On Characters and Their Secrets

There will always be mysteries.

You can know a character for years, run her through every online survey, every writing exercise you can find. She might spend time in your head, might occasionally be the muse for one of your freewrites; there might be portraits or character sketches, journals or even cartoons in her voice and style, or other quirky memorabilia surrounding her. You know her voice, you know her patterns, you could probably respond to just about anything through that persona and know that it is indeed what she would do. You’ve been over her history, analyzed the major events through which you’ve played her and the surprises she’s already given you. There should be nothing left.

But even if she comes across as utterly transparent to you, I’m sure there are things you don’t yet know. It might be that there was a time you simply glossed over, where there were social dynamics that you really didn’t look into because there were so many other things going on. With some characters, it might have been a matter of denial, something that the character was hiding even from herself, that when it manifested did so so quietly that coming back to it later doesn’t change a thing about what’s gone on since. Or maybe it was something that never came up because it didn’t seem to matter.

How do we know these things exist? We don’t, until we find them. Sure, we can guess that we know everything there is to know, but that’s only because we haven’t been surprised yet.

Where do we find them? In interaction with other characters, particularly interaction in ways that haven’t been done before. Sure, maybe someone else she’s spoken to might have driven a given topic into the ground, but someone else comes in with an entirely different approach and manages to open up a whole range of emotions, backstory details, and similar things that make sense now but never occurred to us before. Someone who has to be pressured into delivering an account of an incident when someone’s asking for it might just let it loose in other situations; details might come out for one person that are far too sensitive for another to hear; the right question might bring out a torrent of information that nobody at all suspected was waiting there.

Why do we want to know what’s left? Sometimes, it’s to explain something that happened that might otherwise be a bit of a plothole. Other times, because we’re curious. My favorite reason is because it’s the things that I missed over the first four years that give me the greatest understanding, both in what I learn and in my attempts to figure out why I never figured it out before. And perhaps, because it makes them more real, or at least confirms that some part of them is more than just a flight of fancy.

Have you ever had long-belated surprise character revelations? What did you find, and how did you find it?


  1. Seth says:

    I haven’t had the chance to play most characters for very long; even when a guy is iconic and revisited, I’m usually doing the active narrative work on my own. It’s generally been that a new game cropped up at a higher level, and I ported the character over.

    The exception, so far, is my dwarven wizard in the 4e Red Hand game I’ve been playing since just after 4th dropped. There, the party had a situation early on where they had to battle the reanimated corpses of another unit of the same military force they were a part of—which included a dwarf. The party triumphed, of course, and after that chapter ended my character attended the dwarf’s funeral.

    That launched him into a long arc where he grew more monomaniacal and self-sacrificing, as the weight of his ally’s death bore down on him. The other defining characteristic of this game has been a revolving door cast of characters; I’m the only original character and original player left. As new characters get folded in (which is easier with a military unit backstory) my character has grown even more direct and inclined towards martyrdom. Even the most recent batch—which includes characters who actually outrank mine—get treated like vulnerable kids because they’re fresh to this particular conflict.

    I have to admit that it’s very exciting to watch a character develop in this fashion, especially for having gamed as long as I have and never stuck with one character long enough for the process to take place before.

  2. Ravyn says:

    I like that!

    Most of my characters tend to be long-running, particularly my NPCs–with whom this happens a lot, I’ll go into it more on Friday–so I have this happen pretty regularly. I don’t think that one doing one’s own narrative work and one learning something new about the characters are completely mutually exclusive; it wouldn’t surprise me to see this sort of thing in writers as well as in gamers.

    I have one character who showed up in a couple of games, for whom this turned into something of a running change-point. Version 1 was innocent and pretended to be insane a lot–Version 2, who was in the same world but an entirely different microcosm, was somewhat sensitive about her politics–Version 3 had taken on a trait discovered halfway through my run as Version 1 and instead of being just generally innocent was deliberately naive knowing that it couldn’t last and milking her innocence for all it was worth while it lasted, and version 4, now an NPC in my game, is somewhere in the middle of this, in what could be construed as her home territory and striking out in politics.

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