Semi-Generic Characters and How To Reuse Them

Every now and then, you just need a character(s) from a certain group. Such and such a cult. Such and such a location. Such and such an army. The personalities don’t matter as much, just as long as the characters have the appropriate background and will deal with the group in a certain way. Sure, the first time you have to go to the trouble of creating them. But then you need one or more characters from the same demographic again, and you have a second option: recycle.

In one case, you can take the concept of the character(s) and change the rest. They look different, they sound different, if it’s the same game they’re probably slightly higher-powered, you might have changed one or two major features so as to hide your archetype use, but in the end it’s pretty clear that what you’ve done is filed off the serial numbers and given them a palette swap. It’s easier to get away with this in some situations than in others; if you’re running two different games with different groups of people, for instance, they probably aren’t even going to notice.

Sometimes, though, you can get away with actually using the same characters, finding excuses for them to be present. On the one hand, this creates a few challenges. For one thing, it really doesn’t work if the characters in question have been killed off—not just in a setting that uses true-death, mind, but even in one where resurrection is in fact a Thing (what makes these generics so important that somebody took the time to revive them?). For another, you’re probably going to need a good reason why they’ve just shown up here if they last popped up halfway across the world. If they’re antagonists and appear too frequently, you’re at risk for Team Rocket Syndrome. On the other hand, it means that the characters, dropped in on the fly or not, aren’t any less developed than your others, and who knows? Someone might even take a liking to them.

I’ve found a couple useful tricks when actively reusing a character.

One: emphasize different aspects of the characters, particularly if you’re using them in different games but with the same group, or if the situations in which they’re showing up vary differently enough to bring out different sides of them. With a single character, it’s mostly going to be dependent on context, whereas with a group, including only parts of it, or even just focusing on the kinds of situations different characters within that group favor, will create different images and keep them fresh.

Two: make them amusing, interesting and/or endearing to the audience. In tabletop RPGs, amusement value can be vital to ensuring a character’s lifespan, in some form or other; they’re just too cool/interesting/sweet/whatever to kill off! This also increases the odds that the audience is going to want to find out more about them, making their repeat appearances “Awesome, them again!” rather than “Oh, no, not them again.” Signs that they have their own lives—alluded-to offstage personality arcs, clear goals, and in-jokes serve well here—lend them an air of realism and mystery.

Three: come up with good excuses. One of my games features a group that’s shown up in three entirely different places (one of these was semi-offstage, but the thought’s still there.) Each time after the first, I came up with reasons for them to be there, both times in ways that got them to cross path with the PC(s) present.

Semi-generic characters, used well, can provide excellent shortcuts for hurried chargen and add a little color to the world around, as long as you’re up to the challenge.

2 comments

  1. Michael says:

    Yes, very good post. I try to do this in some of my longer works; it’s a little easier to justify having the same characters appearing again and again when the setting is a small village or a high school :) It also means the reader has less work to do remembering who’s who if the ones who pop up to deliver minor pieces of plot or to convey the reaction of a group as a whole are the same ones each time. And remembering is even easier if these characters come across as having distinctive personalities and are interesting in their own right, even if they happen to play only a minor role in the current story — the same as your point #2, really.

    I also find that creating these minor recurring characters is great fun — you know it’s good practice but you have more freedom to play around since their personalities aren’t going to have a major impact on the plot. What’s not to like?


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