Characterization in Summary

Most of the games I’ve played in, particularly the ones that were meant to be character-driven, really didn’t cover time well; I found that as often as not, we’d stop and hold a conversation in hopes that it would help figure out how the characters were dealing with this or that or the other. So when, in my solo game, I dangled the idea that since I was a bit low on plots, and my player was having trouble thinking of anything to try to directly affect, we might want to start fast-forwarding through the parallel timeline until we got to something interesting, I was a bit nervous about how it was going to turn out. But we gave it a try, and, well, it worked.

What did we learn? You don’t need to be in dialogue-and-speech-tags level focus to be able to get across a character’s personality. Yes, there are some things, like a gift for snark, that don’t get across well aside from those scenes, but there are just as many that can be done not as a specific but as a summary.

Sometimes, this is going to be because the character’s just sitting in the background. Character A is talking to Character B in front, and somewhere in the crowd scene is one youngster who’s bounce-walking and grinning and generally looking like a barely contained sugar-high with a dash of GLEE!; Character C isn’t really doing much except keeping an eye on things, but she does seem to be in the background awfully regularly given how often the primary characters are moving about.

There are also times when what’s going on is large stretches of time being covered in a few sentences. We can’t write or play out every minute of every day, now, can we? So while there might be more specific things that aren’t covered, the character’s likely to be shown with a holding pattern that one can assume she defaults to unless specified otherwise, like self-distracting with a hobby and trying not to give other people too much chance to get close enough to her to see she’s worried about something.

Other times, what one is seeing is bits and pieces of another character’s story that mostly runs offstage. I had one in the second arc of my game who was kept rather busy by duties that didn’t have much to do with the group, but they still asked her for advice regularly and lived in close proximity; when they saw her, she was usually working, en route to somewhere, eating, asleep, or some combination of the above.

The fun thing about it is that there are a lot of things a character can be quietly doing without it requiring a scene. Working on a project, avoiding people, seeking someone else out but never quite managing to catch up with them, filing papers with a vengeance, pinpoint-focus on a research project or a really tough code in need of cracking, constant physical training—it’s almost harder to find something that isn’t an option than something that is.

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