Friday, April 20, 2018

Will the Real Participant Please Stand Up

Continuing with yesterday's post, I'd like to expand some of my points about character, discussing what a character is, as opposed to what a character does or wants.

First, I'd like to express any misgivings that some readers have that this post, or the last one, is a lead-in to any idea of creating game effects to enhance character play.  Far from it.  It is my wish here to explain that characterization is so far afield of role-playing games that it is actually quite foolish to pretend that we're role-playing a meaningful character.  At best, we're manipulating cardboard cut-outs of characters ~ what I called in the last post, "robots."

To understand what I'm arguing, we have to get a better idea of what makes a character.  It's safe to say that the readers and I are helplessly adrift where it comes to any assignation regarding character types, character quality or the meaning of character in a story.  As individuals, we easily fall in love with characters whom we find familiar, or with whom we identify, blinding ourselves to legitimate interpretations of merit or import.  Because we think a character is "cool," we discard all discussion regarding the actual structure, function or legitimacy of the character in the story, becoming hot-headed and insisting to others that they just don't understand why such-and-such is the "greatest character that has ever existed," a belief that is based more upon our visceral sense of that character as it relates to us, rather than how it might relate to others who have different interests or tastes.

It gets worse when a judgment is applied to that belief.  We decide not to be friends, or even acquaintances, with people who don't like our favorite characters, as though these are yardsticks towards determining who is a real person of value and who is obviously a dolt.  The internet is full of this sort of thing; and it makes any instructional discussion of character nearly impossible.

I am, here, going to discuss three types of character, directly in terms of how they functionally act within a story, with an intention to explaining what makes something fictional more like what any real person actually is.  The goal of an artist making a character at all is to relay a certain reality, from the perspective of someone who is not you in the hopes that you will understand the motivation of a perspective other than your own.  Our perspective, however dear it is to us, is limited.  We turn to art to expand our limitations; to understand better how other people think; and hopefully, in understanding, we expand ourselves, so that we become more aware, better prepared for other people and more empathetic of their needs.

And so ... this long-winded effort is simply for this purpose: please put your emotional attachments on a shelf, and listen.

Looking through literature on this subject today, I am unsatisfied by the scholarship on this subject.  Most of us are familiar with the terms round or flat characters; fewer, perhaps, with dynamic vs. static.  I'm perfectly in agreement with these terms; but I find that I want a more definitive separation in types of round or dynamic characters.  Therefore, I'm going to propose three character types that I'd like to discuss: fixed, reflexive and conflicted.

Fixed characters are those that fit into the categories flat and static.  Regardless of the circumstances of the story, regardless of what's happened, the character neither expresses nor functionally acts in a different manner.  For example, He-Man and Skeletor.  Every episode of the children's show features the same characters, acting in the same predictable manner, with the same goals, the same function, employing the same responses, with no real emotion.  An earlier example, from my childhood, would be Dudley Do-Right: utterly without fear, or comprehension really, but excessively brave, ready, tenacious and indestructible.

Virtually every character ever run by a player in a role-playing campaign is a fixed character.  The background fetish, as a feature, is the means by which most players set their character's behaviour or motivation in stone.  Who among us have not noticed when a given fighter, regardless of how many fights, how many close calls with death, how many foolish mistakes, ALWAYS bulldozes into every doorway and every fight without the least hesitation?  Or the thief that always steals, or the cleric that always gives the same sort of speech before a fight, or the dwarf that perpetually argues with the elf, no matter how many years the two of them have spent saving each other's hide?  Players, as a species, love fixed characters.  This is part of their fetish.  Having dreamt up the perfect representation of their character's identity, they will play that identity with unvarying exactitude ... even to where that same identity will float from character to character, as previous incarnations (whatever their skills, class or backgrounds) die away.

Fixed characters, however, are boring.  They may satisfy the player, but they exhaust everyone else.  They are the furthest sort of being from an actual, real person ... and in a way, for role-playing, that is a positive feature.  For while fixed characters don't change, they also can't be really missed when they die.  Another stock character can be easily made on the same pattern.  Therefore, any personal relationship between the player and the made-up character can be dismissed.  Nothing is lost, because nothing was ever really there.

Reflexive characters, which might also be thought of as responsive characters, are quite different.  As the narrative continues around the character, the character is forced to adapt, converting themselves to fit the new world they find themselves in.  Reflexive characters are a kind of dynamic character; but in a very particular way.  Intrinsically, they don't change.  I have hundreds of examples to pick from, but I'll choose something from a film that I'm sure 90% of my readers have seen more than once:  the character Henry Hill from the film Goodfellas.

Throughout the film, Henry is repeatedly forced to deal with the steady, unrelenting changes going on around him, as the mafia/mob lifestyle he lives transforms from the 1950s into the 1960s.  He experiences the lifestyle in multiple ways: as a kid, as an enforcer, as a husband, as a member of a vitriolic set of friends and acquaintances ... then as a struggling drug dealer trying to make it on his own and finally as an informer against the very people he's known all his life.  With each change, he adjusts, he bends his moral framework, he allows himself to participate more fluidly and in an hands-on manner, he submits to the risks he has to take and finally, he submits to the only choice he has left as the walls close around him.

But he doesn't change.  He doesn't question his infatuation with the goodfellas' lifestyle when his dad beats him, or when he sees a man knifed in the street, or when he watches his friends murder Billy Bats, or when he goes to prison, when people are murdered all around him, or when he's lowered to having to deal in coke or even after he's been forced into retirement as a relocated witness.  At the end of the film, Henry's chief regret is that he isn't able to return to the lifestyle he loves.  And while this makes an interesting movie, and it makes Henry into a very interesting, profoundly unique character, the actual character himself is without regret, without doubt, without remorse, without any rational response to any of the awful, criminal, sociopathic activities with which he's connected.  In that particular way, he's a very flat character ... no more changeable than Dudley Do-Right.

This is the sort of character than DMs want when running adventure-driven campaigns that steadily move from adventure to adventure.  The characters need to make the best possible use of their resources, adapting themselves to the circumstances, overcoming the problems they face, and never questioning why their character is always ready for another adventure, always ready to risk their lives again, always ready to put it all on the line for treasure or what other motivation they have.  No one wants a character who hesitates at the start of an adventure, who suddenly questions the point of all this; that is not in keeping with the substance of the game.

Conflicted characters represent much more nearly what we are as human beings.  They, too, are dynamic ~ but not only in the way they respond, but also in the way they recognize that there are multiple choices that they can make regarding any situation.  They're not sure.  They are filled with doubts.  When something startling, unexpected or significant happens, they question themselves, even to where they are ready to separate themselves from the life they're living, and accept the consequences of that decision.  Again, I have many examples I could draw from, going back to the Greeks and Shakespeare ... but none of you want me to explain any of this by pulling out Hamlet, again.  Given that I want an adventure of sorts, and a familiar character, whom most readers have probably seen, I will go with Remy from the film Ratatouille.

Remy, like Henry, is in love with something: being a cook.  However, Remy is far more conflicted over the relationship between his love of food and his family.  He knows his father is wrong; but at the same time, throughout the film, it is important to Remy that his father understands, because Remy isn't capable of just abandoning his family without hesitation.  As such, he lets himself be pushed into situations (being food-tester, providing stolen food for his brother Emile and friends) ... but he knows its wrong and he experiences angst over it.

Similarly, he doubts a lot of his actions, even his bold ones.  He hesitates before fixing the soup.  He runs away from Linguini at first before changing his mind.  He throws away his morals in a fit of pique and lets all the rats into the kitchen; and then experiences remorse when he's exposed and he's lost his friend.  Then he returns to the kitchen to help Linguini anyway, even though he is only a rat and may very well be caught and killed (we know he won't be, obviously, he's the star, but that is not Remy's perspective).  He does it because he knows Linguini can't face Anton Ego without him.

With each change in the story, Remy re-evaluates his belief system.  He's never sure what he wants.  He's never sure how it is going to turn out.  And often, his choices land him in hot water, which he clearly regrets.  It is this conflict that makes Remy compelling: because it is a conflict that we ourselves struggle with every day, as we go to work, as we make plans, as we fight with our families, as we puzzle out the message behind a blog post, as we act like human beings.

A character like Remy would be a disaster in a role-playing game.  Trying to run such a character, inventing the character's inward struggles with each part of the adventure, might be an interesting artistic venture, but it would make a frustrating, undesirable and masturbatory excursion for a group of players ... perhaps more so if every player attempted to do the same, in different ways, according to their personal interpretations of how their conflicted character viewed the world. Admittedly, there might be various drama troupes who found such an activity interesting (though note that when improving, actors always play the scene for laughs, not drama) ... but I don't think a role-playing game would be made better by the experiment.

That said, we ARE playing this experience in one way. We are actual conflicted humans, playing the game with our own conflicted selves.  But we are not, thankfully, trying to puzzle out how some invented personality deals with conflict; we're quite used to our own conflict and we are quite able to put it on a shelf, if need be, so that we can participate in a social activity, like playing a game.

Admittedly, some are not.

When the players struggle with making up their minds about what to do; when they hesitate before fighting a dragon or question if their quest-giver is actually the villain; this is the sort of realistic, pleasant and meaningful conflict that we are seeking from game play.  We don't want this from characters; but we DO want it from players.

And that is why questing to make role-playing a matter of playing a character is the pursuit of lunacy.  We don't want "characters" ~ we want flat, fixed, reflexive personalities that respond to their situations in a predictable manner, so that the REAL PEOPLE can enjoy the game for the contextual dilemmas it provides.  Any role-player waxing on about the "amazing" qualities of an invented character is in a state of delusion; they've fallen in love with a wooden, two-dimensional robot, and not with any being of the substance of a fellow player.

We've missed the fact of this.  We've allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked by words used in a particular way, concocting a particular chicanery, which we've bought into because it "sounded good"; but it doesn't stand up to authentic scrutiny.

It's bullshit.


Ozymandias said...

I first noticed this sort of thing back in college, with certain players whose interest in the game was was for the acting and the chance to explore a character. The most interesting ones were the players who did things impulsively, then agonized over how to explain a choice that seemed out-of-character. This gives a better perspective on what was likely going on with those players.

Drain said...

I agree with every word herein contained.

Thinking back, I remember how odd it seemed that, even after numerous overt brushes with the supernatural, Scully managed to remain a skeptic foil to Mulder's belief.

This was a major factor pushing me from playing to DMing: as a player, the constraints of the game structure prevented one from playing truly nuanced characters, whereas a PC must be tempered and pointed as a steel arrowtip, an individual NPC can be hampered by fear, beset by doubt and even give it all for lost and abandon his heart's desire, because the story isn't hinging on any non-player individual, many of those particles can descend into vice, indolence or madness with this enriching rather than detracting from the game's experience.

Sterling said...

Great definitions. I'm with you all the way on the definitions part even without having seen either Goodfellas or Ratatoullie. I have eaten and cooked ratatoullie, although, like cassoulet, I suspect that no one else would agree that what I cooked was that thing they named. Anyway, back to my point: I completely disagree.

All of my players play conflicted characters. I play conflicted characters in their games. This does not create disaster in our games. It's not for laughs and it does not play out in some masturbatory way. Rather, exactly the conflict that we as players feel translates into our characters' handling of the game situation. I think there is, for our group, value in putting our own personalities into the situations of the characters we play, because we can then genuinely react to their fictional dilemmas and trials.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ah, the thrill of complete disagreement.

Very well, Sterling; you haven't seen my examples and I haven't seen your party play. But I suspect, from your brief description, that the conflict that your players are experiencing are not ascribed to the characters, but to themselves; they may be acting "as" the characters, but the conflict originates with their own decisions and thought processes.

But then, I don't know. Somehow, I don't see your players miring their characters with long soliloquys about the possibility of death, or growing morose in the face of their ennui, doing little with their lives except moving from place to place, as people would if they had to live every trifling second of an adventurer's actual life. Somehow, I don't see your players imposing PTSD on their characters, or admitting that they feel an impassioned impulse to examine love, legitimate spirituality, esoteric fulfillment or the struggle not to descend into self-destruction or madness. I may be wrong. These are the conflicts that actual people manage: boredom, crippling guilt, a desire for escapism, anger and lashing out, doubt about their place in the world and so on. No REAL person is free from this.

I suspect that your player's characters are.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sorry, one last note. How stressed are your player's characters?