Salutations, nerds, today we're going to talk a little bit about introducing new characters and how a character's first contact with your audience sets them up. Mind you we are not talking do's and don't's. There are some things you can do that will make an audience instantly dislike a character (and you don't even have to resort to kicking a puppy!) but that are still useful as long as you are aware of what you are evoking in the people reading your words.
Now, obviously yes I am talking to you writers out there in the audience. I'm also talking to the RPers. Oh my yes, the RPers. It doesn't matter if you're para, chat stream, RPing on World of Warcraft...well, it kind of matters at the D&D table but not as much as the rest of these things.
Your first introduction of your character is like a real life first impression. In a novel, that is going to be the first time they come on stage for most of your readers. The very first thing you show them doing. We are going to talk about that.
We're going to start somewhere else, however, because for RPers, the first contact with a character is often throughout the design process. You would think that this couldn't possibly annoy other people, but that is your first fatal mistake.
Pre-Play and the Brainstorm
You have a new character in mind. You are excited. You bring it to your RP group (or possibly your writing group, I guess this is something that could happen) and start sound boarding or excitedly rambling about this character.
I'm going to call you back to Charisma on Command for a minute; this guy. Worth watching. Makes a lot of Game of Thrones references, and studies social interactions like a lot of us study plot lines. He is the master, go and listen to what he has to say. But specifically I'm talking about his four emotions you have to hit to make people like you.
The very first thing is to make other people have fun.
Oh hell yes this applies to characters.
Do not start with a laundry list of physical descriptions. Do not start with how bad ass your character is. (No really please don't start with how bad ass your character is, no one will believe you and they'll hate them.)
Likable: Start with something accessible and humanizing.
If you draw your characters show them not just standing there, but doing something that interests them. Show them tired. Show them enraged. Show THEM, not just their bodies. Does your character collect stamps? Is he really into cooking? Does she love horses more than anything else? If you want people to like this character the first thing you have to do is show them something fun about them.
For an RP, this job is doubly difficult because you have to pick something people are going to want to interact with. At every turn you should be asking yourself, 'is this something the other players are going to have fun with or is it only fun for me', and if the answer is the latter you are making a very large mistake my friend.
Find something your character can do or be into that other people want on board with. Even if that thing is your character having a constant case of the sour grapes. You'd be surprised how much people love to RP arguments. The characters might not like your character but the players sure will.
PS, that's okay. Some characters are not going to be liked ICly, and the audience will love them and it is super important to let that happen and not take it personally.
Dislikable: Start with their powers and abilities, or with something tragic in their backstory.
Okay listen. I don't care about your mindless killing machine. I really don't.
I'm about to get brutally honest here, buckle up. It's going to make you a better character writer.
People love to see characters suffer. It brings us closer to them. If your suffering and horrible things are in your backstory you are a cheater.
There, I said it.
People care the least about what your character can do and they care very little about things they have no potential to change. It is not only tacky to have your character come in with past baggage that the other characters in the RP or the story then have to clean up, it's actually unfair. The point of RP is not to make other people take care of you.
I never again want to hear somebody's character stand there in the middle of public angsting about being a fucking contract killer. Like first of all what is wrong with you that you're oversharing that much in public and second of all why hasn't your character been arrested right now if their idea of casual conversation is "I've killed a dozen men"? Get off your soap box and go learn how people actually behave.
No seriously, I've just gotten to the point that when a character does that (you would be surprised how often they do that!) mine just doesn't believe them. I mean, if it happened irl I wouldn't believe them either.
People can really like to see drawings of characters, especially ones that give some idea of who the character is and not just what they look like. Playlists can be nice too, but I'm definitely never going to click on one unless I already care about the character and if all I know about them is that they have powers and a tragic past (especially if you went into painstaking detail about what that tragic past that I'm never going to get to see and enjoy was) I'm hella not clicking it.
Extras are good. Make me care about the character first. Cause you know what else just kills things and feels nothing? Guns. I don't care about guns at all and if the gun is whining it becomes an active annoyance.
In Character - The Real First Contact
So either you're a writer who skipped the development part of the blog entry (totally fine) or you've just reached 'actual in character screen time' via reading (woo!) but either way you're here. We're going to jump now, into your character's first steps onto the stage.
Likable: For a Protagonist
People want their protagonists to be capable and proactive. You can make do with just one of these if you want. Basically, the character should want something very badly and be taking measures to get it. The more they want this thing, the more we want them to get it. The less they're getting of this thing, the more we want them to get it. The better they are at doing whatever it is they do, the higher the odds stacked against them have to be. Good. Do that.
Your first scene with your protagonist should feature them doing something, making progress towards getting what they want. Show me who they are. If their introduction is on a battlefield and you show them dragging a half-dead soldier through fire and blood to a safe place, only to lose them when they get there, they are still a hero. They are still the kind of person that risks their life for another being.
If you show them shooting a hostage so the villain can't use them as leverage (oh this one is tricky to make a good thing; you have to build it super carefully) I'm going to assume your character is a sociopath and/or pragmatist.
Likable: For a Supporting Character
I'm going to make this quick; supporting characters probably shouldn't be swooping in to save the day unless that's legitimately their role in the story. If you're doing a straight up hero's journey I guess it's okay for the mentor to do this. Just realize that when you have a character swoop in and save the day you are designating them as a management type character and from that moment on people will want to see them relegated to giving quests.
Harry doesn't take Dumbledore on adventures with him.
This is why Shakespeare killed off Mercutio. Stay in your lane, supporting bro, you're not the main dude.
Likable: For a Roleplay Character
I once had a friend complain that every time he brought a new character in he felt like he had to kind of 'prove' them before people would interact with them and like them the way he wanted. My response was.... 'well yes, duh'.
RP is entertainment. I know you're doing it to be entertained, but you also have to be entertaining. You have to prove that your character is worth interacting with. You have to make your partner have fun. That means checking in and asking how your driving is. That means adding conflict and friction.
My dude, if you're not good at character against character kind of conflict, it is totally okay for you to run NPC mobs to fight or have an NPC putting pressure on the situation. That kind of conflict is fine, it's just harder to manage.
But there should be conflict. Bring them conflict (that they are allowed to interact with!) and they will love you.
That they are allowed to interact with, you may be asking? Yeah. You'd be surprised how many times you'll be in the middle of an RP and someone brings in a villain and then are like "yeah okay but they have to get away unscathed only my character can kill them".
And everybody understands and they let it happen but let me tell you they are all sulking on the inside. They're playing this game so their characters can do stuff not so they can watch.
PS, that's why starting in really heavy on how bad ass your new character is sucks. Because that's cool and all, but we don't have any interest in watching that new character of yours do awesome stuff. If they can do everything there's really no room for our characters to fit, and so we don't care. And we shouldn't.
Dislikable: Tell Me All About It
This has no excuse. Do not spend a page telling me how bad ass your character is or what things they've done in the past because I do not care. Your character's past exists to give context to their current actions, I have seen them do nothing so they don't get to ride the coat tails of work you haven't done.
Just assume, if you're telling me about how awesome this character is, I skipped it in favor of something that shows me who they actually are. If that never happens I probably didn't finish reading your story or I'm not going to interact with your PC.
Dislikable: For Contempt
Everybody hates a coward. You start a character off hiding under their desk while something goes down, we'll feel for them but some of those feelings are going to be contemptuous. If your character blackmails, rapes or steals from people who can't afford to lose it, we're going to judge them hard core.
Characters can get away with a lot of bad things without evoking contempt, if they do it with a spine. And of course how you show this matters, but as a general rule courage is respectable.
Dislikable: For a Villain
Kick a puppy.
Alright we're done here.
Kidding. Kidding. No seriously, I'm actually in the process of figuring villains out properly myself at the moment but what I've realized is that the thing the protagonist really wants? The villain is the person standing in the way of that. Even if they aren't a bad person.
Introduce your villain seducing the person your protagonist is in love with. Introduce your villain with a petition in hand to stop your character from building the arena they want. Introduce your villain wanting the same thing your protagonist does, and only one of them can get it.
A Quick Note on Role Play Interactions
This applies to both new characters and old characters that have been away for a long time:
Remember that your characters are basically talking to a bunch of strangers. Even if we out of character know what they have been through, the characters do not. They are at base zero and will judge your character accordingly.
Do not have your character say something and expect it to hold a lot of weight. No, no one is going to care on your very first day that you want to kill the prisoner. No, no one is going to care on your very first day that you were offended by some minor thing Charles said (though this could be some good fuel to make the players like your character if you're willing to sacrifice the characters liking them to do it). You have to build up some good will if you want to cash it in. They are going to side with their friends over a stranger, end of story.
If you find yourself floundering, stop and remind yourself that your character isn't you. The stakes aren't nearly that high. Feel out where you need to lean in, and do it.
Whew. Okay. So that's that. I'll probably come back and talk more about backstory later. No promises. <3
Megan R. Miller