Faces of Role-Playing

Character Creation

When role-players are asked to describe some of their most memorable characters, three types of characters seemed to emerge. These character types are also largely corroborated by the role-players themselves in a latter question asking them to describe the range in and any common tropes or fads they observe among role-played characters. Roughly, these three types are the Tragic, the Zany, and the Interaction-Scripted.

They killed my parents, my sister, my dog, and my entire village

One pervasive theme among created characters was having a tragic past (the "Tragic"). Descriptions of slain parents, loved ones, and pillaged towns during early childhood were common in the background stories of many characters.

With the boy still not willing to give up his beliefs and learn the ways of magic, the wizard took a drastic step; he killed every single member of the order while the boy was out studying the wildlife. [WoW, M, 20]

From the time she was seventeen or so, everyone she became close to inevitably was killed. [Neverwinter Nights, F, 23]

Her family's farm was destroyed when she was four, and her family killed, but a valiant hero on a horse managed to rescue her, and bring her to Northshire Abbey, where she was raised to be a priest. [WoW, F, 18]

To a certain degree, this mechanism might serve to avoid the possibility of having to deal with a certain category of people. As one player put it succinctly:

On WoW, everyone is an orphan. Well, that's true most places where you roleplay because it's easier than having any kind of relationship with ... parents. *gasp* [WoW, F, 21]


This "parental exclusion" mechanism could be thought of as a move of symbolic liberation, but more often than not, this background plot serves to explain a psychological burden or flaw (typically emotional insecurity or general distrust) that the character currently bears. What's interesting is that both elements tend to sever relationships (both past and future).

Emotionally, she dumped every feeling she could and buried it in a mental graveyard that, every night, she would methodically dig up and force herself to relive the moments to teach mental toughness Poor girl thought she was the cause of every death, including the destruction of her home village due to an orc invasion caused by drought. She never did find out that everyone made it out safely. [Neverwinter Nights, F, 23]

Having basically lost everything she ever loved on that day, she sunk into a deep depression, eventually turning to alchoholism and morally dubious mercenary work in a sort of 'passive aggressive' attempt to get herself killed. [WoW, M, 24]

Herjolf is a human mercenary. His mother was a whore, his father a mercenary. As he was 12 years old, his mother died of disease and his father took care of him, taking him with him to the army he was currently employed. Herjolf learned fighting as a craft. He took part in many battles, that earned him quite a score of scars. To forget the horrible things he saw in battle he has begun drinking. [DAoC, F, 36]

When players are asked about common tropes or character types they see, the Tragic is indeed the most well-described type, however, it is also the type that is thought to be most banal due to its prevalence.

Entirely too many people seem to want to turn having a tragic past into some kind of contest ('Orcs killed my mother' 'Oh yeah? Demons killed my whole family!' 'Oh yeah? I never HAD a family' 'Arthas ninja'd my thorium!') which is not only obnoxious but also kinda dumb; very few people like to deal with tragedy by using it as a bludgeon against others. [WoW, M, 24]

Unfortunately, there are only so many lead female and head hero roles to go around, and comically, there are only so many parents, siblings, lovers and pets that can be murdered to give some future heroic figure a motivation to become great. [AO, F, 40]

We will return to this theme later on when we talk about drama queens among role-players in the etiquette article, but for now we'll move on to the next character type.


I may be bald and short, and I may have stubby ears, but I'm an Elf dammit

Another class of character types are deliberately humor-driven (the "Zany"). These characters typically do not have elaborate background stories as much as they have incredibly quirky characteristics or beliefs (typically comically delusional). And even when background stories are invoked, they are almost never tragic or emotionally scarring, but serve to better explain the character quirk.

A crazy scenario. A gnome who was abandoned at birth on the doorstep of someone in Teldrassil. So he's raised by Night Elves and thinks he's just a short elf with stubby ears. [WoW, M, 32]

My most memorable concept was a gnome necromancer in EQ1 who became a necro in order to raise his wife from the dead. He had her soul stored inside a clockwork gnome, which he commonly talked to and followed around the city. [EQ2, M, 24]

Dexter grew up a very poor boy. His father, an abusive alcoholic retired clown with a story of his own, would often throw books at Dexter because, no matter how little Dexter ate, he seemed to always gain weight. The unfortunate fact was, though, that Dexter was suffering from a rare form of Elephantitis, caused by the very books thrown at him. [CoH, M, 27]

This character type is recognized by other players and is sometimes seen as the polar opposite of the dramatic types with tragic pasts, both of which can become stagnant when role-played poorly.

The first style is 'serious' roleplaying, which relies heavily on pre-scripted events, and contains quite a bit of drama and tension, sometimes to soap opera levels. The other style is 'humourous' roleplaying, which usually relies on a few 'concept character quirks' to react non-seriously to any situation. The 'serious' style of roleplaying sometimes turn to angstfests and excessive conflicts, while the 'humourous' style has quite a lot of throwaway gags repeated ad infinitum. [CoH, M, 23]


Who I am is the accumulation of all the decisions that I have made

The final category of characters that emerged were those of players who deliberately created characters with unremarkable personalities and allowed the ensuing role-playing to guide their character development (the "Interaction-Scripted"). Beyond some basic set of personality quirks (seldom overly traumatic or heroic), these players allowed their interactions with others to shape who their characters became. In a sense, this category isn't a "character type" as much as a method of character development. Whereas some players prefer to script their characters up-front, these players leave those characteristics loosely scripted and open to change.

I didn't have any personality or backstory planned out for her at first. After I was recruited into a roleplaying guild, my character started to develop. I suppose if you roleplay during most of your ingame time, you end up with a hell of a lot of RPed moments, memories, various factors that contribute to your character. So every day you log in, your character's personality, experiences, and history is developed. I'd say maybe two thirds of my character's development has occurred in this way, and the other third was steered by me. [The Saga of Ryzom, F, 14]

While the initial character background was formed around the class and gender of the character, as always it was interaction with other role players that really solidified the characters personality. In AO the class of Fixer is a 'rougue'ish one who slips around and uses stealth and speed. Miyuki eventually got a reputation of being a little bit of an 'ice queen', aloof and suspicious. I have worked that reputation into her interaction with her 'family' (alt characters). [AO, M, 40]

Indeed, some of these players emphasized that their character might have turned out very differently had they experienced a different set of experiences in the game world.

I also get most of how the character itself acts based on actual playtime - she was more cruel and introverted because of the people I met while playing with her - if she had ran into some more healthy, compassionate players, she may have turned out COMPLETELY different. [UO, M, 19]

These three character categories suggest two underlying axes. First, there's a spectrum of character personas that might be roughly described as Tragic to Comic. And secondly, there's a spectrum of character development that might be labeled as Prescribed to Open-Ended.



Drama Queens

It was also interesting to ask players about any tropes or fads in role-played characters they've seen. As I've mentioned before, the Tragic is the most type that is most commonly referred to as overdone and banal. Other players commented that too many players strive for high-strung drama.

Goodness gracious. There are so many fads and cliches in roleplaying, it's extremely frustrating at times. Every character has a dead family. Everyone has a tragic past and wants to get revenge on someone...that is, some vague, nebulous NPC on whom they can never possibly get revenge. [EQ2, F, 37]

I had kept the background pretty 'lo-fi', because it used to annoy me (still does) that everybody had some high strung story involving nobility, treason, blood, sweat and tears for their characters. I wanted mine to be somewhat normal, without a past full of wealth, power and drama. [WoW, M, 33]

AO has its neverending cycle of Clan Heros persecuted by the unremitting corporate evil of OmniTek (which is apparently guilty of killing more people and pets than the black plague, ww2 and smoking all rolled together). [AO, F, 40]


Ultra Heroes/Villains

Another character type that is seen as overdone are personas who are described as heroic and valiant to the point of being flawless, or those that are purely evil and without any redeeming qualities or nuances. The ultra hero/villain is frustrating for other players because they are implicitly inflexible character types that typically do not change or develop over time. In other words, they are seen as easy-to-play one-dimensional personas.

A lot of players tend to play absolutes (because they are easier to stay in character) like the ultra-good paladin who never does anything bad or the scheming backstabber who is *always* looking to gain an unfair advantage. Archetypes like these are very transparent. Good characters are more like real people, with grey ethics and morals and compromised values and internal hypocrisy. [Seed Beta, M, 26]

The only difference to me is that some people's characters are very inflexible. Too many people attempt to roleplay the ultimate hero or villain, but refuse to test that theory in combat (generally PvP), so too many egos will exist. [WoW, M, 19]

As another player points out, these ultra-villains typically do not even do a good job of being evil in the first place.

Most people who want to be evil do it in an infuriatingly wannabe way. Right. I'm evil. I will now skulk in the shadows, giggling, sharpening my blades and poking people in the back. This is stupid. True evilness is giving an outward appearance of goodness, and then manipulating things from the backdrop. [WoW, F, 22]


Blessed with Elune's Grace

One theme we've seen in the previous examples is that role-players look down upon character personas or qualities that are absolutes or flawless. It then comes as no surprise that another area this is often seen is in descriptions of physical attractiveness.

One style that I've noticed is a player wanting to be a 'bombshell' or just 'drop-dead gorgeous' -- if I had a nickel for every description I've read of someone being 'as beautiful as the light of Elune' or having skin as 'pure as the white snows of Winterspring,' I'd be a rich man. It's almost a running joke between me and my friends to see how many descriptions we can spot like this in a single session. My personal record is a dozen. [WoW, M, 24]

Every female character is devastatingly beautiful and probably has purple eyes. [EQ2, F, 37]

I think the main source of frustration with these tropes is that they render the extraordinary as conventional. It gets tiring to live in a world where everyone's family was slaughtered, where everyone is tragically beautiful, and everyone you meet is either an ultra-hero or an ultra-villain. Thus, ironically, it is the ordinary (i.e., lepers or bakers with interesting personalities) that oftentimes sticks out as the extraordinary in role-playing. After all, being a princess is special only when everyone else is not a princess.

See Also:

- Introduction to the Role-Playing Series
- The Demographics of Role-Playing
- The Protocols of Role-Playing