Fear and Loathing in Chargen

(Warning: This is a late-night post, deals with some rather intense subjects, did not go through my editor, and as a result should probably be read as conjecture. Hopefully it’s interesting conjecture.)

One of my friends asked me today, “why do so many decent character types get outlawed in literature?” He went on to talk about some types of characters that people tend to distrust in written fiction and in his experience outright ban in RPGs: namely, those “for whom fear, self-loathing, or other similar factors are a key to their personality.”

I’ll admit, I have something of a bias against the type, in large part because I’ve seen it done wrong far more times than I’ve seen it done right. When people don’t know how to get characters across, the first thing that happens is that their issues end up right out where everyone can see them, and heaven forbid that they want to arc it, because next thing you know there’s the risk of it being about the problems, and when is anyone else going to have time to put a word in edgewise around all the fear or self-loathing? That’s the first conclusion the GM trying to minimize her headaches is probably reaching.

And that’s the explanation that most people would default to. “It’s the angst, I can’t stand it.”

I don’t think it’s that simple, much though we’d love to pretend it is. Yes, the risk of dealing with one of those characters who’s just going to angst and angst until either everyone else gets sick of humoring them or they hit whatever magic bullet they decided was going to make the character Happy again is a factor, but I don’t think that’s it. I think we’re afraid of them.

People have trouble dealing with other people’s emotions for a number of reasons. One is that we’re almost all more self-centered than we want to admit; even those of us who consider ourselves thoughtful people probably have a motivation for trying to help the hurt that we really don’t want to admit to ourselves. This can mean that we don’t notice emotional behavior in a character unless we’re beaten over the head with it. And in an RPG, when the audience doubles as the characters…. the potential for poison is staggering.

This is made even worse by that self-centeredness resulting in people tending to think that other people’s behavior is about them. That’s where you get the real rifts. One person’s hurting like anything—it’s usually fear, probably of loss or rejection, but it can be just about anything—it shows through a little in her behavior, another person interprets it as being shoved away, and things just spiral down from there. The “banned-type” character is likely to play into one of these issues; accidentally shoving people further away, causing them to go strike out at someone else….

Another problem is that we all know, one way or another, that when fear or self-loathing makes it into being the key part of a character’s psyche, it’s going to be very, very hard to do something about. After all, if it’s important enough to be a key part of the character, it’s important enough to take as much work to resolve as the standard side-plot, right? The generally accepted reason for rejection of these concepts came mostly from a low-sympathy point of view, but this one is likelier to affect characters and players with high levels of sympathy. People generally aren’t too good at dealing with problems they can’t solve as it is; now add to that the fact that unlike getting stronger to deal with the Big Bad or collecting plot coupons or filling their pockets, trying to help this person who’s clearly hurting and clearly needs it tends to show very little progress for one’s efforts, and is likelier to drain the comforter’s stability and put her in need of comfort.

The mind at midnight says that’s what’s really going on. What do you think?

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