Monday, November 29, 2010

Deviance is Essential for Good Characters

How good of a main character for a novel would you be? Now sure, I'll bet that some of you are nodding along, looking over your life, and thinking you'd make a pretty good main character, or at least a fun supporting cast member, for a story. For most of us though, we wouldn't be very good characters at all, and you know why? Because we're not very interesting people. Now, I'm not trying to be insulting here, but most of us didn't stray very far from what was expected of us. We followed the rules, went to school, got a job, and live our lives by walking down that big, broad, straight path that society has laid out for us. There's no hook, no draw, and no pull. At best we could be the 'normal' person that the reader is supposed to relate to, and used as the introduction to a far fetched and fantastical world. So, why do you need to know this? Well, to make good characters as a Player, to make good NPCs as a GM, and to write good characters as an Author, you need to understand that interesting characters are good characters, and that the way to become interesting is to deviate from the norm.

Deviance is used in a lot of ways, and one of the more likely ways that you've heard of it is in calling someone a deviant. This is often used as an insult, but in actuality the word basically just means different. Homosexuals are deviant, because their sexuality does not lie along the societally accepted norm of heterosexuality. Cross dressers are deviant, because they dress in a way that is not viewed as 'normal'. The kid who breaks the rules at school, smokes in the boys room, cheats on tests, and never does his/her homework is a deviant, because they don't follow the rules and behaviors laid out for a normal student. Now, deviant can also mean bad things. Thieves, murderers, and other law breakers are all deviants, because they do not follow societies rules.

Now, here is the catch. There is something about deviance that tends to fascinate people. I mean, what is more interesting? The guy who does his 9-5 job every day, buys groceries, and pays his taxes; or the girl who drops off the grid and makes a living for herself hustling pool at the local tavern? Odds are you said the second one, because by straying from the norm she becomes different, and there are things we don't know about things that are different. Hell, it is why we call them different! Fact is though, humans are inherently curious creatures, and so when faced with something that is different we become intrigued. Why does it do that? Why are they like that? What motivates them? Why did they stray from the beaten path? Once you have your audience asking those questions, you've got them hooked.

So, rereading what I wrote above, I could re-write it like this. "The way to make your character a good one, is to make them different." The problem with this though, is that once people see a deviation that they like, they tend to copy it. Soon, what was once interesting is tired and over used, it has become cliche. For example you need look no further than Drizzt Do'Urden. When R.A. Salvatore made Drizzt, the concept of a "Good" Drow was not very prevalent. Needless to say a Drow ranger that wielded two scimitars, was trained by a blind man, and had purple eyes. I mean, that sounds fairly unique. Only now, you can't throw a stone in a fantasy role playing community without hitting at least three good dark elves with purple eyes that fight with twin scimitars. The character was cool, and so it was emulated by its fans, and then eventually it was essentially done to death. Now, when you say you want to play a good drow, let a lone a fighter type, most people just roll their eyes and go "Oh god, another Drizzt clone".

Need another example? Sure, point out to me how many Jedi or Sith used a double saber before Darth Maul? How many wielded two light sabers before Anakin was shown doing it in Attack of the Clones? The deviance got popular, and then done to the point of becoming a cliche.

The thing is, you don't need to be afraid of cliches. Being aware of them is fine, but don't be afraid of them. Sad fact is, almost everything is cliche now, and I only say almost because I don't like using absolutes. There is only something like 36 dramatic plots in the entirety of the world's stories. Think about that, thousands of years of telling stories, 36 plots. So, what is really important - and what you should take away from this - is that you put your own twist onto the cliche. Yes, that twist may have been done before, but no where near as much as the core idea itself.

Normal as Deviance
It is question time again. Going over all the stories you've read over the years, all the games you've ran, and all the character's you've made. How many characters have lost their family in some horrible accident, or had them outright murdered? How many characters have had their whole people wiped out, or otherwise been made an outcast from their home? How many female warriors have been beaten, raped, and otherwise horribly mistreated for no reason other than being female? Now, on the personal level. How many times have you been in game, or some other role playing format, where you have the orphan raised as an assassin, the warrior raised by wolves, the magic user who was stolen from their family at a young age to learn their art, and the noble who is out to stop a curse that will doom their family?

I'm guessing it is a fair amount. Sure, maybe not those exact things, but people do have an inherent understanding that 'different = interesting', and so when making their characters tend to go for broke on the 'special' scale. This is particularly true, or at least was when I played in them, of the rules-less online arenas of chat rooms, and occasionally true for RPGs where the GM is letting people start at levels higher than basic starting characters. So, what do you do in those situations when you want your character to stand out? It's simple really, when everyone is deviant, than the deviant thing to do is to be normal.

In that sea of half dragons, orphan assassins, and wolf-raised swordswomen, what could be more intriguing than the normal person who left his family on the farm, not because he had to but because he had a feeling of wanderlust, and it is only on the road that he finds he has the sterner stuff to become one of the truer heroes of the world?


  1. Making characters both semi realistic and interesting can be so difficult.

  2. It's funny to note now that characters with normal, living families have become the norm for me, simply as a reaction to the plethora of traumatized orphans out there in RPG land.

  3. Good article. Always interesting to be reminded of things like this. It is an argument I have made before that it is much more difficult to take an 'off the shelf' character concept and play it well than it is play an 'exotic'.

    The 'exotic' is packed with obvious mannerisms and plot hooks and you can just play with the big, obvious personality traits. Playing the dwarven fighter Joe Axebeard VII of the Steel Cliff Axebeards you do not have any of those easy outs for roleplaying. You have to think about what make Joe special? Why is he out adventuring rather than working the the local Axebeard weapons and armor emporium?

  4. Glad you like it Seaofstars.

    Anarkeith, I have to agree. While I have begun to dip my toes in the 'strange' again, a number of my characters have been very normal just because of all the weirdness. My favorite being the fighter who found his father's armor/sword in the basement, and was suddenly struck with a fancy to go out adventuring so went and did it. Only to then find out that it's not like in the stories at all.

    I think he ended up being one of my better characters because he was just a normal guy with a bit of wanderlust, a bit of naivete, and a whole lot of heart.