Avoiding Gimmick Takeover

Some characters have roles that encompass most of their personality. Some have traits that are supposed to set them apart from other characters. Still others can be traced pretty easily to a standard character archetype, and then there are those who sling their catch phrases whenever possible. These are all character gimmicks, and they all hold one major danger: the possibility of taking over the character.

After all, a character who’s just a gimmick isn’t as much fun; in fact, she’s little more than a stereotype. Perfectly predictable through that point, and the gimmick itself may very well be showing up frequently enough to be annoying rather than interesting.

If what you’re dealing with is a skill or a behavior rather than a trait, figure out what situations it’s likely to show up in. For instance, I have a character whose catch phrase is “I’m a demon hunter, not a [fill in relevant occupation here]!” If she were doing it at every single opportunity, the group would probably be quite right to throw something at her, so instead, she sticks to a very specific set of parameters: the situation needs to be one in which she’s feeling out of her depth, and the task in question should probably be mental, social or metaphysical. So she refuses things like being asked to engage in prophecy, answer questions about anything to do with sorcery, take a leadership role when dealing with particularly arcane opponents in ways that don’t involve killing first and asking questions later, etc—and the phrase is a lot rarer now than it was back when she’d lost the partner who’d usually been responsible for handling the situations she’s trying to dodge with it. And occasionally, I get to turn it around a little.

but not a professional artist.

If you’re dealing with an archetype, figure out what makes them different from their archetype and/or what times they’re not actively embracing it. Or just figure out how to twist it a little. For instance, I have one NPC who, instead of being a standard creepy little girl, is a tomboy creepy little girl—instead of playing with dolls and giggling, she’s fascinated by the local equivalent to bugs and dinosaurs and practically hero-worships the Big Names for her particular cause. Then there’s genki girl Ruby, who uses all the means of distancing herself from the sugar-high cute-obsessed squealer: sometimes, in private, she slips out of that mold entirely; sometimes she applies them in strange directions (“Strategy! Awesome!”).

If it’s a relatively subtle trait, or just one that doesn’t require acting on all the time, don’t spend most of your time drawing attention to it. People will remember it if you only mention it once per chapter/session/episode/equivalent thereof. They’ll probably still remember it if you mention it less. Think of it like a bell—strike, then let the echoes slowly fade out, and don’t strike again until they’re almost gone (instead of mentioning every few minutes that yes, this person is beautiful—we get it!). If it’s something that incorporates itself into their actions, stick to show don’t tell—I could spend every paragraph talking about Taraneh and her tendency to act mad, but it’s easier to have her staring past someone’s head in one scene as she analyzes his personality in terms of musical instruments, another time speaking unusually idiosyncratically verging on speaking in riddles, another time unconsciously pulling her hands up together like a squirrel as she tries to think of where a boy’s lost pet might be hiding.

The biggest danger you face is that the character becomes nothing but the gimmick—that in the end, you end up with a cardboard cutout with the gimmick sprayed over it in big red letters. So remember: moderation, variation, timing. It’ll keep your characters looking better-rounded and more original.

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