Posted by: Sean | August 25, 2008

What You Should Learn About Your Character

Ugh. First off, I’d like to apologise for the lack of posting around here over the weekend. It is entirely my fault. You’ll all be happy to know that all charges have been dropped and the police are now treating this as a private matter between me, the strippers, and the elephant breeder. A word of warning, though: If you’re going to impersonate a celebrity, learn their freaking last name first, especially if you’re impersonating one to the federal police.

Watch me tie this seamlessly back to topic.

When you’re impersonating a character in World of Warcraft, there are certain things that you should absolutely know. This was something that I was going to write about before what we are now only referring to as the Girl Scout Incident, but I’m kind of glad for the delay, because it’s let me clear my head a little to the truth about this. Because really, there ain’t that much that you need to know when you start playing your character. There are really only four things you need to know:

  • Your race,
  • Your name, including their last freaking name if they have one,
  • A ‘hook’ for your character,
  • And, if you can possibly swing it, which gender you are.

I’m not even joking. (OK, I’m joking a little bit on the last one.) That’s it. You can start swinging into role-playing with nothing but this; a basic run-down on who you are and a mildly considered hook. And hooks are easy, just take any two adjectives, turn the second one into a noun, and toss ’em together. Or think of a movie character you really liked and file the serial numbers off. Watch: My orc is a shifty patriot. My Night Elf is like Brad Pitt in Se7en, angry and impetuous. See? Simple. And from that alone, you can start kicking out the role-play. That’s all you need to start off with.

But it would be a shame if that’s all you ended with.

See, this is the sneaky secret of role-playing. We’re really in the business of construction soap operas. Don’t you dare deny it; we fire off melodramatic plot-lines in never ending stories, and even though we seem to die a lot, all our characters eventually come back to life. (Or rez at a Spirit Healer.) Like any soap opera writer, we basically make up 90% of our characters as we go along. Sometimes it can be downright beautiful, such as meeting someone new and constructing a whole shared backstory in whispers. I’ve only done that once, but it was a treat. However, and here’s the thing, once you accept a character decision, you have to stick with it. You have to be consistent. And it helps if you know what kind of questions you’re hoping to answer, because you can then ask yourself those questions when they come up, rather than miss the chance for some character growth.

The question isn’t, “What should you know about your character?” but “What should you learn about your character?”

For instance: What has your character seen? Part of this will be how old they are; as David Bowers has observed in his wonderful column on humans, an older human character can probably remember a time before the orcs. That’s how recent all this stuff is, man. Warcraft has a really condensed plotline. If you’re playing a Night Elf, it would be unusual for you to have been too young to know it all; but it may not be surprising if you didn’t, if you never left the World Tree until the whole thing was crashing down. Which brings us to the second half of this question: What have you done? If you’re a typical gnome, you should be downright surprised when you first see a demon. You knew that they existed, of course, but you’d never seen one before. While everyone else was throwing down with demons, you were tearing up troggs. But if you do know about demons, why?

See, you don’t need to know this ahead of time as long as you can improvise well. You see a demon, you say, “Watch out for the infernal on the road ahead.” And then, you suddenly explain, “I was a diplomat in Lordaeron for the last five years. I got recalled when everything started going pear-shaped.” Beautiful. Never mind that you just pulled that entirely out of your ass — You now know that your character is familiar with the Burning Legion, and that he’s a former diplomat. (Which could mean two wholly different things if your gnome is a rogue or a mage.)

There’s no harm in figuring this all out in advance. Indeed, my aforementioned whispered backstory couldn’t have happened, as it turned out, if I hadn’t spent a bit of time thinking about where my priestess grew up. (I’d decided she’d been in training in Northshire Abbey since she was a young teenager, and another priestess I met said something similar; so we immediately worked out how we’d gotten on there.) But there’s something to be said for being flexible, for being able to suddenly surprise people with a convenient happenstance of backstory. (“I know the entire layout of the Scarlet Monastery.” “How does an SI:7 rogue know about the Scarlet Monastary?” “I was a Scarlet Monk for six weeks.”)

But just keep the questions in your head: What does my character do for fun? What group does he hold as the greatest threat to Azeroth? Does he like all the other races in his faction? Someone once said the key to improvisation was preparation. Be prepared to improvise. If you like, make a file on your character that you can fill in with details as you go. (I like using the background tab in MyRoleplay for this.) Get to know your character better and better over time. Be consistent.

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