Friday, May 15, 2015

The Defining Moment: An Easy Way To Get A Grip On Who Your Character Is

Before I get to today's topic I'd like to take a second to remind all my readers that May is National Short Story Month! If you'd like to dedicate some of your reading time this month to taking in some short fiction, then might I recommend my recently released collection of steampunk noir New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam!

The first two stories are free, go take a look!
Anyway, now that I've done my duty as an author and informed you of that, let's get on to today's topic, shall we?

Who is Your Character?

We all know certain things about our characters. For example, we know how strong and smart they are, along with how wise and how charismatic they tend to be. We know what their classes are, and we know what skills they excel at. If you want to use the random tables you can even figure out their ages, heights, weights, and other personal statistics with the rolls of a few dice. You probably have an idea of what they look like, and you know what gear they're carrying.

But who are they? Beneath the broadswords and longbows, and behind the gray eyes and con scores, who is your character?

And what in the HELL is he DRINKING?!
Now, chances are good that when you bring a character to a table you have a few, broad strokes about who they are figured out. For example, you have a pick-pocket who grew up in the dock ward. She pretended to be a boy until she got too old for that to work, and then supplemented her income with burglaries and other crimes. She joins adventuring parties as a way to make money without having to worry about looking over her shoulder for the law, since stealing from dragons and aeons-dead sorcerers is hardly stealing.

Whether you're a glory-seeking barbarian warrior, an erudite master of the arcane, or a pious wanderer seeking to heal the sick and help the needy, you've got a basic archetype you can fill. For some players, though, getting past that cardboard cut-out can be troublesome. After all, what more is there to Brand Savage, Warden of the Kingswood, except that he's a ranger who likes the peace and solitude of the forest, and wants to serve his king and country?

Well, there's...

The Defining Moment

Think about where you are in life. Think about what your job is. Or your passions. Why those things? What led you to choose those paths over anything else you could have dedicated your life to? Chances are good you can think of a particular event that stands out in your memory that acts as a signpost for that particular decision.

Those things are defining moments.

Sometimes a man's gotta do, what a man's gotta do... or something...
Again, character flavor works best with examples. So here's a few to illustrate what I'm talking about.

- Karela the Red was the gunsmith's daughter. Her mother died in childbirth, so her father taught her his trade the same way he would have a son. When their home was attacked by bandits she snatched up her father's blunderbuss, but it misfired and the bandits killed her father. From that day onward she's kept her weapons fastidiously clean and ready for action, knowing that sometimes putting it off to tomorrow means there won't be a tomorrow. And she always, always has a back-up.

- Erik Alder loved listening to his uncle's tales of sailing the world. The exotic lands, the strange creatures, and the adventure were something he never got tired of hearing about, despite the old man's missing eye and the stump where his hand had once been. Erik went to sea himself at 14, and that sensation of the salt in his lungs and the wind in his hair is something that has drawn him ever-onward since that day.

- Glenda Hammerhand always loved the stories of the gods. She liked the idea of being a priest, but all the reading and remembering was a task infinitely more complicated than smelting gold or swinging a hammer. The first time she felt the brush of divinity moving through her, though, and the smile of the boy whose broken leg she healed, she knew that the clergy was truly where she belonged.

Do you see? While a life is complicated, full of important choices and banal decisions, some of them have the potential to truly shape what a character feels or believes. These moments can be good, they can be bad, or they can be downright cynical. The soldier who defended her brethren during a surprise attack, only to be thrown under the cart wheels when the captain demanded to know whose fault the failure was might adopt a "looking out for myself" policy before becoming a mercenary. The paladin who defends the right of all creatures to make their own decisions might see one too many victims become monsters, and fall from grace when he becomes a tyrant in order to save people from themselves. The half-orc, ostracized by his community may still defend them when they're threatened. The gratitude of those he saves is second only to the feeling of pride he has in using his strength and ferocity to protect something he feels is truly his.

A Character's Career is Full of These Moments

A character should have at least one defining moment before coming into game (typically the one that made the character an adventurer in the first place). That said, these moments will also occur throughout a campaign. The half-feral ranger may bond with the bard, showing the singer a world he never knew existed, and at the same time remembering what human companionship is like. An aristocratic cleric might believe the barbarian is a savage in need of education, but when he sees the complexity of the "savage's" beliefs he realizes there are more perspectives than his own to share.

By learning to recognize (and occasionally push) defining moments you'll be able to develop a deeper character whose motivations and actions become crystal clear. Not only with this make RP easier, but it will often lead you to develop your characters in ways you didn't plan for.

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