Witty Wordsmith: Compelling Characterization | UFOP: StarBase 118 Star Trek RPG

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Witty Wordsmith: Compelling Characterization

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In most forms of literature, characters are the driving force of the plot. Furthermore compelling characters are the driving force for our reader’s interest in said plot. Nowhere is this more true than simming where each writer has at least one character that they are portraying within the plot.

The more interesting and well drawn your characters are, the more your fellow players will be drawn into reading about them and interacting with them – and the more you will be interested in writing about them! Compelling characters are crucial to a vibrant story and an active sim. So how do we make our own characters more compelling?

Compelling characters have something to struggle for – they have a problem to overcome.

This means that no one wants to read (or write!) about Ensign Sally who does nothing but plod through her duties and push buttons all day. Ensign Sally needs some sort of conflict and something to struggle for – even if she doesn’t realize it, you as her writer must know what she is working towards.

But what if you say: “Gee, Sally just graduated from the Academy. She was popular, at the top of her class, got her dream posting and she’s really happy with herself. How do I turn that into a struggle?” The answer is: you make one. Maybe one is already there for you in the form of your current mission. Maybe you have to figure one out. Remember that people of all social structures have needs from the very base (food, water, shelter) to the very sophisticated (the need for recognition and respect).

If you’re stuck, try this exercise: check out Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can find it in a helpful visual pyramid form on wikipedia. Find the level that best fits your character and their situation, and from there use the information on that level to decide what your character is seeking.

Nobody really cares what your character looks like…

This is harsh, but true. In a writing game, we all imagine what your character looks like. If you insist that they are attractive, leave a few details and then move on to the action. Your readers will fill in with how they imagine the character to look and be depending on their own definitions of attractive. Dwelling on long passages that describe your character’s appearance down to each pore is a surefire turn off for your audience.

…unless their appearance is relevant to the story.

This means if appearance reveals something about the character to the reader, something that hints about the character’s past or factors in to the character working towards solving the problem we talked about above. Does a scar indicate a rough-and-tumble history? Do some slight pointed ears indicate a strict Vulcan Monastic upbringing – or a clandestine Romulan heritage? These things tell the reader something about the character, revealing back story and motivation.

Consider two popular young adult novel series: one where an incredibly attractive vampire has color changing eyes, another where a young wizard bears a distinctive scar. In the former most readers could not even tell you why there are so many changes in the vampire’s eye color – it seems to be purely cosmetic and at the author’s whim. It becomes a factor of confusion for all but the most die hard fans. In the latter almost everyone, even a casual reader knows how the wizard got his scar and how it is a major feature in his story. Make your choices on your character’s appearance in ways that impact your story, rather than as random cosmetic details.

The same is true for quirks.

A character can snap their gum, drink seventeen raktajinos per day or hum show tunes all they want. Unless there is a reason for these quirks that is associated to their background or ongoing story, quirks are as cosmetic and uninteresting as color changing eyes.

Make your audience empathize with your character!

Everyone wants to read for a character they can root for. You, as an author, will find an empathetic character more rewarding to write for. Empathetic characters will not only get involved in deeper and more interesting plot lines, you will find they get much better feedback from fellow crew members and writers. This will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the game and your writing in it.

Empathy consists of seeing some of ourselves in others. For characters, whose lives are more dramatic than most of our everyday lives, we want to see something that relates back to us. For villains, we want to see motivations and hints of compassion or at least an explanation for their actions. For heroes this means seeing flaws and struggles, complexities and contradictions. We want to share in the struggle of a heroic character, and cheer on their victories. If a hero is too perfect and their challenges are too easy it becomes very difficult to root for them.

How do you build empathy with your characters? Here are a few tips and tricks you can try in your upcoming sims:

  1. Write out the character’s thoughts or let the audience know what they are thinking. Especially if their actions are complex or contradictory, putting their thoughts into words can be very revealing for your audience.
  2. Show the character suffering – OR – helping someone who is suffering cope with what has happened. Being the shoulder to cry on is more difficult and oftentimes more rewarding.
  3. Include a flashback to your character’s childhood or formative years
  4. Put a roadblock between your character and their goals and write about how they struggle to overcome this.
  5. Show your character coming up against opposition or misunderstanding by other characters.

Try some or all of these tricks in this upcoming month and see how your character develops!