What Role Playing Games Taught Me About Writing Bad Characters
I’ve enjoyed role playing games for about 10 years now, including Dungeons and Dragons (Advanced, 3.5, and 4), White Wolf, BESM, Forum-Based, Star Wars, and Pathfinder just to name a few. Role playing has taught me a lot about thinking fast, telling interesting stories, and welcoming surprising events and the unexpected ways they shape characters. It’s also taught me a lot about what not to do, sometimes painfully. When I sat down to write, I was surprised that those lessons stuck and keeping them in mind made me a better writer. For instance, sometimes you just need to run into the cave.
Here are few hard lessons in writing characters that keep coming up, no matter how much I wish they’d go away:
The Walking Cliché
This is probably the most common RP character as well as badly written genre-fiction character. They are an amalgamation of everything that seems cool at the time. They are generally some sort of vampire/undead/wereanimal in a black hood that uses a scythe and has a wolf pet. The character is often built to be overpowered (especially if rules are lenient). Even if they are not actually overpowered, players will play them as if they are. I can remember several frustrated DMs who could not convince a player that their character really was intimidated, afraid, or unsure. They insisted that their character had no such emotions.
The fact is that these characters, while built to be awesome, are usually the most boring characters in the game, just as they are the most boring characters in the book. Flaws, complications and failures are the things that make characters really interesting. Without that, they become a very cool looking stock character.
Of course, there are exceptions. One of my favorite characters I’ve ever played with was a highly overpowered gunslinger with a trench coat, a leather hat, and a scar over his eye. The great thing about this character was that the player came up with an incredibly complicated family tree and back story for him. Plus, the character was impressively lazy, completely disinterested in the fate of humanity. My character had to drag him into action initially, and his character arch was one of rediscovering the wonder and joy of life. This made the superficial gunslinger trope and associated stereotypes a foil. It highlighted, rather than suppressing, the unique aspects of the character.
An easy fix for this character is mixing in something unexpected. Maybe your scythe-wielding vampire enjoys knitting or is terrified of spiders. There is a vampire in the Mercy Series (Patricia Briggs), who thinks it’s hilarious to drive around in a Scooby Doo van. This makes it all the more terrifying when he goes all creatures-of-the-night on innocent bystanders. Even a small trait can make characters more multi-dimensional and interesting. Remember to always give your characters room to fail, to be weak, and to grow.
This is probably my least favorite. A good DM (or a good writer) can force the walking cliché into change and development, but the quirky character should be murdered early and left in a ditch.
Quirky characters generally have no real personality. They are vaguely cheerful and usually helpful. Their entire personality is built around a single quirk which they mention every chance they get. In fact, you will never be able to convince the player to stop doing this, even if it derails the game completely.
I remember playing with a chef character who was convinced that the only way to become a better chef was to taste everything, and I mean everything. This included allies, monsters, dirt, and poisons. I recall one particular time when a series of lucky 17-20 rolls and my own quick thinking might have meant we could diplomacy our way to a lot more treasure and adventure. And then the chef just had to see how elves tasted….
There are examples of these in books and movies too. Jar Jar Binks is a good example. His character is primarily built around child-like wonder and a lack of motor control that, instead of endearing, hits most fans as obnoxious. Although he wants to be helpful he generally breaks up the flow of the story as we endure long scenes of his numb tongue and lack of riding skills. No one loves you, Jar Jar!
Giving an otherwise well thought out character a quirk or two is fine, but never build a character around a single quirk. Trust meesa on this.
This character does most things just to get a rise out of people, usually things that are disgusting or completely socially unacceptable. Perfect examples are the player who insists that his necromancer is also a necrophiliac and forces the party to constantly drag him off dead bodies. To me, these characters often feel like a flimsy excuse for the player or writer to show how interesting/weird/unique/edgy they are. It always backfires.
This also goes for the bather-in-blood and, yes, the graphic-detail-obsessed lecher. This also goes for characters who were raised by wolves (or whatever) and, despite being constantly corrected, can’t manage to understand the basic rules of society. I remember, with no fondness, the invariable public urinater, the frequently randomly murdering, and the perpetually indecent. These players tend to be newer to the game, I’ve found, and want to shake up the other players and the DM. They tend to derail things, however, and the group ends up feeling like they are babysitting. This is not to say that stories and games can’t get graphic, scary, or dark, but there must be some benefit to the narrative or you’re as bad as the Quirky. Also ick.
The same is true when this kind of character is in a story. They are usually the literary equivalent of the most annoying escort quest ever. They’re a clumsy dues ex machina used to drag the main character from one fiasco to the next. Often they put the main character in some sort of awkward situation (a police officer walks in on the main character tying to clean up their mess, for example) The reader often rootes for the main character to just leave them to face their comeuppance already. They’re frustrating and their death is celebrated by all.
The Gross and The Inept can make good villains in a story, but remember that even villains usually write themselves as the good guy in their own minds. You have to ask yourself why they are acting the way they are? What is their goal? Avoid using them for situational humor.
Starfire from Teen Titans is a good example of a well-written Inept. She is aware of her status as an outsider and constantly works to balance her wish to fit-in with her need to stay true to herself. She might count as a Gross too, as some of her traditions don’t go over well with some of the other Titans. She’s more complicated than that characterization though, and her hopes and motivations only tie into it on occassion.
The important thing to always remember when writing characters is that interesting characters are flawed, often deeply. Luke was fearful. Bilbo was a home-body. Indian a Jones was full of pride and terrified of snakes. All of these problem characters can be fixed by keeping that in mind.
A messy, but highly effective, trick is to give your character two problems, a fantastical problem (fighting a giant Cyclops), and a real-life problem (impending divorce). Keeping these two things in mind, and working to balance them, while simultaneously conflating them and inviting comparison, will help you create a multi-dimensional, interesting character as well as a richer story.