Storium Theory: The Excitement of Exceptions

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on February 9th, 2017.

If you’ve been reading my “Getting Personal” articles, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a bit of a theme with them – a common thread in how I like to think about using personality types in stories. I’ve said that the most powerful moment for a character in a story is when his personality “breaks” – when he is forced to confront the events of the story in such a way that he behaves contrary to his personality thus far. The relentlessly positive character falls into despair. The driven character sacrifices his mission for another. The coward rises as a hero. Those sorts of scenes can be some of the most interesting moments in a character’s arc.

But that isn’t just true for personalities! It can apply to other elements of your character as well.

The invulnerable superhero.

The infallible detective.

The man whose library contains endless information.

The thief who can open any door.

The teleporter who can get past any barricade.

The sniper with unerring aim.

The ranger who can follow any trail.

These are all the sorts of reputations, the sort of facts, that characters could include in a tale, right? You can probably think of characters from fiction that pretty much align with those concepts. Some are widely powerful, some are more focused, but all of them are examples of “rules” about a character.

And there’s nothing wrong with such rules. Every character has rules of some sort – some are more notable than others, but any character will have something about themselves that is central to the idea of that character. For Superman, it might be his invulnerability. For Sherlock Holmes, it might be his incredible ability to accurately analyze people and situations. For Nightcrawler, it might be his teleportation that seems able to take him anywhere.

There’s nothing wrong with rules for a character. They give the character identity, just like his personality does.

But oftentimes, the most interesting thing about a rule is the exception to that rule.

Let’s think about Superman, all right? Superman is a character nearly unmatched in the scope of his abilities. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than…you know the drill. When Superman shows up, villains can pretty much count on going to prison.

Except when they can expose him to some Kryptonite.

Kryptonite is the exception to Superman’s unstoppable nature. If you’re Lex Luthor and you want to get away with your crimes, you’re going to run up against a hard brick wall in the form of Superman’s amazing powers, unless you have Kryptonite.

Or, consider Sherlock Holmes. The infallible detective, the mind that cannot be tricked. Except…by Irene Adler, yes? One person able to outwit the great detective and be one step ahead of him. One person who gets away.

These exceptions are useful. They are interesting moments, inherently so. When a rule that a reader knows to be true is broken by something, it inspires wonder – why is this rule no longer true? What has caused this? What will the character be like moving forward? What are the consequences?

An exception opens up story possibilities. The criminal, for the first time, escapes from Superman while he lies weakened – maybe dying, we don’t know! The great detective is left astonished and filled with admiration for the one person who outwitted him.

When you think of a character, then – think of your rules for the character. They may be large-scale rules, like these examples, but they may also be smaller-scale ones. Maybe they are rules about the character’s personality. Maybe they are rules about his abilities. Maybe they are rules about his skills. Maybe rules about his very existence.

Then think about how to break them.

What is the exception to the rule?

Your character is invulnerable…except when struck by a sword engraved with a certain word.

Your character is a master swordsman…except for a single flaw that someone will eventually take advantage of.

Your character can teleport…except if a location is within 30 meters of onyx.

Your character has boundless energy…until one day he collapses, exhausted, in the midst of a chase.

When you build up a character rule, and then suddenly break it, the perception of the character deepens. What we knew to be true is now only mostly true. There are situations where it is true no longer.

Now…a caution: The exception does need to follow rules of its own! It needs to feel like a valid part of the character’s story. There needs to be a cause, and a reason for that cause. Why is the invulnerable character harmed by something engraved with that word? Why has the swordsman not yet encountered his flaw? Why is onyx a problem? Why did the character’s stamina finally fall away?

An exception doesn’t add to the story if it doesn’t ring true.

Let’s take the invulnerable character, for instance. The reason the word harms him is an opportunity to explore the rules of his invulnerability, and perhaps its origin. Perhaps it is from a spell, a spell cast upon him in the ancient past, and the word is his long-hidden true name – which, in this story’s magic as in many others, holds great power over a person.

Now, not only do you have an interesting rule and interesting exception, you have an opportunity to explore the character’s past: Who was he under this name we’ve just learned? How did he come to give up that name and gain his invulnerability?

Possibilities.

But, one further caution. Kryptonite is a good example of an exception introduced into a story to make things more interesting, but it also serves as an example of a danger. An exception is most interesting if it is rare.

We’ve seen what happens when Kryptonite is featured too frequently. It becomes almost laughable. Every crime Superman goes out to prevent involves someone who somehow got their hands on Kryptonite. It’s like you can get it from vending machines or buy it from Amazon. It becomes less and less of an interesting exception and more and more of just…a way to keep Superman away when he’s not convenient for the story. “Oh, no! I just realized, we’re writing a Superman story! He could clean up this threat in a moment! Well, I won’t bother making the threat more significant or threatening something or someone else in a notable way so I can make the drama come from something other than direct physical threat to him, no, I’ll just say the criminal lucked into some Kryptonite.”

At that point, it’s no better than having Green Lantern unceremoniously knocked out by a falling tree branch, just because.

So…taking our invulnerable guy again, once you’ve revealed that his true name is his weakness, you still need to keep that rare. He shouldn’t be encountering dozens of people who have his true name engraved on swords, bullets, spears, missiles, and decorative candelabras. The exception should be rare.

But the possibility exists, and in existing, it adds to the character’s tension. It shows up…then it vanishes for a long time, but we keep watching for it. You can hint at it, worry us with a possibility. A villain who thinks he knows why a sword worked on this person before, who seems so confident…but he’s wrong. The hero becoming cautious when he never was before, because there’s always a chance…

And then, when it will cause the most drama, when it would be the absolute worst time in the universe for the exception to come up again, that’s when it comes up. When it most matters to the story.

Now, in writing Storium games, you’re usually not doing long-running, recurring characters who have loads of adventures. But this still applies – for your exception, you’re looking at something you pull out once, maybe twice in an entire story. It isn’t something that you throw out there any time you need to explain why the character can’t interfere. That’s not what the exception is for. It’s not a story excuse.

It’s a story possibility. It’s meant to intrigue the reader, or your fellow players. It isn’t a brick wall, it’s a new path.

So think of exceptions. They’re critical to your character’s story, and opportunities to do interesting things you’d never otherwise get to do. Use them…but don’t overuse them.