I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, and mostly about myself as a player rather than as a GM. I often come away from games - the whole game I mean, not necessarily an individual session - wondering if I actually got what I wanted out of the character. See, I'm generally looking for something when I play a character, but I don't always know what that thing is. I've noticed it a lot more especially of late. My characters aren't quite doing it for me the way I hoped they would. It's not that I don't like them, but I don't love them and that is an interesting problem to have.
The Last Characters I Loved...
My first thought when I realized this issue was to go back over the last few characters I loved and find out what it was about them that made me love them. There's a large list of characters here for a topic starting with "last" but that's mostly because I usually have a fair number of characters in play at the same time. So what is the list?
Ikoma Mesutsumi, William Hydesmythe, Ikoma Sendou, Cassandra MacPhearson, Hitomi Akigara, and Bayushi Kyoshin.
Six characters. Three males (William, Sendou, and Kyoshin.) Three females (Mesutsumi, Cassandra, and Akigara.) Altogether they cover a period of gaming that spanned about 2-3 years and happened about 2-3 years ago. Three of the characters were RPed most extensively online (Cassandra, Akigara, Sendou.) Three are exlusively table top characters (Mesutsumi, William, Kyoshin.)
One place where they are different is that four of the characters are from L5R, but I don't think that is necessarily telling (beyond the fact I like Japanese-esque stuff) because L5R is also the game I've played the most over the past six years or so.
Who Were These People
Nothing super obvious is popping out from the list, so who were these people?
Mesutsumi was a lion bushi with a character type I'd define as the 'ace.' She was driven to be a better spear fighter than her father and constantly striving to prove her worth. William Hydesmythe was the wealthy third son of a noble family and captain of his own air shape. He was,in essence, a force of nature and even with little screen time his name was used on numerous occasions by others as a means of getting what they wanted. William was driven to live life his own way and wanted those around him to be able to do the same. Sendou was a tactician that due to a training injury. Sendou was driven to see the Lion clan succeed, the Empire thrive, and to prove he was still of value.
Three in and there is already a theme: driven. Mesutsumi is driven to beat her dad. William is driven to hold on to his freedom. Sendou is driven to support his clan/empire. But does it apply to the others? Both Akigara and Kyoshin had driven on their sheet as a flaw (Akigara to be the strongest in the world, Kyoshin to follow orders/protect the scorpion clan.) That's five characters, but what about Cassandra?
It is hard to say if Cassandra was really driven by anything. She was/is a super strong invulnerable brute that, in most incarnations, didn't really think about tomorrow. If I had to describe her mental attitude it would be "Won't take any $&#* and doesn't afraid of anybody!" Which, to be honest, sounds a lot like William Hydesmythe.
Is Obsession The Key?
I use the word Driven very specifically. I've always liked the flaw in L5R. What it is is a 3 point disadvantage that states: there is some task or goal that you will sacrifice anything to accomplish. Matters of friendship, honor, family, and/or anything else simply don't matter when it comes to this goal.
So, for example, if Kyoshin was ordered to kill himself by someone authorized to give him that order, the character would immediately kill himself. If he was ordered to turn over his gear he would. If he was ordered to kill a party member he would. If a party member got in the way of Kyoshin completing his mission/orders he would do whatever had to be done to ensure his orders were complete- and yes, this almost led to me PKing another player on several occasions.
Now only two ofthe six characters actually had the flaw on their sheet, but that is what I mean when I say driven. A goal that the character works towards tirelessly and at great personal sacrifice. Really though, that would be the trick now wouldn't it?
Goals and Motivations
What separated Ikoma Sasayaki from Ikoma Mesutsume when it came down to it? Both were lion bushi, both were very talented and lethal fighters, but why did one grab me and not let go in a way that the other could only dream of? Mesutsume had Goals and Motivations while Sasayaki merely had goals and motivations. Not to say that there weren't things Sasayaki would give everything to do/prevent/protect, but those things were things that were in effect hard to threaten or it simply didn't come up in the right way to rear its ugly head.
It is the same problem with several characters that I have right now, both in writing and in play. Characters, the ones that really grab people, are the ones who have Goals and Motivations with big honking capital letters. That's not always easy to provide. Some characters may not ever have them and can still be a lot of fun. Still, it is something to look for, no?