Characterization Exercise: Description of Peers

I first started using this exercise because of one of my players; we’d been discussing the possibility of a character arc, which he was somewhat concerned about because he didn’t want the character to lose his identity, and to assuage those sorts of fears the best thing to do is figure out what the character’s identity is. This was when I first started thinking about the kernel of a character, and the exercise was created as the first part of an attempt to figure out what that particular character’s kernel was.

What I asked him to do was simple: in that character’s voice, describe another character. Could be physical description, could be personality, the important part was just to make sure that what he was describing was the parts of the second character that, in the first character’s eyes, defined that character. Basically, he was kernel-hunting, only without the technical terms. What this did for me was allow me to look at the features that tended to recur. Did he always note physical appearance? Some aspect of the background? Sometimes I’d ask him about why he chose the aspects he did, or sometimes why he didn’t choose the aspects he didn’t.

The original exercise led in turn to having him have the character describe himself, now that he had a decent pattern on what was important to him in establishing identity. If what you’re looking for is the kernel of one particular character, that’s the best way to go with this exercise: one character describing all sorts of different people, until you have enough of a pattern that the character’s descriptive skills can be turned inward.

But that’s not the only use for it. I’m in the habit of trading writing exercises with some of my players, a sort of we-choose-exercise-type-you-prompt-I-write-we-switch deal, and this is one that comes up a lot. My friends and I have their own uses for it. One primarily seems to use it as something like a hand-mirror, asking for miscellaneous supporting characters’ descriptions of his own character. Another uses it for information gathering purposes, to ascertain the nature of two characters’ relationship with each other (as do I, when playing this particular game with someone who’s running a game I’m playing in)—or sometimes, just to hear a particularly snarky character going on about a character she has a particularly snarky opinion of. When I’m asking them about their own characters’ opinions, meanwhile, I’m partly ascertaining what their PCs view as identity-shaping qualities, and partly testing how my characters are coming across. And when answering, I’m getting plenty of chance to figure out who these characters are, who they come across as, and what qualities they find most worthy of notice—and as an added bonus, learning a bit about what my players find important or interesting.

The exercise is just as easily done alone, either focusing on one character or by randomly choosing pairs of characters that seem like they’d prove challenging or interesting. You don’t have to analyze the results, though it’s useful in its own right; just doing the exercise should help you get into your characters’ mindsets.

A character’s description of another character is the Swiss army knife of characterization exercises: depending on how you use it, it can serve a myriad of purposes, sometimes several at the same time. All it takes is a willingness to try it and a little bit of introspection.

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