Originally published on November 24, 2009. Blame the server issues.
I hadn’t been going to post this one for a while, but then I blundered onto ChattyDM’s riff about managerial skills and GMing, and he asked for it in the comments. Never let it be said that I turn down perfectly good requests.
The fun thing about writing and role-playing is that there’s no field they can’t draw from—but even those of us who have been doing it for years don’t realize just how many subjects we can get ideas from. The most unexpected for me, though, would have to be when I got bored at my library and picked up Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology. It’s about neuromarketing—utilizing knowledge of brain chemistry to make marketing that much more successful. And somehow, by the end of that book I was going straight from the actual marketing advice to ways of writing characters.
I’m sure we’ve all, writer and GM alike, had to deal with The Character(s) Nobody Remembers. You’ve worked hard on them, given them important roles, but even the person who remembers everything refers to them as “You know, that guy” or “the girl with the polearm”. If marketing tips like those can set brand names apart from the mass of companies, why couldn’t they do the same thing for our characters?
One of the biggest examples Lindstrom gave was revelance. His example was advertising in American Idol. The show had three major sponsors: Ford, which did only commercials; Cingular, which was the only cell service that could text votes; and Coca-Cola, which was everywhere, not only with cups at everyone’s hand but with its colors and shapes all over the stage and dressing room. As Lindstrom points out, the latter two got their money’s worth, while Ford just faded into the background, if anything losing eyeballs to the other two companies. The same thing goes for characters: if you want them remembered, the best thing to do is to give them a reason to be remembered. In a game, you might directly involve them in something the players are doing, as a help or a hindrance; if they’re main characters in an ensemble story, make sure they’re doing something. If you have three main characters, and one moves the plot forward, one regularly has just the skill for a particularly daunting problem, and one is there as moral support for the other two, who do you think people will remember?
Then there’s association, building a subliminal connection between two concepts. For the advertiser, this is often images and brands; according to one of Lindstrom’s studies, just using associated images was a more effective strategy for cigarette companies than actually using the brand name in an advertisement. For us, it’s building a connection between a character and various elements or images. The good news is that they can be just about anything: colors, landscapes, objects, skills, materials, emotions, you name it. I, for instance, use a complicated system of color and font coding for my NPCs—bold-italic for the particularly powerful/divine, bold for the PCs’ equals in power, plain for their inferiors, just italics for people’s familiars and weak spirits, and then each character has a specific color, either chosen from the initial palette or custom mixed, usually chosen to match with that character’s nearest associations. (Consider the not-quite-purple blue I use for my background. I borrowed it from one of my characters, who is from a group whose color association is blue but whose personality is more typical of their associated-with-purple counterparts.)
Ritual can also be used to take a character and set her apart from her peers. This isn’t the complex magical rituals of earlier articles; rather, it’s habits, either subconscious or deliberately cultivated. For brands, this focuses on use of the product, like lime in a Corona or dipping an Oreo in milk, but that doesn’t work for characters. Instead, you’ll want to focus on the little things the characters themselves do. A warrior might loosen her sword in its scabbard at the first sign of trouble, draw it slowly and deliberately to catch the light as conflict becomes clearly inevitable, and end her fights flicking blood off the sword and sheathing it. A trapfinder or a lockpicker might lay all his tools in front of him, give them a quick polish for luck, and then start applying them in a specific order. The captain of a ship might drink a glass of wine and pour the rest of the bottle into the ocean before she sets sail; a chef could insist on putting a sprig of dill and a little star of fennel seeds on every plate he finishes. Not only these little habits set a character apart from others, they also kick in another of Lindstrom’s concepts—the story. People start to wonder why. What’s it for? Does it work? Where’d you pick it up? It doesn’t even need to be character-specific—you can set an entire culture apart with little habits like that.
The last technique Lindstrom focused on was appealing to senses other than sight, particularly hearing and scent. When everything focuses on vision, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and tune out entirely; moreover, the nice thing about hearing and scent is that they tend to prompt visual images as well. (Just ask the kinds of people who get their scene ideas from music!) So your payoff isn’t just a more distinctive description, but also a secondary visual element thrown in for free. Of course, it’s easier for the face to face GM, particularly in the subtle manner that works most efficiently with this trick in advertising: if she’s willing to bring in props, people can see or hear what’s being described themselves. But that doesn’t mean that people dependent on the written word can’t have a character’s scent precede him into the room or identify another by the sound of her footsteps; it’s just a bit more of a challenge.
If we can get all this characterization material just by looking at what advertisers do to get buyers’ attention, imagine the uses of a bigger field!