Stated more simply -- plotting out your character in detail or not plotting your character out in enough detail are both equally detrimental to your roleplaying.
Ever since I've been writing this column, I've been trying to develop a good way to actually handle this issue, and a fairly recent post from Websnark actually kicked me down a new path. For ease of reference, I'm calling it plotting by concept. I can't say that it works perfectly forever and ever, but it's been producing good results for a while, so I'm just going to outline how it works in the hopes that other people can find it useful too.
Plotting by concept is an idea that's very simple in practice but a little difficult to explain without sounding complicated. So instead of making that mistake, I'm going to create an example. I'm going to use a character that I'm not currently playing with parallels to characters that I am currently playing, and I'm going to use a setting I'm familiar with that isn't necessarily suitable at the moment. So we're diving into the world of Queen Placeholder from Paragon City. Here's a quick outline of the character at creation:
Elmape Wenx is a woman in her mid-20s with a long history of poor relationship choices. Unfortunately for Wenx, during a routine graduate science experiment she became infected with a form of virulent nanotechnology that allows her to alter her body on a near-molecular level. She uses this to generate powerful bursts of electricity and rapidly heal herself vai consumption of nearby matter. He primary goal is to reverse this condition, but she still maintains a love of scienceand a driving urge to rid Paragon City of the people responsible for her infection, the Crey corporation.
That's not a bad place to start. Not a great one, either, but you've got a few plot hooks. Queen Placeholder has three or four at the moment -- she's got a history of making relationship mistakes, a need to reverse her condition, a drive to eliminate Crey, and the vague urge to do research. The thing is, all of these plot points are conceptual rather than set in stone. Exactly what sort of bad relationships she gets involved in is left up in the air, for example.
Now, let's say you start playing her, and you immediately find her in a very academic supergroup dedicated to understanding cross-dimensional phenomena. That need for research is getting satisfied, and you can use that to play into further points. Considering what made her a superhero in the first place, you could easily play this up as her being very smart but very reckless with herself around experiments, or you could go the route of having her be too cautious in reaction to her current condition. By leaving it open-ended, you create the possibility of satisfying one plot point (her need for research) and simultaneously creating a new one (her caution or lack thereof in her research).
Furthermore, let's assume that she winds up getting involved with another character from the group in a stormy on-again-off-again situation. That allows you to play off existing points and create something new. If she's overly reckless, that could speak to a smart woman that leaps long before she looks, getting involved in relationships with people she thinks she's interested in without taking time to figure out what she really wants. That informs her character, gives you more plot hooks even once one hook has been handled, and it allows you to build into more hooks in the future.
The other plot points? They don't rise to prominence. Which is all right, because after this roleplaying you have someone whose plot points center around a stormy relationship she doesn't want to end, a drive to investigate dimensional phenomena with less caution than she should, and more points that splinter off of those. (Perhaps her powers are interacting with dimensional shifting in odd ways, perhaps she's unsure if being a hero is what she actually wants to do, perhaps she's starting to be too impatient to be a decent scientist.) None of the plot points you devoted a huge amount of time to go to waste, because you didn't lay the groundwork for A Plot, you laid hooks that could be tied into bigger happenings.
That's the core of this methodology. Not planning out events, but planning out context and what the events will mean for your character in the long run. Giving your character a meaningful arc to follow without determining what that arc will be ahead of time. If you wind up going in a different direction than you had thought likely, that's all right, because the structure is built to accommodate swings and alterations.
More to the point, it allows you to focus on how you want the character to feel and what you want to be interesting without getting hung up on details. If you want your character to be a tragic figure, you can leave openings for tragedies with defined resonance and development rather than a preplanned Horrible Event. Your character isn't mourning over a lost love, he's mourning over an event that took place in an actual play session where he just wasn't fast enough or strong enough or smart enough.
I haven't played around with it long enough to codify everything. But I think it's a good concept, and thus far it seems to be working quite well.
Tried it? Like the idea? Want to ask me yet again why I'm spending this much time talking about roleplaying in a roleplaying column? Let me know in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I get meta and talk about the role of roleplaying communities and community sites.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.