Exercises To Improve Your Character Writing & Roleplaying Skills
Table of Contents
- Watch/read a variety of materials.
- Look through the eyes of the opposition.
- Step out of your comfort zone.
- Make the stakes and risks real.
Watch/read a variety of materials.
Is your fiction intake largely fantasy? Then check out some things that aren't fantasy - maybe crime dramas, psychological thrillers, or space operas. Do you watch primarily anime? Check out some things that aren't anime. Have you never watched anime? Give it a try sometime.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is that different genres and storytelling styles have character types common to each of them that may not work very well in other types of stories, at least not without serious modification. For example, Bugs Bunny might be entertaining in Loony Tunes, but wouldn't fit at all in something like Criminal Minds. So if you watch only silly cartoons and suddenly want to roleplay in a serious crime drama setting, you might not have a good sense of what kinds of characters are appropriate. The second is that these archetypes, if repeated long enough without any real alterations made to them, will get stale - so if you watch nothing but crime dramas, you'll have little outside reference material to make something new. Sure, Bugs Bunny might not be an appropriate character to play in this setting, but a character with a sense of humor and whimsy loosely inspired by Bugs Bunny could be interesting!
So look at the media you're into. Do you see any patterns? If so, broaden your horizons and look into some other things, too. In fact, make a point of checking out something completely outside your usual area of interest now and then.
Look through the eyes of the opposition.
By now, you’re probably used to seeing the world through the eyes of your protagonist. Now, try seeing the world and your protagonist through the eyes of characters who disagree with or even outright hate your protagonist. Get in-character as these characters for awhile and grok the world from their POV for awhile. Can you, in the shoes and mindsets of these characters, justify the things you were having these characters do in-story? If not, chances are good that these characters’ actions won’t come off as believable to the audience, either.
You might also create two new characters, both of whom are neither wholly good nor bad. Make each character:
- Like something you like.
- Dislike something you like.
- Like something you dislike.
- Dislike something you dislike.
And set up each character so that each one:
- Likes something the other character likes.
- Dislikes something the other character likes.
- Likes something the other character dislikes.
- Dislikes something the other character dislikes.
Don’t just make their likes and dislikes frivolous, either - make them important and meaningful. Give them views on politics and religion. When you’re done, write both characters and put yourself in both of their shoes, seeing the world through their eyes. Make them interact with each other. Remember, neither one is wholly good nor bad. Then write short stories or vignettes in which the characters have to interact with each other, or roleplay both of them in the same game.
Step out of your comfort zone.
If you only write/play the same basic character types all the time, people are going to lose interest in your characters when they realize that they’re basically the same few people in different skinsuits. So don’t hesitate to start writing or roleplaying new character types and personalities. If you frequently play rule-breaking party girls and eccentric pranksters, try playing an introverted scholar or someone who adheres to a strict moral code that prohibits many of the things your other characters do and take for granted (eg, drinking) - or vice-versa! If you tend to play asocial wizards, consider playing a party-loving warrior. Branch out and try new things!
I found that an easy way to break myself into a new character type was to base the character’s persona on one or more characters from something I’d seen. Back when I first broke into roleplaying male characters, I made one of them a composite of a couple of male characters in a TV show I watched. I’d do the same for personality types as well - pick a character or two who exemplified the basic personality type I was going for, and make my character act like that. Sometimes it would take me awhile to hit my stride, but so far it’s worked out really well.
If you’re a roleplayer and you’re worried that you’re too unsteady on your feet with a new character type, try writing a few short stories or vignettes about your character or see if you can get a friend or two to help you playtest your character in a short or one-shot RP.
Make the stakes and risks real.
Write a story (it doesn’t have to be long) wherein success is not determined by your decree, but by the roll of a dice.
First, find yourself one six-sided die.
Secondly, ask yourself where your character’s various skills are on a scale from one to ten.
Thirdly, ask yourself how difficult a task your character has to face would be on a scale from one to fifteen. EG, that potion your character needs to brew is supposed to be a really difficult potion to brew - so we’ll give it a difficulty of thirteen. Your character, who is supposed to be a crack potion brewer, has a potion-brewing skill of ten.
What you’ll do is roll your die and add it to your character’s skill total. It must meet or exceed the difficulty level.
Let’s say you roll a four - that would give us 10 + 4 = 14 - a success! But let’s say you roll a two - 10 + 2 = 12 - a failure.
A six is an auto-fail - so just like in real life, there’s a chance that someone with a lot of skill and experience can mess up something that is generally considered simple and basic, or outside forces can mess it up for you. (You can flip a coin to decide if your character made a mistake, or if outside forces were responsible. Heads, it’s your character’s fault. Tails, it’s someone/something else’s fault.)
EG: Rosie, our expert potion-maker, decides to brew a basic cough remedy. But the writer rolls a six - instant failure. Did Rosie mess up, or was it something else? The writer flips a coin - it’s tails. Rosie didn’t make a mistake - the problem was that the cat knocked the whole thing over.
When going up against other characters with skills of their own, roll for both of them. EG, Evelyn, who has a Charisma of 8, decides to try her luck talking Emperor Zalwiff out of destroying Nantucket. Emperor Zalwiff has a General Hatred of Humanity of 7. If she fails, Zalwiff will feed her to his pet mutant alligator. If she succeeds, Nantucket will be saved. The writer rolls for Evelyn - a four. So 8 + 4 = 12. The writer then rolls for General Zalwiff - a two. 7 + 2 = 9. Evelyn succeeds! (If you end up with a tie, re-roll the second roll.)
The whole point of this exercise is not to exhaustively play out or constrain every interaction your character goes through in the story to randomosity, as if it were a roleplaying game, but rather to work out how your character would behave if the risks were real. I’ve seen many OCs who “bravely” tell off the evil overlord of the day - but the thing is, the players cannot convincingly portray someone who genuinely seems to consider something bad happening to xir as a real possibility. They fail to convey realistic behaviors and emotions you’d expect from someone facing down someone who could squash them like a bug if sufficiently annoyed. So rather than seeing a genuinely brave and plucky character standing up to a dangerous villain, I see a player trying to act out a very obvious wish-fulfilment scenario. The result is that the character either doesn’t look brave so much as fatally lacking in basic survival instincts, or that the villain doesn’t look as dangerous as xe was made out to be.
- Shooting/attacking a target.
- Hacking into a computer system.
- Creating a new invention.
- Sneaking out of one's dorm and sneaking back without getting caught.
- Cooking a good meal.
- Solving a riddle.
- Smooth-talking your way out of trouble.
- Evading/losing someone who's tracking you.
- Anything else that requires skill.
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