Keep the story arc contained
Ongoing television and comic books are both aimed at a simple goal: making sure that you can give each installment a satisfying conclusion without actually forcing the whole thing to conclude. This works to varying degrees, but the fundamental approach is a good one. Rather than building an arc to develop everything about the characters, you should build a story arc to have its own internal momentum and just weave in a few character snippets here and there.
Obviously, during roleplaying, you're going to want to have more than just a few character snippets. But an ongoing story for more than one person should really have enough going on that it's not all about one character, or two characters, or even seven characters. It's about a series of events, and the characters involved in said events are developing at the same time without being the sole focus. It's part of resisting the temptation to give all of your character's secrets away right off the bat.
Have multiple irons in the fire
Let's say you have a character in Star Trek Online with a few major story hooks. He's a Bajoran with a chip on his shoulder against the Cardassians, he's got a real crush on a fellow captain, he's obsessed with Dominion technology, and so on. The temptation is to focus on one character development at a time and run that in a straightforward fashion.
A better idea is to start up several dozen arcs with each character and keep them running continuously.
The first reason this works better is because it gives you a more organic feel to the overall process of your character's development. Just like in real life, one day you're working on one project; the next day it's something different. But the second reason -- and the one more pertinent to this column's purpose -- is that it's going to take a lot more time to resolve each individual thread, which gives you plenty of time to spin into new developments.
When your characters are keeping enough balls in the air, they start to meld together. They cross in odd ways. And if you're trying to keep the character developing amidst a self-contained ongoing story, well, there's going to be a lot of ground to cover for each individual arc.
Solve situations, not problems
Let's say you start off with a character who has a neurotic fear of bugs. It comes up in your roleplaying, you work through it during a story, and now you can complete that story with your character's fear of bugs successfully conquered! Great, right?
Except that then you'll never be able to work with that aspect of the character ever again. You've completely killed off a major aspect of character development just to call it finished. It's tempting to do so, of course, especially if you want to eventually overcome that fear of bugs -- but if you just treat it as a boolean state, you're missing out on a lot of positive interactions that can happen in the middle.
Instead of approaching each character problem as an issue to be overcome in its entirety, approach it from the bottom up. Let's face it, none of us solves problems by saying that the real issue is our lack of perceived intimacy stemming from childhood neglect. We solve them by being angry about how our significant other treated us. It's only when you solve the same problem a few times over that you start figuring out the core issues.
For each plot you kill, create one
So you have your characters working to put out the minor fires instead of starting at the root cause, and you're spinning a lot of different threads while working in self-contained story arcs. That's all well and good, but you still need to conclude all of those threads. Eventually, the dance between your character and Sylvia's character is going to run out of room, and the characters will kiss and ride off in the sunset. Satisfying conclusion, sure, but where do you go from there?
The answer is up to you. But you should have an answer.
Maybe it's time to start up an arc about how your character was affected by previous story arcs. Maybe there are issues that still haven't been fully worked out. Or maybe you want to actual roleplay the ups and downs of being in a relationship, something that could provide a lot of interesting drama (assuming Sylvia's on board). But the point is that when you start juggling all those threads again, you don't go from five to four. You go from five to a different five.
Eventually, of course, you need to let things run toward a grand conclusion. But you can keep all of that a long way in the horizon. And when you do need to end everything, you can just run all of your plot threads into one unifying arc, ride off into the sunset, and move on, confident that everyone lived as happily as possible ever after.
Or just kill all of your characters. That can work too.
Feedback, as always, can be left in the comments below or mailed along to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I'm going to talk about characters with minds of their own, something that invariably happens.
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.