Characterization Exercise: What Do You See In These People?

Lone heroes happen in stories, but they’re not the world’s most common creatures, and games almost invariably involve a group, either homogeneously PC or a combination of PC and NPC (or a parallel all-NPC group if the GM is feeling like a challenge). This, of course, means we have people. People working together, fighting alongside each other, coming up with insane plans and arguing their feasibility—and acquiring character dynamics in which they operate. Though it’s not unheard of for one of these groups to be held together entirely by outside forces, usually there’s going to be at least some level of personal attachment involved. That gives us a chance to ask a question of our characters: “What do you see in these people?”

The question, of course, can apply to just about anyone in the character’s social circle, regardless of who the creator is, what their comparative roles in the plotline are, or much of any similar considerations. There just needs to be a second person, and a reason why one tolerates the other. And what does the answer tell us?

Logically enough, it gives us some insight into the nature of the dynamic between the two characters and why, at least for the viewpoint character, said dynamic is worth maintaining. In a generalized group setting, where there’s an external reason for the characters to work together anyway, this may not be quite as necessary information, but when we’re dealing with a group with no other forces keeping them together, or trying to write a convincing love story, knowing what sustains our character dynamics never hurts.

As it tells us where the character dynamic comes from, it also hints to us at how it might be broken apart. Take away a major reason for two characters to work together, they start drifting apart. Invert it, and drive a wedge between them. Do that, and there is tension; tension is interesting.

Stepping a bit farther from plot considerations, it tells us a bit about how the viewpoint character views her relationships. For instance, one person I tried this exercise on talked about drawing a line between friends and respected acquaintances, while my own characters’ speeds seem to include passing acquaintance, person to ask favors of, friendly enemy, and person-to-whom-to-be-deathly-loyal, with different qualities favoring different groups.

It also lets us know a bit about the kinds of characteristics the viewpoint character values, whether the player/character is aware of it or not. My last test subject, for instance, was well aware that his character valued intelligence and competence, but as we looked over the spread of characters he got along with, we also found that he seemed to favor people who were in far over their heads and dealing with it, and dislike the ones who wouldn’t buckle down and work with the group when the situation demanded it.

So take a character, have her look at the people around her, and ask her, “What do you see in these people?” You can learn a lot from the answer.

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