Characterization Exercise: Code of Conduct

One of the toughest things about a relatively new character can be figuring out where their boundaries and obligations lie—which is a pity, because those can be the fastest way of making a character interesting. Shinali recently poked me with a solution, based on her regular quoting of Gibbs’s Rules: write the character up a code of conduct, and figure out where she found it.

What’s in it? Mostly, it’s a set of dos and don’ts. Do this. Don’t do that. Never, ever do that other thing. Some of these might be moral sorts of rules, like “always help a person in need” or “never hurt the innocent”. Others might be more practical (one of my favorites in this case comes from Digger, where inserted in the middle of a lecture on morality is “Always check your numbers twice when dealing with explosives.”) Some might be aesthetic: “Never give up the chance to make a splashy entrance”; others more philosophical. It can be long, or short, comprehensive or leave plenty of gaps (room for later!).

Where’d it come from? That can vary. The character might have created it herself, or cobbled it together from a number of different sources. It could be from another person—a family member, a friend, a mentor, whoever seems convenient. Sometimes it’s cultural; my own character Tuyet had a tendency to regularly pull out and use the “Fifty Laws of Spywork” when dealing with her relatives, many of which I made up on the spot to justify something she’d just done or refused to do. In some cases, even the character herself might not entirely remember where they came from, just that they matter.

What does it do? Logically, one of the main uses of a code of conduct is to give you (and anyone with whom you share it) a basic idea what the character will and won’t do. As in Tuyet’s example, if its source is a larger organization, the character can use the rules as ammunition when trying to convince them to do or not to do something (or to punish, reward or encourage something that’s already been done.) The voice in which they’re expressed, and the complexity of the concepts, can give insight into the character of the person or the organization who compiled them; Tuyet’s code is pragmatic and to the point, while the code Shinali mentioned when she gave me the idea is far more poetic and philosophical, a code cobbled together from different sources would probably be all over the place thematically (possibly with edits to bring it in line in one respect) and any code Ruby created would probably be short words short sentences simple concepts, with occasional exceptions for particular circumstances. In addition, if it falls into the right—wrong—whatever you choose to call them hands, it’s a source of moral conundra and complicated situations.

If you’re having trouble predicting a character’s actions, or if you want something else to set her apart, give her a few rules to follow and see where it leads you.


  1. Shinali says:

    I noticed even before I thought to actually assign a list of rules to a character, that I tended to phrase their philosophy in terms of real world quotes. This is somewhat an extension of that. I’m first implementing it with my current character simply because she has the sort of aunt that would give her little kernels of wisdom in response to situations or questions.
    Besides Gibbs, this idea also reminds me of the students at the bad dojo in The Karate Kid, where they are told every class to have no mercy, and they have no mercy as a result. Words to live by need not be constructive.

  2. Lugh says:

    Nice idea. Very workable for a number of character types.

    As another reference, the Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries (currently incompletely recorded):

    And, you could be defined what you’re no longer allowed to do:

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