The Kernel of a Character

What defines a character?

Trying to get a decent answer to that question is fraught with difficulties; if any two people can agree on it, it’s probably because they haven’t gone into enough detail yet. Sure, there are shorthands like Alignments or Natures or Instincts, but that’s not going to be enough for most characters to cohere. But most will fuzzy-agree on a number of traits that basically boil down to the minimum of information it would take to teach someone else how to act as that character convincingly. I call the information it requires the kernel of the character.

And needless to say, being able to figure out the kernel of a given character, or at least what the kernel should be, is vital to getting the character across to other people as it’s meant to be gotten across. How many writers have discovered that a character they meant to be creepy, annoying, or just plain evil has become a fan favorite, or that their intended-to-be-heroic main character is seen as a Mary Sue at best and downright sociopathic at worst? If you know the character’s kernel, you can figure out how best to represent it so the audience doesn’t get the wrong idea. Similarly, most gamers would do well to understand their characters’ kernels, whether they actually project them in character or not. How else is the GM supposed to know which sorts of plot hooks to use?

It’s also useful to be able to figure out what the kernels of other people’s characters are, particularly if you’re the kind of person who plays with other people’s worlds. When writing fanfiction, or when playing in game worlds with canonical characters, one of the biggest risks I’ve seen is too much clash between how the adapter portrays the character and what the audience thinks the character should be like. Some people expect it so much that they shy away even from situations where the original creator of a character (or someone who presumably knew the creator well enough to know what would have been acceptable) gave license and carte blanche for a successor’s interpretations.

Some people design characters kernel-outward. I don’t; mine never reveal themselves to me early enough. Instead, I hunt for kernels by tracing the characters backward from what I’ve seen of them, sometimes testing them through counterfactuals, sometimes just describing the character to someone else and seeing if they can get an image, sometimes asking my players what they think after seeing these characters in action. When I’m explaining a character’s kernel, I don’t just stop at age/sex/physical description/brief backstory. I start with age and sex (sometimes), but then I move into other things. Cultural context. Qualities they admire (I’ve noticed my own characters often have extreme senses of duty). Skills and abilities they have, or at least the ones they use, and how they use them (and when relevant, the ones they have but don’t use, and why not.) And voice—not just slang or timbre, but acidity level, sense of humor, approximate idealism/cynicism, and mental/emotional age (apparent and real, if they differ). Then I try to see how concisely I can explain it to someone else.

Many people come up with their own forms of shorthand. Some compare their characters directly to existing ones (“like [name], only….”), or to attributes of existing ones. Others use convenient game-mechanic shorthands—even when the system they’re playing isn’t the one it’s a mechanic in, or when they’re doing a story instead. And of course, there’s always going through TV Tropes and stringing together trope names like it’s going out of style.

How do you go about looking for kernels? (For those of you who didn’t see the message on Friday, comments are indeed back open, so do feel free to answer.)

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Kernel Hunting Exercises: The Casting Call | Exchange of Realities
  2. Characterization Exercise: Description of Peers | Exchange of Realities
  3. Character Kernels: Under Theme | Exchange of Realities

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