Storium Theory: Getting Personal: Driven

This post originally appeared on Gaming Creatively on April 14th, 2016.

We’re back on “Getting Personal,” today, and today I’d like to discuss the Driven character.

This character is one who has a mission in mind–a mission he takes very seriously. It might be revenge. It might be finding a truth. It might be clearing someone’s name. It might be a longer term mission, or one that’s more a…life goal or concept they’re dedicated to, like a sworn opposition to criminals / cleaning up the streets.

The Driven character sees everything in his life through the lens of that goal. Whatever he is going through at the moment, he’s thinking of how it relates to his mission.

A Driven character should feel determined. This is another character who can drive the story forward. A Driven character believes in his cause. He believes it is worth his effort. His loyalty to the cause shouldn’t be totally unquestioning…but it should be strong. If things in the story come up that seem like they should make the characters question their purpose, it’s okay if the Driven character is convinced to go along with the questioning…but he probably shouldn’t be the one to start it, and he should probably start out by pushing back a bit against it (at the same time, be careful not to throw down roadblocks).

He’s probably pretty serious, overall–not necessarily entirely grim and brooding, but remember that this is a guy who is pretty much always focused. Things not related to the mission may be necessary, but they feel like distractions. He’ll get involved with them but he won’t like it. Driven characters may not be angry or vengeful–though they often are–but do often feel like they’re in some kind of permanent bad mood.

Batman is a great comic book example of the Driven character. At least generally in his solo series, most of his life is filtered through his war on crime–his attempts to make Gotham City a safer place and clean up the streets. Writers vary in how well they write this, of course, but the central point is this: Batman has one goal, and his life revolves around that goal. Whether he’s acting as Batman or Bruce Wayne at any given time, his actions have a high likelihood of relating back to his quest to clean up Gotham City. If they don’t, he’s probably thinking about why he’s not currently working on cleaning up Gotham City.

One major tip on a Driven character: pick a cause or mission that does seem like it will relate pretty easily to the overall game’s plot. If you pick something that seems like it’ll take you off to a side path much of the time, either the narrator will allow for that but it’ll likely hurt the game’s momentum…or you’ll end up having to sacrifice much of your character’s personal story for the good of the game as a whole. With a Driven character, probably more than any other, you need to make a strong link between the character’s personal plot and the game’s story.

Driven characters can benefit the game because they can really help push things. Like I mentioned above, if you’ve done a good job of linking the character and game stories with this character, nobody believes in the cause more than the Driven character. He wants it to succeed, for deeply personal reasons. He puts his heart and soul into it. As a result, not only can he help keep the story moving forward, but he can help keep the story on track if it seems like it might be wandering.

Furthermore, the Driven character can give you some of the purest emphasis of the reason for a quest that any character can. Generally, Driven characters are Driven for a reason. Bruce Wayne lost his parents when both were murdered before his eyes. Whenever he sees innocents in danger, he’s thinking of that horrible moment. That’s why he can never rest. That’s why he can never leave his war on crime.

Don’t hide that moment. Reveal it. Have it present in the character’s thoughts. Pull it out of the thoughts and into the light of day when it will serve to impact the emotion of the story. Reveal it to the other characters, or to the villain, when it will bring the drama to a greater height. He can show how the evil that has been done has impacted someone, strongly. He can show how it changed him–what he was before, and what he was after.

(Narrators: did the Driven character name a particular villain in his backstory? You just got an NPC to wrap up in events. Use it.)

The Driven character, though, can be a bit of a problem for stories if he’s written too single-minded. Be sure that the character’s view of what is applicable to his mission is sufficiently broad…and, really, make the mission itself a bit broader, perhaps, to account for it. For instance, for Batman…if you word his mission as “arrest all the criminals in Gotham” or some such, then he has difficulty justifying ever being out of uniform. If instead it is “clean up Gotham City” or “make Gotham City a better place,” there’s a lot he can (and does) do as Bruce Wayne to help with that. Batman is the hammer, Bruce Wayne is the helping hand.

Think about your Driven character’s mission the same way. Figure out how you can make him agree to work in a variety of activities that might come up over the course of the game. How does he see them as related to his goal? If the answer is, “he doesn’t,” you may have too narrow of a goal. Don’t make him a brick wall.

Also be cautious about opposing questioning of his mission too much. In some games, facts come to light that reveal that things aren’t what the characters thought. I mentioned above that the Driven character probably shouldn’t be the first one to question, and should be at least somewhat resistant…but just be cautious that you don’t stand in the way of the game as a whole. A Driven character can be convinced. If the game needs you to be convinced, help the players convince you.

And, of course, as Batman demonstrates, a Driven character can be very smart himself. My point is less that a Driven character should resist questioning his purpose, and more that he should be more shaken than others by doing so. Questioning the purpose of a mission gets at the core of what a Driven character believes. If he abandons something he thought was related to his mission, that’s a huge moment for him.

That brings me to another point. To reiterate what I said last week, the most important thing to know when writing a personality is when to break away from that personality.

For a Driven character, the central question is this: “When do I value something else more highly than my mission?”

A Driven character is pretty much all about the mission, all the time, right? His moves are reminders of the mission, of his reasons for the mission, of his plans for the mission. Mission, mission, mission.

When a Driven character’s move is not about the mission…when something else assumes higher importance…that’s huge. Whatever he chose above his mission feels like the biggest and most important thing on the planet.

Watch for that moment. Watch for the chance to do something that the character cannot rationalize as “part of his goal,” but that he wants to do anyway. Watch for the thing that he readily admits is not part of his mission, but is still important–important enough that he sacrifices progress on his mission for it.

Or…watch for the moment when the character realizes his mission needs to change. The moment when he realizes what he’s been seeking isn’t right, or isn’t sufficient, or has cost too much.

The Driven character’s most dramatic moments come from the conflict between his mission and the rest of his life…and his biggest potential development as a character is reaching the point where he casts aside the mission and chooses–even if only for a moment–something else.

He may abandon it entirely, or he may go back to it again…but the character will never be the same. Maybe he feels like he made a good choice…maybe he feels like it was a mistake. But from that point on, whenever the mission conflicts with something else, the character will think back to that time that he chose the “something else.”

The opposite is also true: there’s a lot of potential for the Driven character to pull some drama out of the story by refusing to let his mission take a backseat to something else. But this, too, should be done as a moment of high drama: it should not be an easy choice, and making the choice should involve a sacrifice.

The animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, in addition to being completely awesome, nicely demonstrates the question of what is more important to a Driven character: mission, or something else that arises? Big-time spoiler warning here in case you haven’t seen the film. I’ll try to go low-detail as possible, but I have to discuss some of it.

In flashbacks, we’re shown that Bruce Wayne actually had a shot at happiness–he met a woman, Andrea, and fell deeply in love with her. But he’s sworn an oath to fight crime, to ensure that no one suffers like he did. He can’t allow himself to have a normal life, because he doesn’t feel like he can fulfill his oath–an oath sworn to his departed parents, an oath that has been the single most important thing in his life ever since that day.

But Andrea brings him another side of his life. She helps his heart heal. She helps him move on from the darkness inside. She brings light.

Finally, he stands before his parents’ grave, begging to be set free of his oath. He didn’t expect he’d ever be happy. He didn’t expect he’d ever fall in love. “Please…I need it to be different now,” he begs.

He’s not asking his parents. He’s asking himself.

That is the moment that Bruce Wayne chooses to sacrifice his mission…for love. For happiness. For everything he never thought he’d be able to have.

One thing leads to another, and it doesn’t go as well as he hoped, but I’m not going to cover the entire story. It’s a great movie and I don’t want to spoil it more than I have to!

You’ll notice one more thing about the above: that is in no way an action scene. A Driven character’s choice can be a difficult time-sensitive choice in the middle of a tense situation…but it can also be a tear-filled contemplation at a graveside.

A Driven character can be one of the best for reiterating the point of a game or the value of the heroes’ mission, but it can also be something of a brick wall if the mission is interpreted as being at odds with what needs to be done too frequently. Be willing to flex on things, and always be on the lookout for the point where mission takes a back seat to something more important, and you’ll be a benefit to the game.