Why Am I Here, Again?

Most people who have taken up writing have heard of Chekhov’s Gun. For those of you who haven’t, the premise is that if there’s a gun on the wall in Act 1 of a play, it will go off by Act 3. (Or its lack of going off will be a plot point.)

The most important application of this rule isn’t props, though. It’s characters. And this is equally applicable in both gaming and writing.

The short version is that every major or important minor character should have a reason for being in the group and in the story. In a game group, this usually takes the form of mechanical differences between the players. Some systems encourage this more easily than others (heck, D&D 4E penalizes lack thereof), of course. Now, this isn’t to say you want complete differentiation. Having someone who is utterly scary in social arenas but useless in a fight isn’t much fun for that person—or much of anyone else, given how frustrating having to devote all one’s time to protecting someone can be—if you’re fighting regularly, and that character’s opposite number is going to start dreading social interactions. It’s best if they’re all technically functional in most arenas. But you want to make sure that there are at least separate specialties—that any one character isn’t completely eclipsed by everyone else around them.

This is particularly important when introducing a new character into an established game. The obvious threat is to the newcomer’s position: if you’ve got a group that’s been working together for a while, particularly one in which most of the players like to serve as generalists, they probably have people with competencies in most of the situations that crop up, and strategies or ways of improvising in the few cases where none of them have reliable ways of dealing with the situation. They may even be good at dragging such situations onto their own favored battlefields—the social monster who starts shouting down armies because she can’t figure out what else to do about them, perhaps, or the fighter-type who tends to revert to knocking heads together when there’s no other apparent way through the situation. Someone new coming in is going to need one, preferably both, of two things: a mechanical niche that makes it necessary to keep them around, and a background or ability that justifies their being present in and accepted by the group. (Getting them trusted, of course… is a blog entry in and of itself.) But then there’s the other possibility: what if in some way the new character renders one of the existing PCs redundant, by doing her job better than she can do it herself?

The other question is what happens if you figure out that the latter might be the case, particularly if the new build has already been finalized. To how much extent can you justify asking someone to please get off the nice person’s toes, particularly if whatever the toe-stepping specialty is a part of their concept?

And what happens if the player’s worried about schtick overlap—in either direction—but the GM doesn’t see it as a problem? (I’ll admit, I still don’t have an answer to that one. Suggestions would be welcome.)

While it’s not going to involve literal hurt feelings or irritation in a story, taking into account what purpose a character serves in a narrative is just as important for a writer. What’s the point of writing a bunch of semi-major characters if all they do is serve as a cheering section for the main character? Imagine for a moment that your semi-major characters have players; would they be up in arms about their lack of apparent purpose at any given point in the story? Would they be sitting around eating popcorn while the rest of the group plays? What, for this character, is the equivalent of the gun being fired, and have you gotten around to it yet? Will you? Why are they here?

It’s something to think about.

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