We've all seen it. The player that decides, "My character is an asshole," then sets out to justify every bad thing they do from the perspective of a character that is bad. "Why does every character have to be a goody-goody," they argue. "My character was the product of a broken home, a dead father, an evil uncle that beat him every day, etcetera, etcetera."
I thought I might write a post today about characterization and developing character, on a subject not covered in my How to Play a Character book. Specifically, what makes a good character? What makes a character that is three-dimensional and therefore alive, rather than two dimensional and wooden.
Part of the misconception in creating characters comes from the Second-Rate-Writer's Character Development Handbook, which says that to create a more developed, interesting character, what that character needs is a back story. The back story, the argument goes, provides motivation for the character's present behaviour, thus offering reasons why the character acts in a certain way. For example, if Jim's uncle hits him every day, then we can expect Jim to grow up distrustful and mean. Therefore, when the character Jim does something aggressive or self-interestedly, it's only a reaction to his upbringing - Q.E.D.
The player who proposes this sort of logic deserves a good slap up the back side of the head. Alternatively, you could keep a stack of hard cover psychology books on hand so, when the player makes an argument along these lines, you could pick the book of the appropriate size and weight for the given moment and hurl it at the player.
We are NOT the product of our back story. The idea that we might be was an attempt by various criminal lawyers in the 1950s and 60s to take the new psychology of the time and develop it into a legal defense: "Your Honor, my client Jim could not help killing those three people, cutting up their bodies and disposing of them in the East River because Jim is the product of a broken home. He was beaten every day by his uncle, so that today Jim is a victim, not a criminal. He deserves our pity, not our condemnation."
Guess what? It fucking did not work. While Hollywood writers thought the idea was brilliant and ran with it, producing a mess-load of mastubatory, self-congratulating movies in the 60s and 70s about woebegone criminals smashing up cars at high speed (a trend that goes on and on), the courts decided that - upon hearing evidence, something movies don't have to provide - that people are responsible for their actions.
That is because we are NOT robots. Jim, it turns out, eventually grows up and becomes aware of why he is being beaten. He sees plenty of examples of other people who are not being beaten and knows perfectly well that once he is free of his uncle, there are endless different lives that Jim can lead. Even as a child, Jim learns all the places he can go to escape these beatings. He has memories of thinking that it's wrong and why it shouldn't happen - he can reason, he can see the right path and he can take it if he chooses to do so.
Jim is not an automaton. Humans do not work by the rule, plug coin with beating uncle into machine, machine becomes a raging bastard.
When your player says, "The back story gives my character dimension!", your player has chosen to conveniently forget the tens of thousands of other events, experiences, moments of time, people and lessons the character has learned. In other words, your player has deliberately chosen the most wooden and two dimensional justification possible for their crappy, 2-D character.
3-D characters are created not with justifications or motivations, but with uncertainty. Note that I don't mean indecision, where the pathetic Peter Parker cannot make up his mind between two alternatives, neither of which add up to a whole personality. I mean uncertainty, the condition in which real people live every day, not being certain of what its all leading to or where this existence is going. Except for the very old, who are bedridden and left without alternatives, we all live our lives in the future, not the past. Even those who claim to live in the past are really just bitching about their fear that the future is never going to get better than what's going on right now. Such people always have one other fear, the fear we all share: that life is going to get worse.
Jim's third dimension comes from Jim's uncertainty that he's made the right choices about his reactions to his uncle. It results from his hesitation is behaving this way or that, the uncertainty that this really is a good moment to behave as an asshole . . . followed, as all uncertainty is, by guilt feelings and regret that we did not make the right decision. It is regret, doubt, denial and so on that causes us to behave erratically, all the time, even when we are trying so damn hard to retain a sense of proportion or reason.
The key here is that there is no precise way that any 3-D character will respond to any given stimulus. If we already know before it happens how the character will respond, then what we have is a WOODEN, lifeless character. The reason why film directors are always getting on the wrong side of fanboys is that the fanboys LOVE the wooden character and want the character to stay as wooden as possible, forever . . . whereas the director is trying to make the character human, which means there's no such thing as an action the character cannot, under certain circumstances, perform. Thus Superman can kill. The Empire can resort to using Black Stormtroopers. James Bond can cry.
Your player's desperate, sad attempt to create a character via back story only serves to create a character that supposedly has a blank cheque to perform the same miserable, shit-justified action over and over - without doubt, without reason, without hesitation and without humanity. Don't rubber stamp that shit. Call that shit out. Point out that if the character really had been beaten by the uncle, the character should feel deep, unimaginable remorse, on a level that would threaten the character's will to go on.
In other words, institute a suicide saving throw . . . and every time the player has the character act like a total fucking prick, roll a d4 - and that number of days later, the player has to roll 9 or over on a d20 or wander off and kill themselves.