7 Quick Tips for Roleplayers
So, you’re not brand new to roleplaying anymore. You’ve been around the block a few times, maybe you’ve been writing for years now. You’ve made your newbie mistakes, and now you’re ready to move forward towards better plots and characters!
This article is a quick list of some common ways that roleplayers can still take unfortunate turns and how to help prevent them through practice and awareness.
1) The flaws you give your character aren’t really flaws -- they’re quirks.
Flaws are only really flaws if they actively make your character’s life more difficult or stand in the way of things that your character wants.
Let’s say you’ve come up with a ‘flawed’ character concept to start a roleplay and yet somehow, the character still seems to always end up getting what they want or succeeding in their efforts in spite of said flaws. If your snarky, presumptuous pilot is in a position such that being snarky or presumptuous doesn’t really interfere with their goals, or is always overshadowed by their great talent that supposedly ‘balances out’ these flaws… then being snarky and presumptuous aren’t really flaws at all. They’re quirks -- quirks that may make the other characters roll their eyes and go ‘oh, that so-and-so is at it again with the snark’, but not flaws that make them actually dislikable or incapable in any important way.
Quirks are great, but you need to show your character losing their chance at their dream job or damaging a relationship they really valued over their bad attitude in order to truly count it as a hard flaw or character defect. As further examples: let your squire with a ‘tempermental’ flaw fail to be promoted to knighthood on account of her unreliability under pressure. Or, let your ‘duty-bound’ flawed stay-at-home-dad stay in an unhealthy marriage for too long on account of caring too much about the opinions of his other family members or children who may like his wife.
Flaws should not magically disappear in those moments that they create an obstacle for your character. That obstacle is what makes it a flaw in the first place. Let your characters struggle with the real-world consequences of how their flaws and defects affect their lives and happiness; these struggles are often the fodder for great stories, and they give your character a believable starting place for their arc, further developing the character through the roleplay itself. This arc can then become a story on its own of your characters learning to overcome their obstacles.
2) Giving your character too much intelligence and perspective on themselves.
Somehow, your character seems to understand themselves just a little too well -- they recognize and mitigate their own human weaknesses too easily. Try instead letting your character mess things up or be wrong about something. And not just as a form of self-sabotage -- let your character make genuine, unknowing mistakes. The kind of mistakes people make in real life; hearing the date of an important appointment wrong, making a faux pas in conversation, completely forgetting about something very important because they were distracted by something else, not understanding how or why something they have done is upsetting to someone else, completely misjudging another person’s intentions and motivations, or even misjudging their own intents and motivations.
It doesn’t need to be excusable -- let your character be at fault even if (especially if, perhaps!) it’s unintentional. Even a character who is nimble and dextrous will drop things or fall over from time to time, and a character who prides themselves on their intrigue may, on occasion, get the wrong information and make the wrong decisions based off of that information.
Similarly, it’s not entirely unusual for a character to not fully understand the extent -- or sometimes, even existence -- of their own flaws and shortcomings. Rather than having your character ‘spill’ their emotional history and backstory as an attempt at bonding with others with a miraculously psychologist-level of self-understanding (e.g. “I know that my absent father is the reason I have low self esteem”), try playing out the story of them trying to grapple with understanding and coming to terms with that emotional history and backstory themselves. Perhaps behaviors that others see as negative are so innate that your character doesn’t even realize what they are doing; perhaps there are things they are in denial about, or can’t quite cope with.
This will not only help humanize your character further, but also help create opportunities for your roleplay partner to step in and contribute to the story or showcase their own character’s strengths in helping resolve things -- whereas if your character is constantly on the ball with everything, not only would the character be pushing the boundaries of reality, but no one else would ever have the opportunity to help.
3) Not letting your character be successful at anything.
Just as one can go too far in letting their character be too successful, one can go too far in not letting their character be successful enough. Nobody is bad at everything, and very few people are actually completely alone out there in the world. Giving your character a friend or two who value actual good qualities about them, or giving your character some recognition of one of their talents in the workplace, can go a long way in helping keep a flawed character balanced and also interactable for your writing partner. For this reason, also try not to let too many of your characters end up as orphans and complete outcasts; relationships are an integral part of your character’s history and future development. With some practice, you’ll find that existing relationships (including positive ones!) serve more as an asset than an obstacle to your character’s complexity.
It’s all about balance. Creating balance between the positive and negative traits of your character, as well as the positive and negative events of the story on the whole, will give your partner much more to be invested in than if they know that you’re going to have things go south (or north) for your character every single time. While we can all appreciate the necessity of making our characters suffer and allowing them to grow from that suffering, it can easily cause your partner to desensitize to your character’s pain if they experience nothing but pain all the time -- or desensitize to a setting that has predictable outcomes. Varying success and failure in a way that lets you both get invested in the possibilities and hopes of the story makes for more suspenseful and dramatic moments when the hammer does finally fall.
4) Not letting your partner’s character take the spotlight or significantly influence the story.
You love your creation, the beautiful mind-child that is your character. They are full of possibilities; your masterful plot puts them in just the type of scenario you enjoy. You want to take your character out for a spin in a fun new world and let them wreak chaos. Great! However -- your partner feels the same way. If your roleplay centers around having your partner’s character trying to ‘unfold the mystery’ of yours, get yours to ‘come out of their shell’, lead yours towards some sort of personal revelation, or be a ‘helper’ to your character on their own personal quest -- it’s possible that you’re not making things fun or engaging for your partner.
It’s important to set up roleplay scenarios specifically so that your partner’s character has both a reason to be there and a reason to care about what is happening with your character and vice versa. This involves a lot of effort, taking the time to ask your partner about their character, and being willing to really entertain your partner’s ideas on what would bring them there. If you give your partner’s character a chance to shine alongside yours, you might be surprised at what you discover, and also be surprised by the turns that the story can take towards things you may never have considered when trying to run the whole show on your own.
For those who are willing to double up in roleplay, adding a ‘supporting role’ character that you play as part of your partner’s character’s entourage (friends, family, colleagues, rivals, etc) is a great way to learn about them, help contribute to their story -- and, have quite a lot of fun, if you’ve never tried it before!
5) Not letting your character change.
Let your partner’s character or plot contributions have a real effect and influence on yours. Your character or plot does not exist in a vacuum. You may love watching your character wallow in their pit of angst, or you may desire to see them in precisely a certain situation that you feel represents their persona or story; but at some point, something may happen to your character that will change them as a person. Let these things change your character. It doesn’t have to be a huge change or a complete overhaul -- it certainly needs to be within the constraints of logic and reason. Things in your character’s past have influenced them; in the same way, things happening in the present should be influencing your character as well. If a character that’s naive and soft-hearted is tossed into a dark and dangerous situation, it’s true that they’ll struggle with this for a while, even a long while -- but there’s only so long that someone is going to keep behaving in a way that flies in the face of all of the evidence and experiences around them, unless there’s good reason.
In that same vein, let your character develop new problems over time as they grow and respond to their experiences, rather than always using the same one over and over. That’s not to say one can’t use different versions or themes of the same problems in your character’s life, perhaps driven by a subconscious belief or desire they haven’t yet addressed (more about this covered in The Imago) -- but at some point, your character, like most people, is likely going to at least attempt (not always unsuccessfully) to resolve the things that are making their life unpleasant for them, and characters who don’t learn anything at all from their mistakes or their present environment can easily become stuck.
6) Not believing that your partner has something valuable to give you.
The OOC dynamic is just as important as the IC one. Chances are, even if your partner makes more typos than you or knows fewer “big” words, there is something you can learn from them, too. If you’re not approaching your roleplays with an attitude of colleague-level partnership in mind, then you’re doing not only your partner but also yourself a disservice by shutting yourself off to new ways of approaching a story. Try not to become too stuck in one specific conception of what you think is ‘good’, where ‘good’ is defined by your own personal style up until this point.
If your partner brings up a concern, try to keep an open mind. Instead of immediately feeling defensive and misunderstood, take a step back and consider your partner’s point of view before drawing your conclusion. Are they right? Are you coming across in a way that isn’t what you intended? Perhaps you’ve got something worked out a certain way in your head, but it’s just not communicated clearly in your writing or OOC chatter? Every roleplay is an opportunity for you to grow, no matter how long you’ve been at it. Just as your character is changed by their experiences, so too should you as a writer allow yourself to change as you experience new things.
That’s not to say every partner is the right one -- sometimes (a lot of times) it’s just not a good fit, when people have different goals and desires for the direction of the roleplay as a whole. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it. Nonetheless, it’s an everyday effort to remember that the reason you’ve chosen roleplaying over solo story-writing is not because you want a captive audience, but because you want to enjoy someone else’s unique perspective and contributions to a story you share together.
7) The belief that giving your character ‘dark’ or edgy traits makes them inherently more interesting.
Perhaps your character has lots of tattoos, or your character uses hard drugs? Maybe your character is a deadbeat who can’t hold a job, or doesn’t attend class? Maybe your character hates themself, and their destructive behavior is driven from a place of self-loathing? Perhaps your character is misunderstood by society at large? Sound familiar?
Writers who make an effort to avoid the dreaded Mary Sue often end up swinging in the other direction, and end up with a character that has a bunch of dark traits, but lacks in relatability (also called an Anti Sue). A character with a chaotic neutral alignment is not inherently more captivating than one who is lawful good -- rather, what makes a character relatable is all about how they are written and portrayed by the author and the complexity of that character’s internal experiences. Ask yourself: if I take away these external traits, who is the character that is left? What motivates their behavior, and which other ways do these motivations express themselves? Can I achieve a similar goal by putting my character in a dark situation instead of giving them dark traits? Rather than stop at ‘my character has tattoos’, go on to the question: ‘why does my character have tattoos?’
This isn’t to say that characters and settings with ‘edgy’ qualities are bad -- not at all! It’s entirely possible to write such a character in a compelling and believable way, and those sorts of details are often what takes a well-developed character from good to great. However, writing a character with these traits requires just as much attention to detail and avoidance of characterization short-cuts as writing one that has ‘positive’ or ‘light’ traits.
Rather than try to impress your roleplay partners with your character’s bad boy/girl qualities, try instead connecting them to the depth and viscerality of your character’s internal experience and physical presence -- which are things that characters of all backgrounds and alignments are capable of displaying through the right author’s lense.
None of the above stated points are intended to be clear-cut black and white -- execution is everything, and there’s always exceptions to any rule or opinion. Nonetheless, hopefully this list provides some points to think about and consider as you move forward into new stories on your RP journey :)