I’ve been thinking about this post from Chuck Wendig. In it, he talks about making the reader care about the characters you’ve written. It pertains to RPGs, too. Rather than the reader, though, both the other people you’re playing with and you yourself need to care about the character, though perhaps in different ways.
I feel very strongly that human struggles make a character matter to me—not style, not setting, not powers. I’m a sucker for a dramatic game, over a procedural one, in general. What does your character want, from whom, and why—and why can’t they get it? If those questions can be answered with emotional concessions rather than, say, physical items, I’m even more on board.
There are a couple games that help me do this: two that come to mind are Promethean: the Created, and Primetime Adventures 3rd edition.
In P:tC, you play an artificial construct who wants to become a human. To do so, you have to better understand what being human means, and pass through a number of milestones in that understanding. This means that you need to think about how your character conceives of human-ness, and how that relates to their particular shortcomings. You need to articulate this to the GM (whose job it is to define the actual milestones you need to achieve), so you can’t really elide it. (Well, maybe you can, but I am willing to discount that as non-cooperative play!)
In Primetime Adventures, characters have an Issue, a dramatic question at the core of the character. In Matt’s words:
Choosing an issue is about maximizing your opportunity to explore something meaningful to you, and that applies to all the choices you make in creating the protagonists.
Yes, that. Very much that.
And so, this is leading me to think about the zero-prep style of indie games. I actually, dare I say it, like taking the time to write a little backstory. Not to have an epic history, but to get to know the character I’ll be playing, and change them around if they’re not the one I really want to play. It doesn’t have to be extensive, but a little more quiet and contemplation and a little less rush makes the experience so much richer for me.
And of course, answering those questions all together, to have a web of interconnected characters, who feel things about each other and want things from each other and whose relationships may grow and change, that is just the sweetest thing.
Finally, let’s say it once again:
Plot is Soylent Green. It is made of people.