aren’t exact parallels, there are some.  And of course, no matter what setting you’re playing in, there’s food and the like to deal with.  You can find points of commonality no matter how alien the setting; the designers usually create that commonality, because human beings love talking about ourselves.

So how do you make sure that your characters don’t share all of your own tastes?

The first and most obvious trick that a lot of people try, I’ve noticed, is giving a character opposite tastes.  This doesn’t work for the same reason that I could never convince someone that I really like the awful taste and texture of licorice. Telling people that you’re fond of something you actively dislike is almost comical, and the effort will at best be appreciated in the sense that you’re trying.  It won’t be very convincing.

A better idea is to keep some of your tastes intact, but shift priorities.  In real life, video games are probably the biggest thing I’m passionate about, with pets and books running a close second.  So it’s not hard for me to have a character whose first passion is animals, who talks a lot about caring for animals.  In science fiction settings, they could be a zoologist; in fantasy settings, perhaps just a ranger or something similar.  But it’s a field of interest I share.

Taking it a step further, you can focus on interests that you don’t have at all, or things that you’re aware of but don’t define large parts of your life.  I have a character who is consistently interested in music and singing, something that I haven’t done in years and which no one would mark as being high on my priority list.  Yet it’s important to her, something for me to help distinguish her from my other characters and a way to give her something more important to pursue beyond immediate game goals.

This remains one of my favorite things I've ever seen in a game.

Don’t assume that someone’s passion being different than your own means that they’re any less genuine about it, though.

There’s also something to be said for the fact that your character’s priorities are far different from your own, no matter how affluent you may be in the game.  (I have never known anyone super-affluent to be roleplaying, but perhaps there are people who have huge amounts of money and roleplay.)  By definition, your character is engaging with the world around them in ways that you don’t. I sure as hell don’t have to kill things to make a living, and the most vicious beast that I deal with on a regular basis is my cat.

The result is that you probably have more free time to pursue your hobbies in some settings than your characters, and definitely different access.  Your interests can make up a bigger portion of your day-to-day behaviors, there’s less work needed to make sure that you still have food to eat, clothes to wear, and the like.  In Final Fantasy XIV my characters have to spend more time on basic necessities of life.  By contrast, in Star Trek Online the only reason for a character to concern themselves with food preparation is interest; the replicator is there and works fine otherwise.

Manifestations are different, in other words.  They require a different set of procedures and behaviors.  Sometimes, that alone is enough to make a character’s interests seem sufficiently different from your own.  Playing The Secret World, my character shared a large number of my tastes… but in different proportions and different ways.  Sure, we both liked a great deal of the same music, but she far preferred older music and tended to be more into listening to it via iPod while shooting supernatural beasties.

As nice as it might be, on some level, to have a character whose interests don’t line up with your own at all, just for verisimilitude… it’s not happening.  You’re still a human being and still have to create and play the character yourself.  But you can make your character passably far from your own wheelhouse, and at the end of the day, that’s usually close enough.

Next time around, I want to talk about major ongoing storylines and how to have your character interact with them without being the super hero of everything ever forever.  The time after that, I want to chatter about finding good stopping points and the importance of being able to stop.

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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