Defining a character by their role in the story is a tradition that stretches back past warrior, wizard, and thief. In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is first introduced as a ranger and before that, in The Hobbit, Bilbo is repeatedly referred to as the group’s burglar. Another author, Robert E. Howard ensured that most of us can’t hear the word Conan without mentally adding “the barbarian” (or “the librarian” if you happen to be a wise-guy). Because of this tradition, a great way to create a character is to decide their role and then create a back-story that both explains why they chose that role and helps in defining their later actions. With all that in mind, I thought I’d take some of your time to talk about another method for creating and maintaining characters I stumbled into. The central tenant of this method is that defining characters by their limitations, not by their abilities, causes the characters to become more dynamic and makes their stories more enjoyable.
Most of this will be based on characters I have played as in tabletop role-playing-games and, as will become obvious, this theory didn’t come about due to any cleverness on my part. Case in point was the conception of the first character, Sirarious the paladin. On the day we started a new game, I happened to forget my character and was generously given a crusading albino lizard-man to play as. Because I had nothing to do with his generation, his physical and mental abilities were ideal for the role he filled in the party. However, because they had given him to me, it didn’t stay that way for long.
Soon after I was able to change parts of the character, I altered Sirarious to make him better at healing and aiding his allies. That in itself was probably fine, but what I soon came to realize was that trying to move away from that particular Holy Warrior archetype made Sirarious much, much weaker. He was essentially a tank commander who skipped every driving class so he could learn basic first aid. In fact, I later discover that what I did was specifically forbidden because of how underpowered it made characters.
Despite the fact that the lizard-man had become the weakest member of the party, and the fact that using him with any kind of effectiveness became as complicated as landing a passenger jet on Venus, I fervently enjoyed playing as Sirarious for one simple reason. This reason was that Sirarious becoming weaker made total sense in context. In the story I had in my head, Lizard-men were famed for their zealotry and fighting prowess, and from a physical standpoint Sirarious was no exception. In both the story and the real world, however, Sirarious’ priorities changed so that keeping people safe became more important than being a crusader. Being with people he cared about made him softer: worse to have in a fight, but better to have in a pub. Because of the character becoming less independent, I had to have Sirarious interact with the people around him more, which made me care more about the world he was in and the allied characters I had to rely on.
After Sirarious died due to a post negotiation hunting accident (which was very tragic but completely fitting for the character) I got the opportunity to make my replacement character from scratch. The new guy was Ayu the Pirate, who I created because I was getting too used to playing characters who were more socially anxious than their player. Due to being created by me, Ayu was a smorgasbord of contradictions. He was a gnome that picked fights with Orcs, a brash personality who was quite good at sneaking around, and the first into battle despite being squishier than an old tomato. Heck, he wasn’t even a pirate, he just liked the hats they wore. If you can imagine a twelve-year-old with a samurai sword and a tricorn hat, you have a pretty good idea of Ayu. This combination of fragility and boldness made Ayu seem like a fish outside his pond, and because of that every new encounter allowed me to vicariously experience a incredible sense of wonder from the character. Just like the character before him, Ayu’s weaknesses made me talk with non-player characters more often and depend on the other players for support. At one point, I literally had to step away from the table because of how emotionally invested I was getting in the character’s plight.
While Ayu was still active, I had the privilege of participating in another tabletop session with a different game master. This time, I actually put a lot of effort into getting my character functioning correctly (for once). At the same time, I had noticed how much fun I had playing characters who were objectively unqualified for their roles. This led to the creation of Warren, a veteran Dwarf with a head full of pessimism and hands full of steel. He was also blind, and not in a Daredevil-I-might-as-well-be-faking-it kind of way. Even though he was able to function as a fighter, he still needed to be escorted by other characters to get anywhere and had to rely on his teammates to explore. Just like Sirarious and Ayu, the way he was designed made me interact with the world and my fellow players more and I became more invested in the story because of it.
At this point, I feel the need to really thank my comrades-in-dice for letting me get away with playing these characters. While the idea of an intentionally flawed character may work for traditional narratives, tabletop games require teamwork in order to be fun for anyone involved. The gentleman who ran the campaign with Warren the blind deserves a special thank you, because he had to describe everything twice. Once for the sighted characters, and then again for the short guy with the blindfold. He even was nice enough to allow Warren to use a custom weapon so that he could keep track of enemies by embedding it in them at the start of the fight. The point is, it’s a good idea to ask for permission before making a character that undermines traditional Role Playing Game conventions, or at least have cohorts who can forgive how silly you can be while experimenting with your characters.
When writing or just enjoying more traditional stories, this kind of characterization can make for some interesting characters. For example, Adrian Monk, from Monk, is a private investigator who is as comfortable in a dirty crime scene as most of us would be in a venomous snake preserve. A more popular example may be Bruce “the gosh darn” Batman, who fights outrageously powerful criminals while refusing to use firearms. Some people would point out that he still uses blades, high explosives, and vehicle mounted anti-material guns, but the limitation still exists. I myself am writing a story with a character whose beliefs prevent them from training in self-defense, despite being in a situation that demands it.
So what do you patrons think of this method of creating characters? Am I just describing an extremely roundabout way of saying “we like underdogs”? Or that is it that it isn’t what a character does that makes them interesting, but why they do it? Can you think of any more characters that would not get a call back after dropping off their resume, but still are so much fun to read about or play as? This post is open for discussion, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Merry adventuring, and see you when you next walk into the Tavern.