Characterization Exercise: Try to Be Civil!

This one was originally suggested to me by Shinali, though I’ve elaborated on it a bit.

For this characterization exercise, you’ll need two characters who, if they were to run into each other in most contexts, would be at each other’s throats—physically, verbally, or otherwise. They don’t necessarily have to be from the same world, but it would probably make it easier to make sure that their default mode is hostility.

Once you’ve got them, put them in a situation where they are required to be civil to each other. Coming up with the actual situation is part of the fun; it contextualizes the resulting scene, and what it is that’s causing them not to fight says something about who and what they are as well. Is it because there are witnesses involved? Have they gotten orders from people they respect? Do they consider themselves bound that hard by local courtesy, or oaths to behave? Is there some sort of magical compulsion in place? Are they both refraining from conflict for the same reason, or do they each come in with different reasons to keep their hands and their more obvious insults to themselves? What exactly are they forbidden from doing?

Having figured that out, write the resulting scene. How do they handle the situation requiring them to behave? What sorts of workarounds do they come up with for it? Do they respond with truncated sentences, backhanded compliments, subtle (or not-so-subtle) attempts to get the other one to start it? Is there a difference in skill between them when they do that? What happens to their character dynamic when fighting isn’t an option—or is it just delayed for when they don’t have something else influencing them? (If you’re feeling really ambitious, would any of these answers be different if they were refraining from conflict for different reasons?)

Have fun!


  1. Tom Coenen says:

    Ravyn, thanks for the post.
    I play as a game master in role playing games (D&D) and I’ve had moments that enemies met and didn’t fight.
    If the meeting was unexpected for me, the characterization was decent but could have been better.
    I think I’ll try this and other exercises to improve characterization.

  2. Ravyn says:


    I think part of the trick is figuring out something they want out of the meeting that isn’t the other guy’s head on a silver platter–and “getting out of the meeting without blowing cover with a display of brilliant violence” is a perfectly reasonable objective. (So is “bait the other guy into making the first move in front of witnesses so it obviously isn’t my fault and what passersby might be in our league will take my side”… but then again, my players have learned not to fall for that one.) I find with my characterizations, I have two speeds–when I’m using one of the ones I’ve been playing for ages and am utterly familiar with, I can fly by the seat of my pants, but if it’s someone I don’t know the headspace of too well, I need a plan or things disintegrate quickly. So knowing ahead, “all right, I want this, I know I can do that thing, I need to avoid the other thing, and don’t forget this character doesn’t know yet another thing–okay, good to go”–even if it takes as confusing a form as that generalization–helps a lot on an otherwise sticky character.

  3. Tom Coenen says:

    I played in an urban setting where people need to keep up their cover.

    You’re right, a new character (and new characterization) takes more planning than one you’ve played for ages.

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