What Makes a Character Fun For Others?

edited July 2006 in Play Advice
I always see folks talking about the importance of making characters that the other players at the table are invested in. You know, interesting characters whose trials and conflicts can be entertaining and exciting to folks other than the character's player.

What makes a character interesting to you, as a GM or a player who isn't in control of that character? What techniques to you use to make sure the other players are making interesting characters or that you're making interesting characters? What should you avoid when trying to make characters that are interesting?

Personally, I find that flawed, imperfect characters who are forced into tough decisions regularly are the most interesting to observe or participate with. I like to see characters around the table that would entice me to watch a TV show starring them, and I find that I'm most invested in television characters if they regularly make poor choices or are forced into making poor choices.

I enjoy characters that come loaded with conflict. Who doesn't?

I dislike characters and archetypes that particular players create repeatedly. So, yes, sometimes it depends on who is playing them. I like to see people create characters that stretch their comfort levels because I like to see how the player will react to diverse situations with various tools.

What about you?



  • I like to see characters whose goals and ambitions intersect with (that is, are neither coincident nor unrelated to) my character's goals.
  • Very cool, Fred. And the best way to do that is group character generation and actual discussion about goals around the table, correct? Can you think of any other techniques to accomplish this, particularly with a group that doesn't have much experience trying to build these intersections?

    I know that in a number of games that include strong flagging mechanics (Burning Wheel/Empires springs immediately to mind), this is pretty simple. But if you don't have those mechanics, do you have any suggestions about how best to make this happen?

  • Certainly make characters around the table, or at least in email discussion.

    We had an interesting way to do it in Matt's Skype Nine Worlds game; each player had at least one goal (muses, in that system) that was built by other players.
  • That's an awesome idea! We've done something similar in a Burning Wheel game where I told the players their characters would be siblings and that one of their goals (Beliefs) had to revolve around the other in some way. It wound up being a very strong game in a way I'm not sure it would have been, otherwise, and the players seemed quite invested in each other's scenes.

  • Frickin' frackin' forum ate my post.

    In short, use a relationship map. I think Ron Edwards introduced that in Sex and Sorcery. Simply: make your protags by chatting with each other. Then write down what your character wants from each of the other characters (whether or not they're protagonists). You can want something that your protag doesn't know they want yet, like "I want to find out he's really a woman."

    The Mountain Witch has this mechanically supported in its Trust mechanic. That's what makes it so damned good.
  • Joshua,

    So you think that explicitly making a relationship map with the players at the table is a good way to go about this? I can totally see that.

    So here's a little more detail about why I'm asking this question: I've got some players whose characters tend to not inspire me to engage with them. It saps my interest in running the game and tends to make it difficult to make them true protagonists in the story. I'm looking for ways to say, "Here's how you can do this better."

  • Hey Daniel:

    I hope that's not in our game, because that's friggin' literally against the rules, baby. Someone's character doesn't interest you at all, they need to fix the problem.

    Part of what makes characters interesting to me is if I feel like I'm participating somehow in their story. That's part of the reasoning behind Fan Mail, and I've been developing that into something a little more complex for the next game.

    When we were doing chargen on Saturday, it occurred to me that it'd be kind of cool if a different player got to choose your character's vice. I mean, think of something you hate, and then put it on that other player's sheet as something that provides a benefit. How would you not be invested?
  • In Grey Ranks everybody else at the table gets to choose why your teenager stands out - they can give you greasy hair, bad breath, an annoying laugh, or whatever strikes their collective fancy. Conversely, you pick the things your character holds dear - your family, your country, your faith, yourself, etc. Then as you fail in play, you get to remove the traits they chose for you as your character matures, and they get to hammer the things you hold dear.
  • Matt,

    Completely not in our game. If anything, I'm more invested in everyone else's character than my own in Galactic. I think a rule in which someone else chooses your character's vice (or virtue, or whichever you don't pick) is a cool one. I also think that the creation of crew members with secrets for other captains creates investment in the stories of those captains.


    The other players get to hammer the things you hold dear? Very cool. It seems to me that having mechanical dials at your disposal to fiddle with someone else's character is a nice way to create investment.

    What if, while tossing around concepts for your character, another person at the table can say either "yes and, _____" or "yes but, _____"?

  • edited July 2006
    Very cool, Fred. And the best way to do that is group character generation and actual discussion about goals around the table, correct? Can you think of any other techniques to accomplish this, particularly with a group that doesn't have much experience trying to build these intersections?
    You could get the GM to make all the characters.

    I'm only slightly being facetious. But I think it's interesting that, although our default is to go for a dirty hippie "all the players must talk and interact" solution, this is one problem where the "GM does everything" solution really works.

    If the GM makes all the characters, then he can draw up a relationship map. But you have the advantage that one player doesn't know what another character feels about his. And the GM can put character traits, quirks etc. in that spark off against other characters.

    I'm making all the characters for my LARP on Saturday. It gives you a lot of freedom to make the characters intersect.

    (Edit: Bloody hell! My post turned a funny colour and then the colour went away! Something's been installed on these forums.)

  • edited July 2006
    Seriously, the best thing you can do is just have a sit-down chat where you all talk about the kinds of characters you will play, and develop them together. Little things like "I'm your older brother" or even just "And I look up to him" create massively entertaining repercussions when you hit actual play.

    (EDIT: my new post looked like a yellow cylon eye pulsing. It was kind of creepy.)
  • So, Graham, when you're doing that, how do you guarantee that a character is fun for the _person playing it?_

    That has always been a breaking point for me, with pregens; it's fiendishly difficult to find a character that draws me in.

    Daniel, to come away from inter-involvement a bit, I'm finding that I like the characters most that are revealing about the people that play them. It's a lot of fun dissecting the thought process that powers the characters played by people I know, and thereby learning things about those people.
  • Graham,

    I've actually given that a try once or twice and I've found that some creative constraints tend to work better for me than complete character creation. That way, the players and I both have some input into what the character will be like and, as Shreyas says, I'm more likely to have players who enjoy their characters.

    I think we're sliding a bit toward methods to make characters as a group and what I'm really interested in are what sorts of things make characters interesting to you, personally. I'm very interested in Shreyas' comment about best enjoying characters that are revealing about the people that play them and I think I agree strongly. My preference within that is to watch the same person play a multitude of different types of characters in different situations, rather than watching a player run the same old signature kind of character through those situations.

  • I love me some yes, and. Agreement is awesome. I'm definitely working toward games that treat conflict as a footnote to the interesting stuff that happens before and after it, in my head at least. We saw this a lot in our recent PTA game. We'd hand-wave the actual gunfight in the post office or whatever, preferring to focus on the lead-up and aftermath.
  • Great thread, please keep the techniques for getting cross-player investment coming. This is a huge thing in my gaming group recently, and I think I'm underestimating its importance when I say "huge".
  • Daniel, I don't think "revealing" and "different" are related particularly closely; the "I find it tiresome when someone plays the same character over and over" thing is another matter. So, let's look at that; why do you find it tiresome? In your personal experience, what characters have one this to you? (Is it the character, or the repetition?)

    I seem to recall, in the mazy past, a thread about _why_ people play the same character over and over, and various ways that you can make that behavior fun. Anyone got a reference? I don't think I know enough to do a Forge search for it.
  • One thing I find makes characters fun for me is ambiguity. In our irregular Capes game a buddy of mine plays a lot of this character named Arthur. He sees Arthur as a kind of dark hero. A less-crazy, more tragic Batman figure. I see Arthur as a crazed sociopath, more like the Punisher.

    This ambiguity lets him see the character in a way that he really enjoys, and it lets me do the same. And it does that without requiring that we have overlap.

    The same is true of Mike's HeroQuest game. I see some of the other PCs in a way that I'm pretty sure is different from the way their players see them. For instance, I consider Okhfels to be somewhat deranged and to have a poor grip on how human interaction is supposed to work. But I'm pretty sure that Fred sees Okhfels as a decent guy and something of a romantic. I see the character of Isadora as basically an arrogant hot-head, and that's my primary take on her, but I'd guess that Adrienne focuses on different aspects of her personality.

    So, ambiguity is fun!

  • Shreyas,

    For example: I enjoy the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I enjoy watching Buffy deal with her issues, her flaws, and the monster of the week. I like the character for those things.

    I also enjoy Veronica Mars, Battlestar Galactica, and The Shield.

    But I wouldn't enjoy them nearly as much if Buffy were the main character in them.

    Likewise, in an RPG, I get tired of particular people playing particular types of characters over and over. I want to see what the player thinks of a situation when he's not playing a stone-cold relentless, emotionless killer. I want to see what the player thinks of a situation when she's not playing the ex-sexual predator with a heart of gold. That helps me be entertained, as the GM or participant. I want to see characters with real flaws and real issues, not perfect and pretty shells.

    Does that clarify things, or am I muddying the waters?

  • Thomas,

    What is it about the characters that allows you and the other players to see them in such different ways? Can you identify anything in particular?

  • When I said, "What characters have done this to you?", I meant, "When you have played games with people, I'm sure from your repeated return to this issue that you've encountered a person who plays the same character all the time. Tell me about _that character_ and your experiences with it." No TV, no theory. Actual Play.
  • Sheryas,

    Gotcha, I misunderstood. Let's see. I've got a player who always creates flawless, relationship-less combatants. He likes to eek every bit of potential out of the system and engage with it primarily in fights. This affects his game preferences as well as his character preferences. For example, he's not the kind of guy I'd invite to play Shab-al-Hiri Roach or The Princes' Kingdoms or Under the Bed with me and expect a positive response.

    In a recent PTA game taking place on a politically fractured space station, he took on the role of the cyborg security officer. Burning Wheel; barbarian warrior-priest w/ Faith. Burning Empires; Iron-clad religious warrior (and he tried for Psychology). DitV; Cold-blooded fighter with a mean knife and no conscious.

    Now, I know that all of the above is what he enjoys playing and that's cool. I haven't got a problem with that. The part I am having issues with is the fact that I, as the GM, am bored by his characters. I know a number of the other players we typically have in our group are bored by them as well. This just tends to exacerbate the problem as we tend to engage with him less and, therefore, he engages with the game less.

    Admittedly, many times our character creation sessions tend to happen in the same space, but not with as much back and forth as I'd like. When someone says they don't really dig on his character or when they suggest other options to make things more interesting to them, he often shuts down and gets frustrated.

    Does that cover what you're looking for?

  • For my money, the moment when your character becomes engaging isn't in character creation ... it's when you have that character change because of something that they do in-game.

    When another player does something in-game (betray your character) and that has an impact on you, the player, by changing how you decide to envision and play the character (he was easy-going, but now he's bitter and resentful) then that player has made a human connection to you. They now see that your character is part of the narrative space that they can operate on. Your character is on their tool-bench. Now what are they going to do with it?
  • My two-cent POV is that your one-note guy is trying to get something fully expressed, and once he does, he'll be able to move on to a different character type. I've seem it before; I might even have done it before (Lord, the string of world-saving clerics I played as a child...)
  • I dig that, Tony, to an extent. But don't you think there are tools available to make those points of contact for your character?

    I mean, betray what? Conflict how? I think those are important things to create when you're all sitting down at the table to start playing.

    I also think everyone's got some responsibility to come out of the gate with a character the other players care about seeing betrayed, or successful, or challenged, or whatever. I mean, what if there's not really much there to change?

  • Meg, I've given that some thought too. I've had plenty of situations, myself, where an aborted game has led me to create a very similar character because I wasn't able to really get closure with the idea I wanted to explore when I first drew him up.

    My biggest issue is that the characters feel flat. It's like they're a teflon frying pan and I just want a little egg to stick to them. What I'm hoping to get here are some examples of things people enjoy watching in characters other than their own, so I have some options to throw at him.

  • coffeestain wrote:
    I dig that, Tony, to an extent. But don't you think there are tools available to make those points of contact for your character?

    Yeah, there are. I just think that the starting point (character creation) gets a huge and disproportionate amount of mental energy invested in it, while the ongoing process (character play and development) gets short-changed an awful lot.

    Yes, you can have an intricately arranged network of character connections, and that can make it clear how people will betray each other and why. But, also, you can just play Mountain Witch, and see how these things will create themselves from thin air (with, really, very little attention paid to giving them a jump-start) if you work with the bottom-line rule that people must be conscious of how their character is effected by others.
  • edited July 2006
    Posted By: TonyLB
    But, also, you can just play Mountain Witch, and see how these things will create themselves from thin air (with, really, very little attention paid to giving them a jump-start) if you work with the bottom-line rule that peoplemustbe conscious of how their character is effected by others.
    Huh, that's an interesting point. How do you make someone conscious of that without a Trust mechanic? Conversation between sessions? When I played The Mountain Witch, that's pretty much what our Trust allocations boiled down to.

  • Keys work this way in TSOY. I take the Key of Unrequited Love for another PC, and he instantly knows how his behavior is going to impact me.
  • I think part of what makes a character interesting to me is their motivations for their actions. They might be a cold-hearted killer, but why are they that way?

    I've also had the "plays the same character" problem with a twist: no matter the title of the character, they played it the same way. For example, this guy played both a Paladin and a ranger like back-stabbing warriors. I think if he'd just played a warrior, I'd have had less trouble with it, but because he wasn't playing some critical aspects of what the character was supposed to be, it really grated.

  • I like characters that grab me by the throat and pull me into the story. Now that's off the table, I'll try to find an applicable wording for it. I like characters, that grab me by the balls, umm, not better. Must think some more...
  • I have to say that merely having flaws (in either the real-world sense or the game-mechanics sense) does not make a character interesting to me. I happen to like the group we have in the Exalted game I'm in right now - let me use them as an example.

    The Merchant Prince - a rising star in the Guild. Interesting because a) I rarely see Exalted characters with strong political or economic ties, and b) he refuses to carry slaves. He'll run weapons and drugs, but not human beings, counter to the standard Guild practices.
    The General - A grizzled veteran type; the group's primary combatant. Interesting because he used to work for the Dragon-Blooded, and now he's retired - and would honestly prefer to stay that way. His Motivation is "retire in obscurity." Not actually a general, but we call him that anyway.
    The Healer - Actually, she's basically a cypher so far. I think her player is still working out her character to a large extent.
    Jackie Chan - That's my character. A family man who had to run away from his homeland (An-Teng) because of a good deed he did there. Motivation: End the slave trade.
    The Scuzzbag - This would be your typical "flawed character." We met him when he was trying to join the mafia that we broke up. If our characters ever figure out how much scum this guy really sucks they might be mad at him, but we as players are just waiting to see what croocked scheme he'll pull this time. I find him interesting because the player keeps finding new and interesting ways to be scummy.

    The GM required us to write cutscenes for our previous incarnations in the First Age; that helped us get to know our characters and others' better, and I think made it a little more interesting for us. There was a lot of "wiggle room" because incarnations can be so different, but it still helped us better define each other. He also had us write cutscenes including a part of our origin, and I can't wait until the group finds out mine.
  • I've got a connected, but not identical, question: "What makes me, as a player, interesting to other players? How can a character inspire me to do more of whatever that is?"
  • That's big enough for its own thread, Tony... perhaps for its own board.
  • Tony, maybe that's the question I meant to be asking.

    Are you going to start a thread?

  • edited July 2006
    While a few people have said something like this, I thought I'd just throw in my agreement: it depends entirely on the people you are playing with.

    Many people in this thread have given answers for themselves, personally, when it comes to what makes a character interesting, but unless they're playing in your game it's not going to be much help trying to make your character interesting to them. (It can still give you an idea of what things are interesting for people in general, which can make it easier to figure out what your fellow-players want.) For every player you can find who loves flawed characters who make tragic mistakes you can find another who wants to see bad-ass character succeed impressively. For every player who likes snappy dialog and a fast-paced approach to characterisation, you can find another who prefer very slow, descriptive play in which emotional states of the characters are specifically narrated and explored. Often you can find these players all in a single person.

    It seems to me that the best a game can do to help make your character interesting to your fellow-players is a) strongly frame what kind of characters are going to be in the game beforehand, making it less likely that players who find those characters boring will join the game at all and b) encourage the players to give feedback, either through game procedures (DitV: character generation must happen as a group) or actual mechanics (PTA: fan mail.)

    I think the best single "trick" to making sure everyone has characters that are interesting to each other is to make and solicit as many suggestions as possible when making and then when playing the characters. When you're making your character, ask the other players lots of questions and try and get them to fill in the blanks. Pay attention to how they react when you describe elements of your character. Similarly, when other people are making characters, give lots of suggestions. Get enthusiastic about the parts of their characters you really like -- that way if they're trying to be interesting to you, then they have some cues to go on as to what might work.

    Of course, this is different (one hopes) than just making other people's characters into characters you yourself might want to play. How different it is probably depends on how well you know your fellow players, and what interests you about them. For example, I might have no particular interest in portraying a religious character, but maybe one of my fellow-players has some really interesting ideas about spirituality and religion that I would really like to see her explore in-game. Sometimes other players play much more interesting versions of characters you would normally find boring -- sometimes there's something about that player that you find interesting personally, and so any time it comes up through their character it will have this extra point of interest for you. I guess this last bit relates to the question TonyLB has posed -- to be honest, I don't think there's a very big difference between making yourself-while-playing-a-character interesting to other players and playing characters that are interesting to other players. Being interesting to other players in other situations (gaming or otherwise) is something else entirely.
  • Posted By: coffeestain
    Are you going to start a thread?
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