Tuesday 7 April 2020

Mash-Up Character Method

People worry a lot about worldbuilding and creating an evocative setting for their games. Locations are great, but in my experience a setting is best delivered through its Characters.

Its a philosophy I've taken to the extreme in Electric Bastionland, where a large amount of setting is delivered through the Failed Careers section that makes up two-thirds of the book. Understanding these people is the way to understand the world that they live in, and it doesn't exist without them.

So I wanted to talk in a longer form about how I create characters for my own games, and how they generate the tone of my own games.

Start with what you know.

First, I create a short list (let's do three of each for this example) of concepts that I could use for characters. These aren't interesting on their own, but we're going to combine them to make something that's easy to conceptualise but has a little depth.

I'll start with the most obvious, which is that of played-out character archetypes like you've seen used a thousand times before.

  1. Thief with a heart of gold
  2. Wise woman of the village
  3. Used-car salesman

These ideas are easy to run with, but they aren't interesting on their own, so let's do two more. Another easy one is animals. It's easy to project animal characteristics onto a person, imagining the equivalent human behaviour.

  1. Snake
  2. Terrier
  3. Thoroughbred Horse

Your lists might look different, but you're looking for any concepts that can be projected onto a person. You might be able to imagine the personality of a certain type of car, genre of music, or a typeface if those are your areas of expertise. You can dive into straight-up character traits if you wish (cowardice, anxiety, envy) and I find the negative traits work well here. Better still if you dare to draw on your own negative traits. 

If you want a real challenge just grab completely random nouns, but that's very much hard-mode for this.

Mash them Up

Now we combine our lists to get:

  1. Snakelike thief with a heart of gold
  2. Terrier wise-woman
  3. Thoroughbred used-car salesman
This, but backwards.
The ideal here is that you get two ideas that juxtapose each other. I'd argue that the snake-like thief is a bit too redundant, as we're probably already imagining the thief to have some of the same characteristics as the snake. Similarly I think the sort of preening behaviour I'd expert from a thoroughbred horse are redundant with the overly confident used-car salesman cliche. Let's mix them around a bit.
  1. Thoroughbred thief with a heart of gold
  2. Snakelike wise-woman
  3. Terrier used-car salesman

I'm happier with these combinations as they move the initial archetype away from its cliche. You've got a thief that might have a heart of gold, but perhaps their vanity and showmanship creates some conflict. The wise-woman isn't going to be the helpful, maternal figure I was expecting, and instead can be cold and downright threatening with her snakelike elements. Finally the used-car salesman can be sleazy like we'd expect, but also persistent, excitable, and even a bit adorable.

Describing the Look

I don't like descriptions like this.

They're around 5"9 with hazel eyes and medium-brown hair worn in a rough bun. Their overalls are typical of an engineer, and they carry a selection of tools on their belt. They have a confident gait with...

Yeah you've lost me. Just give me two things.

Give me the overview of their appearance in two or three words. I do the same with locations. If I describe an "abandoned warehouse" then your imagination can fill the gaps as well as any description I give of dusty crates and faded paint. Not everybody will imagine the exact same picture, but it gives you a foundation.

Obviously at the table you've got room to expand on this description, but I'd save that for if you need it. Certainly for your notes you should be able to summarise it to two or three words.

Most importantly, draw on the two elements you used for this character for this description.

  1. Slender, handsome man. (thoroughbred/thief)
  2. Oily old woman. (snake/wise-woman)
  3. Scruffy little man (terrier/salesman)

But wait! I don't even know what colour this scruffy little man's hair is?

Wait and see if anybody asks. You've already pictured somebody in your head, and your players are quite capable of doing the same.

Now just as I liked having a juxtaposition in the elements, point out one element of their appearance that stands out against the broad strokes you just painted.
  1. Slender, handsome man wearing scruffy patched-up clothes. (thoroughbred/thief)
  2. Oily, elderly woman with a mechanical arm. (snake/wise-woman)
  3. Scruffy little man wearing gold-rimmed glasses (terrier/salesman)
What would cause you to notice them in a crowd?

The Voice

Voices become difficult if you overthink them. Maybe you have a range of flawless dialects and voice-actor-worthy performances, but I tend to stick to more earthy limits and go into any character's voice with the goals that it be:

  • Easy for me to maintain and repeat
  • Easy for the players to recognise as a particular character
So with that in mind I stick pretty close to the original elements, but make sure they're both being represented. Even if you don't nail what you were going for the key is that you can easily repeat it. 

  1. Slender, handsome man. (thoroughbred/thief) - Here I'd mash up the high-society aspirations from the thoroughbred with the fact that this man is clearly just a lowly thief. Think of the most down-to-earth person you know and imagine how they'd sound trying to fit in at a fancy day-at-the-races.
  2. Oily elderly woman. (snake/wise-woman) - Sssslow with a predatory precision, but keep that old-lady warmth and overly familiar side. Lean hard into the "oh I could just eat you up" side of the grandmother stereotype for something veering between creepy and comforting.
  3. Scruffy little man (terrier/salesman) - Fast and excitable of course! Yappy even! They're so glad you're here and maybe their attention span isn't great so hey, come and look at this. But throw in all the lingo you'd expect from somebody trying to bombard you with car specifications.
Remember to include physical behaviours as part of their voice. Our thoroughbred is always trying to stand taller and prouder. Our snake is licking her lips and almost gliding across the room. Our terrier is bounding from one thing to the next and snarling at bigger rivals like he's trying to prove something.

Their Place in the World

This is how we tie them into the world. You might be creating these characters for specific gaps in the game you're planning. Maybe you need somebody to serve the characters at the shop they just wandered into.

This is where things get really interesting! You might think that our thief is obviously a professional burglar in Bastion. Our wise-woman clearly occupies some hut out in Deep Country dishing out potions. Our used-car salesman is trying to convince a tram company to upgrade to a new model on behalf of his bosses.

Yeah, this works, but why not put them into the gaps you already have? Gaps you wouldn't expect to see them in?

Our thoroughbred-thief might be working in the dive-bar the characters just went into.
Our snake-woman might be a professor at the university.
Our salesman might actually be the mayor of a borough, surrounded by people he can boss around.

Think about how they can bring their existing personality to a role you wouldn't expect to see them in. You'll be surprised how readily the players accept characters that might initially seem like a bad fit for their role in the world. It even makes both the person and place more memorable.

Their Goal

Now you know the character, and you know their current situation, think about how they would want it to change. Nobody is ever completely happy, after all. Consider all the ways that they are an ill-fit for the role you put them in, or ways in which their initial potential appears to be unfulfilled. Lean into those and give them each one really clear goal that they want to achieve. This doesn't have to be some grand scheme, in fact the basest desires often work best of all.
  1. Slender, handsome dive-bar waiter (thoroughbred/thief). Wants to work at a much finer establishment.
  2. Oily, elderly biology professor (snake/wise-woman). Wants to taste all sorts of taboo meats.
  3. Scruffy little mayor (terrier/salesman). Wants to embarrass the mayor of a neighbouring district that he feels talks down to him. 
Finally, I give them a silly memorable name (just one name) that nods to their original concepts. It might feel on-the-nose but remember the goal here is to make something memorable. 
  1. Derby the dive-bar waiter
  2. Professor Piver
  3. Mayor Ratter
As with other methods I use, it might take you a little while the first time, but it's easy enough to do on the fly if you just think of a few core elements ahead of time. 

1 comment:

  1. Huhhhhh... hmm. I feel like this somehow matches the "what was it used for / what is it used for now / what unique feature does it have" trio that was in a post a while back. I'll have to give it a shot!