From The Ground Up (FTGU) is a series of posts based around character creation and roleplay, building from the ground up, obviously. In this post we’re going to talk about your characters story and their development and how to do that. But if you have missed any parts this far you can catch up with them here:
What is the difference between Book Characters and Roleplay Characters? Aaron and I were talking about this over a year ago now, in the car and the conversation started when we were discussing a character that belonged to a mutual friend of ours and we could not understand why the player seemed to struggle so much with RP, as the character itself was excellent, it was literature quality stuff, but the player was always struggling and frustrated. We came to the realisation that excellent characters and awesome stories do not always work in MMO’s. Similarly MMO characters might not work in books, for reasons I will go into below, and even many great role-players out there fall down when it comes to this grey area and ergo limit their potential because it seems logical when creating a character to create one that would work well as a novel main character or a movie main character, that is what we are used to after all. And it is easily done, as from the outside and onset role-playing in MMO’s looks and feels a lot like writing generically and on top of that most of our inspirations come from books and films and characters that work in those, so those are the traits and concepts we automatically adopt without often thinking of how they need to be adapted to work in the MMO environment.
When you are writing a book, story or any other piece of singular prose you are writing about a main character, no matter how prevalent and strong your supporting characters are there will usually always be a main character, maybe even a main bad guy, and the story for all intents and purposes follows a straight line over the shoulder of that main character where he is responsible for 90% of the action, juice and glory within the story whatever form it takes. That is how books work, how they get you invested in the character in the story and what is going on through the eyes of this lead role. But MMO’s are a different beast because when push comes to shove there are –hundreds- of writers, all trying to write within the same story. And most of them are trying to write main characters, and they should be, not many people want to play supporting roles and/or get enjoyment out of it, but keep in mind that in an MMO setting your main character needs to be a little more versatile and flexible than he would be if he was in a book.
Book Characters for example tend to be the Hero, in a very general sense, they have to be somewhat closely involved in the main events you are telling the story about. If your story is about the Great Crusades then there is no point in your main character being a Celt and living miles away on another continent for example. In MMO’s however everyone knows you should steer clear of having your character tightly involved in major lore scenes, characters or kills, they can have been there, certainly, and if it fits their character bill, why not. At the moment a lot of elves seem to have been suddenly in Dalaran for no real reason a few months ago so they could get caught up in the Purge, because it offered the chance for writing some drama/tragedy into the characters. But that is fine so long as it makes cohesive sense for the character to have been there at the time. Saying however that they were the one that laid hands on the Bell? Broke the defenses, and killed X lore character to get there? It’s over stepping the mutually and silently agreed bounds of the role-players etiquette.
Characters heavy bound into key roles or figures of the lore are easy enough to spot but what people often miss is the subtle cousin to those, and I have met, seen and enjoyed RP with many of these kinds of characters, but it is just not all it could be. They are the characters that drive their own story only and entirely, be it in game or in prose. The characters that have the majority of their character advancement and development happen off-screen in prose where they are the soul leading character, backed up by other fictional characters (NPC – Non-Player-Characters) they have made that react to their character exactly how they want them to. It is essentially all about them and that is not role-play. That is writing, using prose to get your character to where you want and do the things you want to do, it totally disregards the involvement of anyone else. It makes other characters redundant and irrelevant, so why RP? The people you RP with will see that too, they will see their characters doing X, Y and Z with yours and in the end that amounts to nothing, nothing comes of their efforts as all the real things occur in your prose where you can engineer the reaction to your own character how you want them, which is often sadly to make them more cool and badass than they might have appeared if they were dealing with in-game reactions from other real characters. When other peoples involvement in your character and the story is redundant they will not hang around long because no one enjoys their efforts being useless.
Similarly there are folks that do the same thing in-game, they create plots and story-lines that revolve around their characters, which is in itself fine and dandy but they fail to extend it out and bring other people fully and functionally into the plot. They are only doing it for how it makes their character look to said other parties, and what their character gets to do and the sympathy or glory their character gains/earns (which is a common trait is some GM’s but we’ll talk about that later), so other characters can be involved, and come along to these plots and events but ultimately their input counts for nothing as the story is being fully driven by the Main Character. One of the most common examples of these characters are the emotional kinda of character that seem to always have a reason to be sad and mopey. This would be grand, if when other characters stepped in to help and do this and that it had any lasting knock on effect, when in truth even if it does have effect those effects will usually be then over ridden in backstage events or prose they have no control over that once again give the character reason to be mopey. In this kinds of situations it is very hard to stay invested in the plot-lines and the character themselves, because you know your input is irrelevant and your time is being wastes in repetition.
Creating characters that are interesting and fun is what I enjoy doing and where I believe my skill lies if I have any skill at all that is, but creating plot and story? That is a different beast entirely and I am not amazing at it, so I am always aware of these lurking traps, more so as my character is the Guild Master and the ‘leader’ as such so it would be horribly easy to fall into making him a Main Character of his own arcing story. I take a few steps to try and keep him a MMO Character, rather than a Book Character.
I shift my focus mainly. If you are writing a book you are thinking about your main character and how they interact with X and Y and get from A to B, and what they think of G and H. Which sounds very self-serving and it is, because that is what works for writing books, and how you get readers invested in the character you are writing about, you are having people uncover information about your main character and his background and plot because that is where the story of the book lies. When those readers are bringing main characters of their own to the table the only way to get them invested in your character is to invest in theirs. So shift your focus from making your Main Character do/say/look certain things/words/ways, and think instead about how to make him a tool to create a bigger and more engaging game for them, think about how you can use your character to draw out aspects of their character story and how that makes them feel and think about their own character.
In my case I take Theo almost entirely out of the picture, he runs the guild/organisation; yes. He is the boss; yes. But he does very little. You know, as any self-respecting criminal over-lord should, he has other people do 90% of it for him, which drags them into his story and my plot and gives them a say, a presence, they are more than just bystanders to my soapbox and saga, they are part of it. They are, in fact most of it. And their actions and words have cause and effect, the outcome changes entirely depending on what they do and how they do it. And you might think that is damaging to my own RP and/or a time consuming task in providing stale ‘missions’ but it is shockingly not. The tasks he throws out are all things that come up IC though interactions and personal character motivation and drive, I get to the place where Theo needs to do these things entirely within the immersion of his own story and when he does them or has others do them where he cannot that itself feeds back more RP. That old phrase is true you get back three fold what you give. I dish out things for people to do, this and that, I drop them snippits of insight and clues and I let them follow it up with absolutely free reign. And it always comes back. Some will, like our previously mentioned Knight, stamp the foot and refuse to do what was asked of him on moral grounds, conflict will ensue but said Knight is a great character and that conflict is always interesting RP. Or another will do as asked, and in doing it will come across some trouble he needs to bring back to Theo or perhaps even some new opportunity. I save Theolain’s actual actions until key points where it carries real weight in the story and around that I facilitate, and in facilitating, I create RP for those around me and for myself. I use my character as a tool to draw other characters and stories to the forefront of the plot at different times. To play on their unique skills as often as I can and it fits with the on-going plot.
It is a risk. I think that may be what puts a lot of people off the idea however aware or unaware they may be of that being a factor. But it is a risk, to involving other characters in things and put actual weight in their hands, to let the outcome of things actually rest on their shoulders through their decisions is risky. It means things might not always go as you want. Plots might not end how you wanted them to end, details about your character you wanted to convey might not make it to light. During one plot-line after following through on several decisions other characters made we even managed to reach a point where Theolain could have bee ousted from leadership and the entire guild dynamic could have changed. And it would have, had it gone that way, because I try to make my members feel like their characters, stories and actions have value and impression. That what they do has echoing effect. The only way to achieve that is to run with the risk that they will not choose what you want them to and that’s okay. It’s all just role-play at the end of the day. And I’m sure there would have been just as much story potential in Theo being dropped back to the bottom of the ladder as there was in his people pulling through. But those people came out of it happy, the characters came out of it advanced, developed, different, with added, deeper connections and interactions with each other and that is why and how MMO characters differ from Book Characters.
It all boils down to perception and focus. Everyone wants their character to be awesome, cool and liked. I think that is kind of universal, whether they want to be admired for the gritty reality of the character for his prowess at this or that or just his stunning ability to play out the average Joe. If you know your character well, you should be able to project and show that through all their interactions and even just the atmosphere that surrounds them, which again is something I will go into detail on later. MMO Characters, good ones that work best in the MMO setting, are those that have shifted their focus from who their character is and what they are doing onto what other people are doing and who they are playing, they are aware that their Main Character is not the only Main Character in the scene and are perceptive to the other characters and stories developing around them and always trying to entangle them and draw them out.
Is your character more of an MMO version or a book version? If you want some helpful banter on shifting that focus, drop me a comment below!