Thursday, March 26, 2009

Playing in Character

So, before I begin, I need to pose a more gameplay oriented reader question: Is it more fun to play a character with a "class" or "job" where you have a pre-defined role you're supposed to play like a mage or warrior? Or is it more fun to play a character who is only limited by 'skill points' and doesn't fall into a specific 'role' unless you build them to be?

My observations are that people in classless systems tend to create 'classes' within the game. Paladins tend to be created in classless games almost as a given. People like the idea of archetypes, of 'healers' and 'warriors' and 'mages.' I've also noticed that people in classless systems tend to play more balanced characters that tend to have wide skill spreads and aren't as good at any one thing. I've also noticed that in classed games people tend to band together by class, and label other classes in a particular way, "all rogues are like that" and so on. My thoughts are that only hardcore nerds (this is not an insult, I'm one of you) like classless systems more than systems with clearly defined roles.

I have no way of knowing all of this for sure, and as of the moment I can't find any studies on it. So I am polling my readership, which is somewhat unscientific, but I figure it's as good a place as any to start.

So on to the actual topic for today - character design. The question at the beginning had a little bit of bearing on this, because it's my firm belief that people like easily defined traits in their character. Edward the paladin is heroic and honorable and honest. Emma the sorceress is shady, but seductive and powerful (or maybe she's introverted, nerdy, and has a brother complex).

When we create a character either for a story or a game, we create them with a bunch of goals and ideals in mind. The desire to do something is a great way to make a character immediately interesting. If we know that a character's main goal in life is to lose his virginity, we already know a lot about him. We know he's probably kind of shallow and immature, and probably young too (older guys who haven't lost their virginity probably don't care that much about it). We also have a lot of room to develop him into a much better character - he has a lot of areas he can probably grow in, such as his respect for women or his self-confidence.

Actually, since I was referencing a specific character (Jim, from American Pie) why don't we take a look at his design? He's kind of introverted and shallow, and also pretty gullible. But after the climax (heh) of the movie, Jim has matured into a more interesting and respectful guy. Sadly, the movie injects a lot of slapstick that gets in the way of his development. The sequel is probably a lot better about developing him as a character when he turns down Nadia to chase after Michelle, realizing that there's more to a girl than just her looks and how 'easy' she is.

Interesting characters, by and large, are made interesting due to quirks. They don't even really have to be flaws per se, but little things that you remember. One of the major criticisms of Twilight (more the movie than the books) is that the main character has so few personality quirks. In a story where most of the characters have few quirks, the characters that do have them tend to stand out more. Still, memorable characters tend to be the ones with odd habits, or have unusual motivations for doing things.

Real character depth can't come from quirks though. Although we may remember a character who smokes a lot, talks with a lisp, or is oversexed, the characters we latch on to are the ones with goals and motivations. One of the things I use in writing to flesh out characters is to establish the character's belief system. This lets me better say things like "oh she wouldn't do this," or whatever. It's important that we define these beliefs beforehand, though. A selfish character who does something unusually self-sacrificing is really alarming unless we've established some belief he has that causes him to do this self-sacrificing act.

One of the big things I tell players of role-playing games is to make sure they feel comfortable playing the role of the character they are in. I had a player who had an 'evil self' that started off in his backstory as purely evil, and then slowly changed to 'end justifies the means' evil. And when he couldn't really act the part very well even then, I told him in future games that he should play things more comfortable to him.

Similarly, writers need to avoid writing in characters they don't understand. If you create a character in a story, you should be able to put yourself in that character's mind, and understand the beliefs and values that they have. Make sure you do this when you write in a character! Villains in particular often seem shallow and boring in fanfics, and often are evil 'just because'. Even worse are heroes without any clear motivation, who oppose the bad guys 'because they're bad.'

I'm definitely not saying that there can't be heroes and villains in a story. Pen and paper games tend to be better with less moral dilemmas (not none, less) because real people want to be doing the 'right' thing, and feeling like you did something 'bad' is not very fun. Some players like exploring the depths of human morality and emotion and don't mind being confronted with serious moral issues. These players are very rare and are most likely not playing in your campaign. As for fanfics, morally grey is certainly fashionable, but a good guy who does bad things walks a fine line between being interesting and irritating.

The trick then is to create good guys who are lovable and who we can relate to, and whose thoughts and moral dilemmas match those we might have, if we were in their shoes. Our heroes need to be a little larger than life of course, but if they're too big they look fake. When people feel like they have walked a day in the life of the heroes and understand their internal trials and troubles, that's when you know you've really created a memorable character.

In the same vein, villains need to be realistic too. We might like them or we might hate them, depending on what you (the author) intend them to be. But when they think out loud and when they speak with the heroes, they should feel genuine, like they truly believe the cause behind their actions. A villain's motivations should make sense, too. The evil mastermind bad guy shouldn't just be bad because that's what bad guys do. Even the 'chaotic evil' type guy can have complex motivations for things (I wouldn't make these guys the 'end boss' though).

For really good examples of chaotic evil bad guys that are actually sort of interesting, I recommend the Seven Swordsmen (the chinese TV series, not movie) as the villains there are fairly well done. It also shows some really nice morally grey stuff and shows long-term character development over the course of a lot of episodes. It does kind of move slowly, but IMHO it's worth it as the heroes in that show really are human, with human failings while the villains are for the most part complex and interesting characters with real goals.

Other great morally grey things to look for is anything by Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) as he is really big on asking the reader what is right or wrong. His stories are really thought-provoking and give you a lot of thought about who is really right.

In the end though, I think that almost any bestselling fantasy novel (yeah, including Harry Potter) is good for showing us what our 'heroes' should look like and how believable our villains need to be. I'd give some examples but sadly, most of the stuff I read ends up sort of morally ambiguous and not really good at showing how to portray 'good guys' and 'bad guys.'

A word of warning, for those of you who think I am totally lying about all this. There are characters that break the rules. Solid Snake in particular is practically a character without flaws and he is one of the most beloved characters ever to grace a video game console. This does not mean you can create a Solid Snake-like character (or any of the Devil May Cry male leads, etc.) in your story/fanfic/game/whatever and have it succeed. There are a couple reasons for this.

The first is that a badass character tends to get old. There's a reason why Dante and Nero are mocked all over the internet for being ridiculous, and why the 'badass main character' is considered a trope. It's overdone, we've all seen it. Some people get lucky, mostly because they were the first people to get it right. Even if you do it right afterwards, most likely you will just be accused of copying someone else who did.

The second is that they have games and visual action to highlight how awesome they are. When John Matrix (the main character of Commando) is storming onto the screen mowing down bad guys with his M60, he seems pretty awesome. However, without the camera and acting and special effects, your badass guy (or girl) just isn't going to be as badass. Dante is cool because you can play as him and destroy dozens of guys without getting hit while looking totally awesome at the same time. In a fanfic or pen and paper game, an exact copy of him is just not the same thing.

Do not let the success of others lead you to believe that characters without real quirks (eating pizza and being required to show off are not real quirks) can appear in your storyline. If you create characters like these, I recommend only using them in parody or humor stories rather than serious stories.

PS: Despite my criticisms, DMC4 was probably my favorite game of 2008.

Anyway, character design is tricky business, and I don't pretend to be the best at it. Certainly Hideo Kojima knows better than me! In the world of video games and web comics and other visual art media, there is a lot more to know and I know almost zero about it (my visual styles tend to be really boring). However, I do know a fair bit about what makes an interesting character, and I know how to convey a realistic villain or NPC ally to players.

Hopefully you learned a little here, or at least your opinions were reinforced some. If not, there's always the comments section ~

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