Reprise: For Side Characters to Live

Originally posted on October 8, 2008, because worlds that obviously revolve around their protagonists are dead boring.

The secondary character exists when you’re not looking at her.

That should be pretty self-explanatory, but it’s easy for people to forget that. In stories, you have characters that for some reason are always there, always available, always cheerfully dropping whatever it is they’re doing (if they’re doing anything, which is debatable) to help out. In games, there are NPCs that only seem to exist when the players are looking at them, and end up being taken for granted because of that.

Really, don’t these people deserve better?

This is particularly problematic for the GM, as oftentimes the NPCs are supposed to have lives and interests of their own, particularly if the emphasis is on a believable world. A lot of it can be blamed on people’s bad habits, from earlier games or from console RPGs. But we can’t blame it all on the players; a lot of the attitude is something that we ourselves can discourage or encourage.

So how do we make our side characters look alive?  Writers, pay attention, this one’s for you too.

One way is to give them distinctive features, things that set them apart from Standard Mook #42. A unique item, perhaps, or something about their appearance. Maybe a mannerism, as long as you don’t overuse it. This is a more minor method, since it mainly creates distinction, not animation—you can tell them apart, sure, but it doesn’t decrease the likelihood that they’ll be seen as alive as much. It’s a bit likelier if the item is in itself a sign of some connection they have in the world around them. You might have the young holy warrior who carries a little rag doll made by a girl she saved on a string around her neck, or the father who carries an old ticket from a play his son acted in in his wallet.

Then there’s agenda. Having one that isn’t perfectly in lockstep with the main characters is an important thing to consider; sure, they might be on the same side, but they might not always agree on how to do it. And they certainly won’t agree on what their particular roles are, particularly if the side character outranks the main character, or if the side thinks the main’s idea is stupid (particularly if the side character is being used as cannon fodder). Now, not all agendas are created equal—if a character is fixated on one of the main characters/PCs to the exclusion of all else, that’s not going to create an image of independence or autonomy. If the agenda’s in parallel but different, yes. If the agenda’s something else entirely, definitely.

The biggest way to get this effect, though, is for them to be active. Perhaps it isn’t always easy to talk to them; they might be away at work, having dinner, sleeping, or recuperating from their own fights. Maybe while the other characters are talking to them, they insist on doing something like crafting, research, planning or even paperwork. You can even get this across by the kinds of things they ask of the characters with whom they interact. “If you’re going to go talk to these people, can you let them know that I’m going to be a little late to our meeting tonight?” can go a long way—not only does it establish that the speaker’s doing something, but it implies she’s got a number of mutually conflicting somethings.

A side character who lives is far more interesting than a side character who doesn’t. Perhaps they’ll even tell you something you hadn’t realized yet.

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