On Monday I talked about what it was that made me love some of my more recent characters but merely only "really like" others. The answer came down to Goals and Motivations vs. goals and motivations. Ikoma Mesutsume had the Goal of being a better spear fighter than her father and earning his recognition. Ikoma Sasayaki had the goal of being a capable bushi able to do he rjob. See the difference? Both wanted to be good fighters, and if they fought they likely would have come to a stand still due to their capabilities, but ultimately victory would probably go to Mesutsume because she would want it more. In other words, Mesutsume was driven to achieve something great - surpassing her father. Sasayaki was motivated to be competent and strong, but was vague on anything beyond that.
Goals/Motivations Define Characters
When we look at characters they are often defined by their Goals, goals, Motivations, and motivations. Obviously the stronger the goal/motivation the stronger it defines someone. This is one of the reasons why characters like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man talk to so many on such a strong level. Their motivations are so strong (to prevent anyone else from suffering as he did, to inspire mankind to its greatest potential, and to do the right thing with the powers he has) that they can speak to us, and they do speak to us through every action the character takes.
With Spider-Man we know what he will do in almost any situation, and we know what it will cost him, and yet we'll watch anyway because we need to see how it plays out. Spider-Man is a character who would run out of his best friend's wedding reception because someone was being robbed at gunpoint down the street and would then deal with the repercussions of his actions all the while suffering but knowing he would do it again because it was the right thing to do. Batman and Superman would likely do the same thing, but in different ways and for different reasons.
How does this apply to your table top characters? Well, simply put the goals and motivations of your character will define them. Sometimes this will be in small ways and sometimes in large ways, but it makes a huge difference in how the character is portrayed. To use Mesutsume and Sasayaki again as an example: any time I was asked "what are you doing?" with Mesutsume the answer was almost always "training." With Sasayaki the answer could be one of a dozen things. Why? Because Mesutsume's Goal was to get stronger and so she worked at it constantly. Sasayaki...less so.
Remember It Is A Team Book...
Reading through this and the last post a lot of it seems to be me saying to choose an area and put all of your character in there. Some of you may be balking that you like more nuanced characters. That is ok. In fact it is good. Three dimensional characters are always the goal. However, remember that a table top RPG is not a solo-adventure comic book. You aren't playing "The Amazing Spider-Man" or "Batman" you are playing "The Avengers" or "The Justice League."
The point is, a table top RPG is a team book. Your character won't get the level of nuanced attention you would in a solo work, and so to make your character stronger it is beneficial to focus on a small range of aspects for the character. Batman family members in team books are usually the tactitian/leader while Superman is more the moral support/heavy hitter. Wonder Woman on the other hand plays a supporting "second tactician/heavy hitter" quite frequently and as such never really gets the same love that Bats and Supes get. For similar reasons Hulk frequently outshines Thor in the Avengers. They're both terrifying bruisers, but in the end Hulk is Strongest There Is and Thor is just a god.
At The Table
Going back to the Mesutsume and Sasayaki example above, and remembering an RPG is a team book, what did I get out of Mesutsume's constant training? Well, for one it was known at the table that Mesutsume was always working on her combat focus. It helped cement the issue of Mesu being the "ace" for the team. It also focused the character around that aspect. Social interaction with Mesutsume was more interesting because there was this strong support column of Mesu's Goals/Motivations for the conversation to hinge on. Failures were felt more strongly. Successes were that much sweeter. Certain characters took it as a challenge to meet her expectations. Others wanted to show her up. It didn't take over the game, but the area of the game that focused on Mesutsume had this very strong lens, set up by the character, in which to be viewed by.
Other parts of Mesu also came through this. The solitude/loneliness she felt was a cost paid to achieve her goal which in turn made it more bearable as a player and more tragic as a story teller. By the mid point of Mesu's life she was torn by the conflict of wanting to be apart of the group as family and friend, but needing the time that could foster that to keep training to both be better than her father some day and to live up to the expectations the group had for her. It made her tale heroic and yet sad and tragic in a way. It was an awesome story held by an awesome character. Yes, the dice and the other players contributed, but a lot of what made Mesutsume the Mesutsume I love was entirely in my control.
Contrast this with Sasayaki who was also a distant/lonley character in her way, also highly lethal, and yet didn't have anything to really grab on to or focus her story on. Sasayaki was lethal but it wasn't what defined her. She was reverent and had magical gifts that should not have been possible...but those didn't define her either. She cared for her family and supported her brother, but that didn't define her. In the end Sasayaki was a wonderful person. The game she was in was full of moments that could have made her a character to be talked about for years and years. Everything was there for her to be a great character, except she didn't want something hard enough for it to define her.
In a single person story Sasayaki likely could've been great, but in a team book she was just one of the members that was there, that likely would have had fans and people that really liked her (people like me) but ultimately never generated much interest outside of the team book.
On Friday I'm going to end this theme with some advice on how to bring out some aspects of your character to the front and center, how it can help both you and your GM, and - with luck - how it will be getting applied to some of the characters I currently have in play.