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Storyboard: Making character relationships work

Eliot Lefebvre

Character interrelationships are the heart of roleplaying. The interesting part of your character isn't his background or his personality; it's what happens when you put him in a room with several other people and let the whole thing move from there. You're trying to create an entirely different person who will build an entirely different set of relationships in an entirely different world.

Unfortunately, some of those relationships can feel a bit... forced -- as if you're trying to find a connection where none exists, or as if you've jumped past some important elements of characterization that would make everything seem clearer. In short, a lot of your relationships feel as if they were cut from the Star Wars prequels.

I harp on verisimilitude a lot in this column, but that's precisely because roleplaying depends on the illusion of reality in each interaction. If your relationships in roleplaying feel real, it does wonders for grounding the characters and their interplay in reality and giving substance to everything else you do. So I think it's worth noting some obvious stumbling points and some ways to help relationships feel more organic.

Not friends, but peers.  On opposite sides.  Which is even more important.Friends make the world go round

Sometimes, roleplaying groups look a lot like the cast of a soap opera in one important respect: Nobody is friends with anyone else. There are lovers, there are ex-lovers, there are mortal enemies, there are occasionally even family members, but there are no straight-up friends. There's no pairing of people who just hang out, talk about stuff, and then wave goodbye.

Imagine if your life was made up entirely of love interests and objects of hatred. It would be briefly exciting and then tediously boring, since you have no middle ground between passionate new relationships and petty vendettas. You wouldn't have time to sit back and watch an awful movie while cracking jokes with anyone, that's for sure.

Really, there are a lot of different flavors of friend. There are your work buddies, there are your close companions, and there are friends you might as well be married to except for the lack of romance. But having more people who are just your friend is a large step toward making your relationships feel more honest. There's no hidden motivation or plot; you just enjoy someone else's company. That's good. That's human. And it feels believable.

Focus on building up these relationships. Some of them can have edges of more dramatic motivations -- maybe your character is friends with someone else but holds a secret little crush in her head -- but the core of them is just a status of mutual interests and respect.

Love and hate are boring

All right, human nature being what it is, odds are still good that your character has more enemies and potential lovers than most people. That's fine; it's entertaining. What I see equally often are people who make the entire idea of character romance or animosity feel cheap or unbelievable because they approach it with all the intensity of a teenager. The character can't stop talking about his boyfriend or this girl he hates, focusing everything into a single-minded lens to celebrate or destroy this individual.

This feels artificial because when you get down to it, love and hate are both boring as heck.

I'm not talking about those moments when you first start dating someone; I'm talking about when your relationship with someone else has lasted long enough to put you in a stable place. There's only a short period of time when you actually feel the need to compose sonnets about the other person. Most of the time you spend either with that person or just enjoying one another's company without a whole bunch of flowery nonsense. Similarly, the people you hate are usually just people you avoid spending time around. You don't plot to bring vengeance upon the jerk from accounting; you make sure not to sit next to him in the break room, and you don't talk to him in the hall. Done.

This might sound as if it's removing all of the tension from your interpersonal relationships. But don't worry; there's lots of room for tension. You just get more out of a gentle hand.

Great, we have to slaughter a whole bunch of monsters and I can't stop thinking about whether or not he actually liked my singing.Subtle tension is way more important

Professing your love for someone is interesting. What's much more interesting is if you say it at exactly the wrong time. Your character could just say that he loves his current romantic interest... but what if he said it immediately after said romantic interest lost a major tournament that he had spent weeks practicing for? And what if that statement were the first time either character used those three words?

A lot of the relationship stresses in our lives come not from big events but from subtle exchanges. They're things said in passing that one person winds up analyzing extensively. We've all lain awake at night trying to figure out whether someone's statement was meant to be flirty or friendly or whether our boss was joking with us or giving us a subtle warning. So much depends upon inflection, timing, and circumstance.

Out of character, you want to communicate clearly. In-character, you want to be a bit more ambiguous, either because of your character making a mistake in phrasing or because she genuinely wants others to question her meaning. The end result is that other characters form a much bigger impression from much smaller interactions.

Keeping it real

Roleplayed relationships, by their very nature, are interpersonal relationships pared down to the most dramatic elements. That means there are always going to be gaps in what you see on the screen. The trick is establishing enough of a framework that you can fill in the blanks and assume that characters are palling around when not otherwise engaged. It might be smoke and mirrors, but it makes things more believable in the long run.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to Next week, I want to talk about character interests in more depth, both as a means to understanding your characters and a means to giving the characters more to do.

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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