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Storyboard: In your own words

Eliot Lefebvre

I really should have learned by now to not promise anything for a given week's column other than the fact that it will be there, as I got halfway through the original draft of this particular new featurette before deciding that I hated it. So while I still want to delve a bit deeper into specific game lore and backstory, that bit is going to have to wait for just a little bit while I wrestle with the concept a little more thoroughly. (It'll be worth the wait.)

Instead, this week I'm going to focus on an aspect of roleplaying that I've discussed before in passing but never in any real depth: finding a character's voice. That's more than just consistent characterization, although that's a part of it. Strong characters have distinct voices and behaviors, unique outlooks, and hangups, things that help an individual stand out from the crowd. It's the trick of finding that voice and having a distinct tone from other characters that makes starting a new character at once engaging and mildly horrifying.

The first step to finding a character's voice, of course, is understanding who the character is. (This is something I kept mentioning during archetype discussions, so it can't come as any great surprise.) If your character is a soldier, he's going to have certain things he finds inherently important. At least in early roleplaying, that's enough to start with. Your soldier thinks duty is important, is big on organization and structure, and doesn't get scared around physical combat. So far, so good.

But that's only the beginning, and it's a rather weak beginning at that. You know in broad terms what the character is, or at least what the character thinks he is. But why?

Rather than using a hypothetical example, at least for the moment, I'm going to use a more obvious example: myself. I'd rather use a real person, since that's the illusion you're trying to create anyway, and I don't mind propping myself up as an example. It's one thing to know that I'm usually early for pretty much everything. But understanding the why means understanding that I grew up in a family in which punctuality was expected, so I have very little patience for waiting around to begin with (I tend to have a short temper).

If you were roleplaying me, aside from revolving around a particularly strange choice of source material, that "why" would inform a lot of future roleplaying. Not being particularly patient extends to more than just being on-time -- it means that as a character I'm not going to wait around for much, and I'm going to set pretty hard limits on how much effort I'll put forth before giving up. Figuring out the motivation behind a given trait allows you to work forward again to extrapolate future behaviors.

Let's go back to that soldier from the first paragraph. So he's not afraid of combat. Why is that? Is it because he's a soldier, or is that one of the reasons he became a soldier? If it's the former, then perhaps deep down he really is scared of battle and he's trying to force himself to leave that behind. That says something fundamental about the character -- that he tries to deal with his fears by forcing a confrontation, to overpower them through force of will and inescapable circumstance.

Figuring out what your character would do is only part of the question, however. You need to know what he wants to accomplish in the first place, why he even feels like overcoming fear (to use the above example) is something important. He needs goals.

I've talked extensively about character flaws, but I haven't spent a lot of time talking about goals. Part of the reason is that there are no bad character goals, just bad player expectations for them. "Rule the world" is a perfectly valid character goal; expecting the rest of the players in the game to actually kowtow in-character is more a problem of your expectations than anything. But character goals are an important part of figuring out your character's voice, too, because long-term goals often inform a lot of immediate actions.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that every character should want something, even if it's just a glass of water. As before, though, the important question is why. For this reason, it's often better to hold off on any long-term goals until you've played the character for a while and started to sense where his or her passion lies. As you discover the character's voice, you might find that something you thought was important (a soldier wanting to defend his homeland, for instance) is actually much less important than a peripheral goal (a soldier looking to make his family proud by defending his homeland).

An even more important question is whether or not the character's stated goals match up with his or her actual goals, one of those wonderful little spaces into which players can drive a whole lot of storytelling. It could very well be that the soldier whose stated goal is making his family proud actually just cares about glory and honor -- and when the two are put at odds with one another, the hunt for glory wins every time. Think about the guy you see at Starbucks who talks endlessly about how he'll be a writer when you don't ever see him actually writing. That, in turn, tells you more about the character and about why he would say that one thing is important when it's really something else entirely.

By moving forward and backward, you can start giving your character a strong framework for making decisions. That's a big part of finding your voice -- being able to make a choice for a given character and know immediately that it's the reasonable one given his or her background and views. And if you're doing it right, it's invisible, except for the fact that your fellow players think you never even have to ask.

As always, comments and opinions can be sent to, or you can leave them in the comment field below. Next week, I'm either going to have hammered what would have been this week's column into a working shape, or I'll talk a bit about a character's literal voice.

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.

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