UPDATE: This post has been updated with the title, "Early in the Life of a Game," and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essays, available for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.
Over the last 30+ years of DMing, I have had one hell of a lot of new characters rolled in front of me - by noobs and vets both - and most of the time, there's a stall where it comes to picking the character's class. No one, it seems, ever knows what they want to be. I mean, it's not a big problem ... there's a little hemming and hawing, and people decide on something, and the game moves forward.
But I began thinking of it when last night I caught a lecture on Aristotle's view of friendship. During the lecture the prof took a few minutes and talked about roles: you're a brother, a sister, a father, a mother, a judge, a professor, a street cleaner ... these are not just definitions of what you do or what you happen to be. They are also descriptions of the responsibility you fulfill in society as a whole. As a father you have certain expectations you must fill, in maintaining your children, in presenting a positive role-model, in the disencouragement of squabbling between your children and their friends, and so on. This is sometimes a responsibility that is thrust upon you, and it is sometimes a responsbility that you relish ... but it is always a responsibility.
Where it comes to choosing what you do for a living, that is a responsibility too. You've taken it upon yourself to be recognized as a given type, with the recognition that when people approach you as that type, they have the right to expect a standard of behavior from you that matches your claim. In other words, if you will call yourself a lawyer, and I am looking for a lawyer, if I call upon your law office, I expect to find a lawyer. I don't expect to find someone mocking the legal profession, or someone who is utterly incompetant. If you are not a lawyer, you have no right to call yourself a lawyer.
If you will allow one more example, I present myself here as a pontificating, pretentious asshole. If you come here expecting that, I will be ready to meet my responsibilities in providing you with what you respect - er, that is, expect. To do less is to fail my ethical responsibilities.
Now, if the gentle reader will bundle up this argument and put it under his or her arm for the moment, we can talk about the ethical world Gygax and his cronies grew up in and compare it to the ethical world that launched 2nd Edition. For this portion, I will be relying somewhat on Adam Curtis' excellent documentary, The Century of the Self, which can be viewed in its four-hour entirety here. If you have never seen it, and you enjoy having your fundamental precepts about the world deconstructed, you are in for a good, long ride. I will add the disclaimer that Curtis tends in his documentaries to simplify a lot of philosophical positions in order to get his ducks in order, so please retain a hard-nosed cynicism throughout ... but as a long-time researcher in modern history, social deconstruction and psychology, I can vouch for a great many of his conclusions.
The principle conclusion of The Century of the Self is the expectation that the average individual possesses about what they expect to have in terms of their own happiness. Curtis presents the argument that in a former period, culminating in the 1960s, the ordinary person was driven towards obtaining specific kinds of material wealth, and fulfilling specific roles in society, driven by the social expectations upon that person. You lived in a certain kind of house, and drove a certain kind of car, and lived a certain kind of life ... and society defined that sort of existence as 'normal,' and considered it absolutely necessary to hammer people into that existence in order that they be healthy.
A great deal of this hammering was driven by an industrial complex that feared overproduction. If everyone bought the same kind of car, there was a reasonable assurance that the whole production of that car would be sold out ... making industry happy. But with the start of the 1960s, a trend emerged which really hit its stride in 1980. That trend was the multiplicity of personalized goods, whose sale became guaranteed by social movements encouraging the selfishly motivated consumer ... who insisted that things be individualized for their particular taste. This came out of a revolution in advertising, manufacturing, personal bias, communications - and a host of other motivations described in Curtis' documentary - that transformed the world. Any of us right now who can remember the world in 1970, and who can compare that to the world in 1985, can attest to that change.
Very well, let's come back to the subject of character classes ... which remains a contentious issue. I propose to explain why it's contentious.
Character classes came from the minds of people for whom the 1950s and 60s were definitive years. In that period, what you did was far more important than who you were, particularly in terms of narrative, both in literature and in film. No one gives a shit who Philip Marlowe's family were, or how he was raised, or even how he came to acquire his personal feelings towards the law or his job. Philip Marlowe was a detective. His actions are those of a detective, his motivations are those of a detective, his background is a detective's background, his actions are those you'd expect a detective to take. He's not a cop, so he doesn't have to be a nice guy. He carries a gun and slaps people around, but he's not a crook. His role in this world is defined distinctly.
The same is true for virtually every character in that period, right up to the era of widespread amateur psychology; the era of "I'm Okay, You're Okay." We comfortably accept an absence of 'modern' motivational background even in psycho-analytic tales like The Caine Mutiny or The Sun Also Rises. Even the character that does nothing is defined more by their doing nothing than by what they feel or believe.
For Gygax and crew, it was only natural to embrace this point of view ... it was, after all, the point of view of their time. Gygax was born in 1938. When he was 18, he was sitting in a movie theatre watching The Ten Commandments, The Searchers, Giant and Bus Stop. Stories driven by what people DID ... who they were or why they were was a secondary consideration. When it came time to define the characters in the D&D game, the central context was certainly more about what they did ... were you a cleric or a mage or a fighter? And if a fighter, you had the responsibilities of a fighter and the expectations of a fighter ... and others had the right to see you as a fighter.
But as the world rushed into the 1970s, individualized 'personalities' came to be manufactured by the industrial world, the act of choosing to be something was much more important than being that thing. Remember that the 70's were called the "Me Decade." Young 18-year-old people, people twenty years younger than Gygax, were watching movies like Rocky, The Bad News Bears, Car Wash and Taxi Driver ... movies about people bitter and angry about the role society had chosen for them, and who fought to gain a more idealized role for themselves. Not so they could be boxers and ball players and vigilantes, but so they could obtain personal satisfaction.
Personal satisfaction becomes so endemic to the culture that nerds playing D&D in the 80s chafe and rail against having to be boxed into narrow, pre-defined character roles. It doesn't fit their perception of choice and of how the world should work. It doesn't matter to them if they're fulfilling a responsibility or not. It is about ME, and what abilities I want to have, and about how I want to personalize my character so that it is different from every other character out there. Because that is what I want and what I want is more important than anything.
This, of course, is an illusion, as Curtis' documentary points out. Manufactured 'choice' still provides tens of thousands of replicate products for the multitude. Your lava lamp only seems unique and unusual because you're one of a comparative few that wanted to buy one ... but there are something like 500,000 lava lamps just like the one that you think personalizes you, just as there are thousands of other players who have 'personalized' their characters in exactly the way you have personalized yours. But delusion is the grease that makes the present day market work. It is only important that you have the perception of individuality. Actual individuality is virtually impossible.