Character: What's In The Word?
I came home the other day, for some R&R, and noticing my "home" (in contrast to my "away") group was ready for my (violent if anything) Gaming, I thought I might get some ideas from my past campaigns of AD&D. So, there I was, flipping away at the folder of memories, where I keep stored all my characters and evil ideas (both tried-out and new), and I noticed something that made me think.
I came home the other day, for some R&R, and noticing my "home" (in contrast to my "away") group was ready for my (violent if anything) Gaming, I thought I might get some ideas from my past campaigns of AD&D. So, there I was, flipping away at the folder of memories, where I keep stored all my characters and evil ideas (both tried-out and new), and I noticed something that made me think: All my characters were permeated by a somethingness that made you read them and think: "Yeah, duh... Of course it's one of his characters... Can't you tell?". That made me question myself yet again, in a typically Socratic style: How does one make a character, and why does one's character act like she does?
When we design a character, what do we aim to achieve? What makes a character we have designed desirable to us to play, or not? A simple way to put it, is we design a character so we can expedite in an imaginary (and, indeed, ideal) world what we would wish reality to be. Whoa! Hold on there! You're saying my Ravenloft campaign is "idealized"? Yes, kind reader, and I implore you to view the wider picture: Is it not an ideal world, one where friends all band together, and succeed in whatever they do? In RPGs, you'll notice, the goal in general is to strive for what you want, and to suffer as much as is enjoyable to the player, but ultimately, be rewarded with success. So, since we see that the world is already in a sense ideal, would it not be fitting if the people who roam it were ideal in the same exactly dimension?
I noticed from my own experience that what you desire to play depends quite decisively on your general emotional state at the time. When I started-off, I was full of fire, and I wanted to leave an impression, so I played an extremely-low charisma antisocial sylvan-elf, with too much muscle-power and dexterity, and way too little general usefulness. When I was going through a very difficult exam period (incidentally I was having trouble with my love-life), I found myself playing a human monk of the god of suffering (Illmater for the FR buffs), with so many healing-based skills that he was a walking clinic. Could this mean that at this point in my life I was feeling hurt, or that what I desired inside was some healing?
By now, you might be wondering "why am I reading this?" and thinking that publishing my sad life is my secret perversion, or my way of screaming to the world that I need therapy. It is not, however, that simple: What I'm trying to explain is that in a RPG, we try to be (read: Role-play) the avatar of our ego-ideal (more details by a Mr. S. Freud). The ego-ideal is the image we have in our mind of what we would be in a perfect world. Not to be confused with the super-ego, which is implanted in our minds by our parents during childhood, the ego-ideal is completely a manufacture of our own mind and set of values. Look at all the players you know, they all exhibit characteristics that are omnipresent, despite their playing many different characters. To prove this point, I'll cite a few cliches, and you try and see if you recognize them:
The silent guy who is definitely most likely to become an axe-murderer later in life will always play a broken character, probably a mage, or a psionic. The flamboyant twit who can't stop chattering and insists on being the center of attention, will play a bard, or any other role that does little useful except annoy others. The guilt-ridden guy will play a cleric, doctor, telepath or other non-destructive kind of person, and the order-obsessed police-officer will always be the paladin, detective, commander or samurai. (No offence meant to the above. I myself am an antisocial savage elf in most of my free time.)
What all these players, and indeed all of us are trying to do, is role-play what we wish we were, but can't be in real life. What we crave to be called in life is what we are heralded as in the roles we play. Nobody plays what they are; everybody wants to play the only thing they wish they were, even if in truth they would never do it given the chance (I doubt many of us would be up to being cyber-mercenaries, or even more so, barbarians. Especially half-orc ones. With axes. And funny accents.).
Have you noticed how some players, and probably you too, have a stack of characters, but only a few of them are important to them? You must have seen players with cherished and loved characters they absolutely loved to play but don't any more. You're probably thinking that they love them because they symbolize many fun-filled times and countless hours of enjoyment, and not all the jargon I'm hosing you with. You'll be impressed to find that this much is true! Have you ever wondered why they never play them any more? Why they always speak so fondly of the times they had as so-and-so-the-something-or-other, and reminisce of the amazing adventures and near-death experiences, but never pick up the sheet and dice to become them again?
It's because the ego-ideal the character symbolizes is one that the player can't relate to any more. In layplayer's terms, it's a wannabe they don't wana-be. They can't relate to them, in the same way anybody has trouble relating to another players avatar, and so they feel out of their skin "being" them. Maybe something made them change their outlook on life, or something important shook their belief in something they were very sure about. Maybe their mind has evolved into new ideas and concepts, and finds the concerns they had back then trivial and unimportant. This is especially pronounced with younger players, whose mind is evolving constantly from a childish outlook to an adult one and is characterized by rapid changes in both emotion and values in general. Make a little more sense now?
What's the moral of this story? RPG character designing is more restrictive than you think. Not at all a bad thing, mind you, because the only thing limiting your imagination (and indeed, your will to play), is your mind's craves and wishes, not the game's mechanics. Next time you're Gaming though, and a player wants to be something that doesn't fit in, don't give her a hard time. It's not nice to clamp-down on a player's character-design and core-concept, because apart from being a creation of hers, the player is also a symbol of what she wants to be. She'll feel happy when her avatar succeeds, and sad when she fails, but she will be definitely struck if you force her to change the behavior or characteristics of her character.
Bottom line? Don't let anybody tell your character how to behave. He's your soul's avatar, and equally sacred as you.