The Subtle Art of Characterization: An Overview

The most difficult thing about putting together a world is often the people. This goes double when you’re running a game, as the impressions your players can get of your secondary characters can have plot-changing repercussions. (Note: If looking for straight writing advice, substitute “Main characters” and “audience” for “PCs” as seems appropriate.)

So how do we get them across properly?

First, we need to know who they are and what, if anything, their purpose is. Are they friends or enemies to the PCs? What sort of emotion are they supposed to evoke? Who are they, when they audience isn’t watching? Figure that out, and then store it away for now; we don’t want it getting too tangled up in the next part.

Then we get into the secondary information. It’s important to realize that only we are likely to end up knowing all of it, unless we’re dealing with really curious people or ones who are very good at reading between the lines. This part is particularly important when dealing with secondary characters who have very defined roles relative to the PCs; there is nothing that ruins a character quite like being the designated love interest first and a person second. Figure out who they would be on their own—personality, motivations, the short-term and long-term goals that spring from these motivations, the quirks that cause them to react in ways that someone of their archetype might not and where those quirks come from, and other useful factors. What’s their culture like? Do they embrace it wholeheartedly, rebel against it, or somewhere in between? Memorize them, and then file them away; you’re not going to be directly using them in your descriptions, since the characters are limited to the knowledge that they themselves can directly acquire.

Now we can bring in other people as individuals, particularly the PCs. One way to develop the emotions between them is to establish a pre-existing connection, whether it’s by blood, tutelage, old rivalry, a vendetta (one-way or two, your choice), or some other factor. This is something you’re probably going to need to coordinate with the player, but that makes it more reliable—after all, since the relationship is as much the player’s creation as yours, she’s going to try to follow it a lot more closely than a player who’s just been told, “This is your teacher, this is how you know him, you’re supposed to respect him, now let’s go.” I’ve seen multiple examples of this in games I’ve both played and run. In one, one of my fellow characters had been written with a massive vendetta against another family in her backstory, and as a result was vehemently opposed to them even when for all practical intents and purposes they were on our side and most of the group was telling her to quit with the prejudice already. An example of the opposite effect of this was in the game I currently run; there was one character, didn’t seem to care what most people thought about him—but would quiet down if he got so much as a disapproving look from his mentor, and shut up completely if she asked him to.

If there isn’t a pre-existing connection, you’re going to want to have at least some idea how the new character will interact with the PCs. Start by figuring out what they know in advance, and what sort of first impression you expect them to get from what they know. Now, that may not be the first impression they end up getting; PCs are unpredictable creatures, particularly when you have a plan. But it will give you something to operate by, and if you combine it with the rest of what you know of the character, it should at least make sure that you won’t be at a loss for first impressions.

Speaking of impressions, you also have to take into account their first impression of your character. That’s the tricky part. Again, a certain amount of player input could help; the best way to ensure a good response is to know what makes the characters tick—or what makes the characters ticked—and aim the side character to mesh with those particular issues. If you’re trying to make a villain work for someone who hates being looked down on, arrogance might be a useful tool. If you’re trying to build a friendship between one of your characters and a PC, incorporate qualities that he values, or play to a shared interest. If you want one of your people to gain the respect of a character whom nobody takes seriously, have him listen to her. Attitude counts for a lot, as well. Sometimes, you can do this before you even introduce the actual character, by tactics ranging from giving one of the group’s enemies (or one of their allies, depending on desired effect) a grudge against them to taking advantage of a character’s associations for people like them to just adding an air of mystery; just a few days ago, I managed to get most of my group interested in talking to a musician they’d never even heard of before that session by mentioning that she was picky about her hires.

In the future I’ll go into detail on some of the techniques in question, and the difficulties with certain character types. For now, practice hard and have fun!

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