Storium Theory: Building Character

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on August 18th, 2016.

A lot of my articles focus on what to do during play–but what about before you even get into a game? Building your character, whether you are applying for a game with open applications or being specifically invited to one, is a major part of the Storium experience.

Like a lot of Storium, this is technically simple, but philosophically complex.

I’ve described applications as kind of being like a fun version of a job interview before, and I think that’s true: they’re an opportunity for you, as a player, to demonstrate your writing skills and speak to the narrator about why you think you’ll be a good fit for the game.

But what about the character side of things? Isn’t that just…picking a few cards, writing a little background, and calling it a day?

Well, no. No, it isn’t.

Character creation is the beginning of your character’s involvement in the story. It’s important to remember that.

I’ve seen it happen before: a player writes a really excellent biography of their character…but when he gets into play, he’s confused about what to do, or feels like his cards don’t fit with what’s happening, or struggles to involve himself in the story. The player’s a good writer–he’s just having a tough time writing for the story.

So…here’s the thing. Character creation is not about who your character was. It isn’t even about who your character is now. Character creation is about how your character will be involved in the story.

To put it another way, character creation is about how you are going to play the character–not who your character was before the game.

Who your character was before is part of it, of course…but your focus should be on how he relates to the game’s story and how he is going to interact with the game’s events.

What does this mean, in practice?

Choose cards based on how you’ll play the character – not who he was in the past.

When you pick your cards, pick ones that you want to use in the story…not ones that would’ve applied to the character in the past, but shouldn’t now.

It’s rare, in my experience, that this conflicts…but there are times. For instance, you might be writing a story about someone who just suffered a magical transformation. In the past, he was a big, strong warrior. Now he’s a withered old man.

If you were picking cards based on his past, you might’ve selected “Tough.” But based on how he’s going to be involved in the story, you probably shouldn’t, right? Because from the start of the game, he’s not that durable anymore. So, you need to find something else to highlight about him…maybe instead, you pick something like Determined, or Brave–things that haven’t changed about him despite his transformation.

What about if the transformation is going to happen, say…two scenes in? A planned transformation, still, but not from the start of the game?

I’d still argue that you should pick something other than Tough in that case. While it’s possible you could get it out of your arsenal before the character changes, it isn’t strictly likely. You could always start with Determined, and if you feel like Tough should apply during one of the first couple scenes, use a wild Strength for that. That’ll let you have more copies of the card that you’re going to use (since you start with 2 copies of your starting Strength card), while still letting you involve the trait that’s quickly going away if it feels appropriate.

This applies to weaknesses too, of course! If you’re playing Captain America and he’s going to start out the game by going through his super-soldier experiment, don’t choose “Physical Weakling” as a starting Weakness! Pick something else to have two copies of…if you need to use Physical Weakling early on, you can always do it as a wild Weakness.

It isn’t just about magical or super-science weirdness, though! It might be about attitude. It might be about shocks to the character’s mental state. If you see the character as being driven quickly into despair by events…you should probably avoid picking “Cheerful” to start out. If you see the character as quickly understanding after an initial misstep that he shouldn’t trust everyone, you probably shouldn’t pick “Naive.”

And some things just don’t apply to begin with. If you’re writing a tale about people on the run from a psychotic killer, how likely is it that it will matter that you’re an Accounting Expert? Hey, you might be able to work that in, sure…but it’d require some real contortions. So even though your character is an accounting expert, should you pick that as a Strength? Probably not. That’s just a side detail. Pick the traits that will apply to the story.

And more. Your nature. Your subplot. Everything about the character should relate to how you feel he’ll play in the game. Don’t pick for who someone was. Take into account what he will be during the events of the game. That isn’t to say you should totally avoid the past…obviously, the past defines who you have become, right? What it means is that your focus shouldn’t be on the past–your focus should be on the character’s interactions with the game’s story.

Pick things that relate to how the character will be played. Not who he was before you played him. Sometimes the two are one and the same. Sometimes they aren’t.

Explain the character’s involvement.

This is another big one! It’s your responsibility to explain how your character is able to get involved in the game’s events. You might lay out why he’s there in your background information, for some games. For others, you might just put in some notes about what might get him involved, or just talk to the narrator about it over comments. Regardless of the method, the point remains: you need to have room to explain your character’s involvement in the story.

This is easy for some characters. It’s not hard to explain why a member of the town guard is involved in defending a town against bandit attacks, right?

But some character types don’t seem like they’d be involved in a story. And some seem like they might actively oppose being involved in a story.

If you’re writing a character like that, it falls on you to explain why the character is actually going to be involved.

Are you playing the rational, sensible friend in the middle of a slasher flick game? Explain why he might go along to investigate the creepy haunted house anyway. Explain why he doesn’t just go do the sensible thing and stay away. Why does he get involved, and stay involved, in the tale?

Are you playing the loner who always works alone? Why is he working with a group now? Why will he continue to work with a group?

Are you playing the man who hates this town and doesn’t get along with anyone in there? Why is he fighting to save it, then? Why will he continue to do so?

Are you playing the kid who strangely is traveling along with the band of experienced adventurers? Why are you there? Why does the group continue to let you stay?

If you’re using a concept that doesn’t at first seem like it would work with the game – or like it would actually work against the game – you need to explain why it will, in actuality, work.

Be sure to put this in somewhere–your character writeup, or your comments to the narrator. Be ready to discuss it. It’s absolutely critical for narrators to know that characters will work with the story–so don’t leave doubt!

Now, I want to be clear on one thing: Your character might not start out all gung-ho for the main events of the story. That’s fine. What I’m suggesting above isn’t that you have to do some kind of hamhanded explanation for how someone who seems like he’d be reluctant goes from 0-60 in a tenth of a second. What I’m suggesting is that you provide some openings that can get your character involved…and get him involved pretty early on in the tale. Make it obvious that the narrator’s not going to have to spend four scenes convincing your character to get involved in things. That can totally derail a story. Instead, make it clear that you’re going to convince your character to get involved in things.

A wise narrator avoids picking loners or characters who feel like they are going to avoid the plot, so a wise player makes sure a narrator knows their character is not that kind of person.

Give some story cues.

Leave some openings in your character – things that haven’t been resolved, things that they’re still searching for, things that they haven’t gotten over…things that a narrator can draw on to deepen their ties to the story, and to give you things to explore in play.

If your character has overcome all his problems and adjusted to everything bad that happened in his past and gotten revenge on his hated foe…one wonders why he’s going to be interesting to read about now?

What is the character’s story going to be about? What will he be confronting? Not just in the game’s tale…what will he confront about himself? What problems is he trying to resolve? What is he trying to come to terms with? What keeps him up at night?

Any of these things is wonderful to include in your writeup. Don’t just pick a subplot and call it a day…think about what the subplot means to him. What issue does it actually bring up? How will that issue come into play in the game?

Narrators like to get a story cue or two from a character – some little unresolved details they can use to throw the spotlight on someone from time to time. But more importantly, it gives you things to think about, things that get you more invested in your character’s story.

Final notes

Remember: character creation is the start of your character’s involvement with the story. When you’re building a character, you’re building a part of a tale. You’re writing about the character as he will be involved in the tale.

Be sure to design the character as such. Set him up to be involved. Pick the cards that will apply to the situation. You’re not modeling every aspect of a character, here…you’re modeling what will show up in the context of the story.

Master that, and you’ll have much more fun with the character you create.