LS-RP is an immersive world we all escape into from our good/bad, boring/exciting lives for a thrill we wouldn’t get anywhere else. The immersion of the world we enter comes from us assuming characters we aren’t in the real life. Roleplaying has a lot in common with other escapist, mimesis-like media that came before it. In a way, roleplaying is drama. You get a similar premise: various characters (character) overcoming obstacles (conflict) keeping them from achieving their goals (resolution). This similarity is convenient to us, as we can use various writings on drama from the past and examine them for our purpose. As an aspiring screenwriter I’ve done some (not nearly enough) homework on character, conflict and storytelling and I can share with you some of the stuff I’ve found useful in my roleplaying.
The information I got for this guide comes mainly from two books I’ve read: Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing and Aristotle’s Poetics. Both are pretty damn good for screenwriting, roleplaying and hell, living a more conscious life. I recommend them to you for reading in your spare time.
Back to drama. In it, you see, you, the author, are the sole creator of the world you’re presenting; you’re out to prove a point, or you wish to deliver aesthetic awe to the audience. Whatever your premise might be, you handpick your characters, your conflict and your environment according to one criterion: driving the plot to the resolution you’ve chosen. Roleplaying challenges this. You only select your character. The environment, plot and conflict (for the one which you don’t initiate; more on that later) are given to you and you’re expected to react. Here is where the importance of properly developing your character lies.
Your character is the only contribution to the world you enter. If you want to be successful in it and enjoy it to the fullest, you better make sure that your contribution is a worthwhile one.
Part I: Developing a Believable Character
I’m sure you’re aware of this idea, that when you start a new character you need to have a plan for him. It’s elementary, isn’t it? Even the LS-RP User Control Panel requires you to write a background story for your new Los Santos resident. So from the get-go you’re familiarized with this idea, that whatever it is that you want to do with your character, you need to create for him a story. A background. Something that lasts and defines him. You need to create for him a personality. But what exactly is a personality? What makes us who we are? That’s a question many have been debating for a long time and we won’t delve into that. What we’re after is a way to create a personality that by all accounts seems real. It’s not real - we know it very well. But that's not what we're after. We want a character who only seems like a real, living and breathing human being and we merely want to avoid anything that might break this illusion.
You might have some idea of how a proper character is made. You want your character to be realistic and to achieve that, you think, you need him to have flaws. So you go about creating your Johnny DiScarpio and in a moment of insight, you decide him to be a drug addict. You want this to be his edge: he’s a loose cannon, he’s unpredictable and a total fuck-up without his dose. There’s no error in your thinking so far, but then comes the execution. You want to introduce others to this idea of what your character really is and so what do you do? You take screenshots of him taking his shots and put them up on the forum. You show him going through the horror of withdrawing. The problem with that, though, is that nobody cares. Look: I don’t care what you want me to think of your character. I’ll scroll right through your screenshots without paying them much mind. Yet still, as a roleplayer, you are a storyteller. As that, it is your duty to know these things about your character despite the fact, that I’ll promptly ignore you telling me about them. You know why? Here’s a quote that has changed my approach to screenwriting, storytelling and roleplaying dramatically. It goes like this:
Character. Incident. Two such important concepts in roleplaying. You have your character and his existence is defined by incidents, as in things that happen to him, the way he responds to them and the things he makes happen. Now we see a clear connection between the two and the answer to our initial question of "what is character?" is right in front of us. Character, or personality is what defines the incidents your character creates. Incident is what illuminates your character’s personality to others. I see incidents. Through incidents I shape my own vision of your character and it’s the outside observer’s vision, that matters - not yours.
To apply it to the Johnny DiScarpio example from above: I don’t want you to tell me that your character is a drug addict. I want to deduct it myself from the actions he shows me. I want the incidents he creates to illuminate that part of his character for me. See the difference? I want LS-RP to be an open book for me, with as much space for personal observations and conclusions as possible. That’s the fun stuff about playing with strong, rich characters: the fascination, the discovery.
But how does one make such characters? Let’s see.
So you’ve got your character’s story written for the LS-RP application. If you’ve put a little effort, it got accepted. If you’re ambitious, you might try to follow up on it as you’re playing and behave as you think your character would, given his background. But in doing this, you’re walking in the dark. You don’t really know what makes a character realistic and what declassifies him as such and you don't know how background governs behaviour. If you’re ambitious, you might try using a character sheet. As in, you write down key elements about your character on a delivered form.
Most character sheets out there seem to put too much emphasis on the cold, observable facts about a character. His height, weight, eye colour, age, etc. I'll show you another quote which makes an important distinction between the two elements of character.
In this one, Aristotle, besides agreeing with Henry James on the character—incident dynamic, makes an important observation which can easily be lost among so many words. He describes a “living persona” as a sum of two parts: QUALITIES OF CHARACTER and QUALITIES OF THOUGHT. Further analysis of his work might explain, that by these two he means consecutively: how a person appears to others (qualities of character) and what’s going on inside his head and behind his decision-making and opinion-building (qualities of thought). We already know what character is; Mr. James had told us a few paragraphs above. Now Aristotle himself ascends from the ashes just for us and tells us how character is made. How nice is that?
Building on this idea, I've come to develop a few concepts, consideration of which is, I've noticed, crucial in building a character. The first is a no-brainer and it’s that a character is dichotomous: he consists of his physicality and his psychology. Both of these consist of traits that are either consistencies or variables. A consistency is a persistent trait that illuminates itself in every situation a character is in, every decision he makes. A variable is a trait that only has a chance (higher or lower) of affecting our actions or the way In which we’re perceived to others. Lastly, I divide the variables (not consistencies) into: positive or negative.
1) Physicality - Psychology
You get the idea. Physicality of a character is how he appears to the outside world. Psychology is what goes on inside your character’s head and behind his decision-making process. So far it all seems like common knowledge; complications come in the following distinction.
2) Consistencies - Variables
Now here’s an important one. As I’ve said, consistencies follow your character wherever he goes. Variables only have a chance of revealing themselves. Let’s now discuss, in following order: consistencies and variables of physicality and consistencies and variables of psychology.
a) Consistencies and variables of physicality
Consitencies are the physical traits of your character - not the whole picture of him, but what he’s given at birth or through whatever permanently alters his appearance. His height, his weight, a missing tooth, a scar on the left cheek - all the things your character can’t change about himself (or can’t easily change).
Variables, on the other hand, are his habits that have to do with his outside appearance. Your character might tend to dress well. He might have a habit of not brushing his teeth in the morning, giving him a rancid reek from his mouth. The way he talks - a cocky jerk of lip as he ends his words? Having the habit of making his questions sound like statements, or statements like questions? Does he tend to stutter? Or does he speak the Queen's English? All of these traits are variables of your character’s physicality. Your job is to make these up and assign priorities to them; how high a chance there is for each of them to manifest themselves. Your guy may only sometimes don an Armani suit or walk around in it at any given opportunity, or anything inbetween. Figure the frequency of your variables out before you get playing.
b) Consistencies and variables of psychology
This one is new so it needs a little more explaining. See, our psychology in character development is a thing that affects your character's decision-making, the way he percieves and assigns meaning to other people and their actions and what shapes his point of view. Each of these processes are governed by traits that have developed in characters through what happened to them throughout their lives. Here lies the importance of building your character's background story. When you write your character's story you must only look at facts that have shaped him. Skip the non-important stuff. We'll scratch the surface of how background and psychology relate to each other but it's a very broad topic for a different field of expertise, which, if you're serious (or certifiably insane) enough about your character, you could research yourself. But as I've said, I'll give you the ropes later on.
So. Consistencies and variables. Consistencies are the traits that make up your character's permanent worldview. These are the general guidelines for you to consider in the day-to-day activities of your character and that you should always keep in mind. Let's say you're roleplaying a white supremacist - one of his consistencies is that all races are inferior to his and it'll almost always show through his interactions with other people. A young kid from the ghetto might take in a quote uttered by Al Pacino in Brian DePalma's Scarface as his motto: "In this country, first you get the money. Then you get the power and THEN you get the women." He'll strive for money and power, he'll seek respect and demand it to be given to him. This need will govern most of his actions and serve as a point of reference in the dilemmas he will be facing: "will this drive my closer to money? Will it give me power and respect?"
Can consistencies change in your character's lifetime? Maybe. It's up to you to decide how very deep-rooted your character’s consistencies are. A consistency of your character might change through long-term transformation. A path he walks in his life might turn his attention to the perils of his ways. Take Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah and the transformation of the Roberto character (left on the photo). A psychological consistency may suddenly break under a highly intensive and insightful situation a character is placed in - take Edward Norton in Tony Kaye’s American History X. Sometimes a single situation might show to your character, that what he took as his core belief wasn’t a consistency after all: a pick-up artist falls for a girl so bad, that he suddenly imagines himself being the responsible head of the family for her. A change of consistencies is often a theme for more mature works of entertainment, such as drama or film. Think such character arc is beyond your scope? Aim high. Who knows where developing your character might take you.
And now the variables. Psychological variables of your characters are the things that aren't as deep rooted as consistencies. They can be the little quirks of your character: like how he sometimes might feel a slight anxiety around a large group of people and this discomfort might cloud his judgement to the point where he may attribute absurd meaning to people's gestures and it'll affect his behaviour - "fuck's this guy laughing about? I'll wipe that smirk off his face". Not all the times - some times. They can also be deep-rooted parts of his personality, but such that only manifest themselves when they are randomly triggered in a particular situation. Like a mob guy, who tends to be a friendly and out-going sort of man but can turn sadistic at an almost random moment and completely contradict the image he normally sends across. Ever heard a serial killer being being described as a "nice, quiet man" by his neighbours? We are all full of contradictions, and it's not an empty phrase; embrace it.
During the situations you take part in while roleplaying, it's up to your decision which variable of your character might get triggered. On one occasion, you'll be faced with an insubordinate soldier of your gang and act easy on him and at another, that same soldier will trigger a sadist in your character and all hell will break loose on him. And it's okay, as long as the tendency to blow up sometimes for obscure reasons is a variable planned by you for your character. Check this for how a trivial situation triggered a variable in a person.
3) Positive variables - negative variables
This last distinction is made for your ease. You should consider your character's variables as negative or positive depending on the outcome of them appearing. Not brushing your teeth is certainly a negative variable, as people will avoid speaking to you (or rather, listening to you talk). Feeling charitable from time to time and giving away a few bucks for a homeless guy is a rather positive variable for your character. The reason for which I've made this distinction is so that you get the idea, that you need both of these for your character. A character with nothing but positive habits is dull. Make sure you work both into him.
Part II: Roots of Psychology
Our background, things that happen to us, our upbringing influences us in very various ways and it is a topic of a heated, often self-contradictory debate among the psychological science circles. A while ago I’ve worked on this screenplay based on this very dark incident that has happened close to where I live. I was drawn to understanding the determinants of such human behavior and the premise of my screenplay was supposed to be an explanation of such happening. I remembered about the connection between character and incident, which Henry James drew so clearly and I started my research by looking at the perpetrator. I’ve been looking for a point of reference, something that would describe this person and get me started somewhere. Were they a psychopath? Most likely. A sadist? Also likely. But what was different about this particular incident were the circumstances surrounding it. Without going into much detail, I’ve found my point of reference when I stumbled upon a book on criminology by written Brunon Hołyst. In it, I’ve read a chapter on pathological narcissism. What I’ve discovered gave me some insight on how character traits are made and how self-contradictory the explanations for them may sometimes be. One view is that pathological narcissism is created through easy-going relations with one’s parents. They enforce in a young man the view, that he is the chosen one and he deserves to have all attention given to him. Any situation which might threaten this belief will trigger frustration, anger and hatred in him. Another school of thought claims the complete opposite. It’s theorists seek out the connection in how the tough, teutonic-sort of parenting can corner a kid into narcissism. According to them, you see, when a child is exposed so often to cutting criticism, feelings of worthlessness and feeling not good enough for their parents, he naturally escapes in his mind to the parts of himself that build him up. The positive aspects of himself become the metaphoric wall, with which he barricades himself away from the unbearable feelings their parents stir in him. Self-doubt and positive self-criticism become the least desired traits to have, given the amount of outside humiliation received, so they're blocked out completely resulting in a man pathologically in love with himself.
The reason for which I’m bringing this example up is to give you the idea of how complex and hard to explain the inner workings of our brain can sometimes be. So if people who’ve devoted their lifetime to studying the human mind are still baffled by the development of a person's psyche, how can we even try to wrap our heads around it? Let alone use it to our advantage.
1) Start with the personality, work the background into it
Once I got a grip on what might be the defining characteristic of my research subject above, it was easier to connect the dots of his personality into a clearer picture. I had the idea of where it will all ultimately take me - a psychopathic, pathological narcissist. If such a picture wouldn't have come out of it, I'd know to change my expected outcome. That's a simplification we can accept in this virtual reality. Paint a picture of what your character is supposed to be. If you want him to be a psychopath, do some basic research on the possible origins of the trait and work one of them into your character's story.
2) Come up with a maximum of conclusions from the minimum of observations
Don't be afraid to make far-fetched judgements on your character by analyzing the smallest of his traits. Does he bite his fingernails and flickers his eyebrow relentlessly? It might be that he's carrying an excess of energy in himself. Is he a bad teamworker? Maybe structure and hierarchy make him uneasy and he won't prove a very loyal subordinate. These can be evolved into variables of their own, consecutively: the capability to snap and a tendency to avoid subordination and loyalty.
3) Allow your character's consistencies and variables to manifest themselves throughout his background
If you want your charater to be an addict, you should work into your background story the situations where his addiction proved destructible to his life. An excess of energy from the paragraph above? Troubles at school and in relationships with peers. This little excersize allows you to get a better feel of what your character is like and lets you remember more carefully what his consistencies and variables are.
Call of Duty series, SAMP deathmatch and the like - the satisfaction of being at the top of your game, shooting people down before they manage to get the best of you. You play to win.
World of Warcraft, SW:TOR and other MMORPG games - engaging in an alternative reality, feeling out it’s rules and prevailing under them. There’s a limited access to commodities, like gold and achievements, and you want to be the one with the lion’s share in them.
And now let’s examine the fun of something that we’ve established is similar to LS-RP.
Drama, theatre, cinema, literature - assessing the characters of the play and observing them in their pursuit of a goal, whatever it may be.
All of these have one thing in common: conflict. Conflict is something that’s easily distinguishable in the examples I've mentioned above but we need a definition. What conflict is?
Conflict is two opposing forces clashing against each other. You and the other player are the two opposing forces in a Call of Duty match. Your guild and the other guilds are the opposing forces in World of Warcraft, competing for the limited commodities. The protagonist and the antagonist are the opposing forces of drama. The conflict might seem easy to establish in LS-RP, but what is the commodity? Is it the money? The weapons? The establishments we own? No.
Once you take that sentence above into yourself as true, your approach to roleplaying will change. In order to have fun on LS-RP you don’t have to chase money or scripted possessions. You need to develop conflict for your character and treat him as a protagonist. A protagonist is the character who, by decision, initiates conflict. An antagonist is the force (a person, a circumstance, a thing) holding the protagonist back. Let’s illustrate this with an example:
1. Your character makes a decision to earn a million dollars in a month, let’s say. There goes the beginning of the conflict: the decision. Then, you work out the ways to do that. You figure that the best way is to start a gun dealing ring and establish your position on the market. The first obstacle you’re going to be faced with is finding your supply. It turns out, your prospect supplier is an egomaniacal asshole who, in exchange for supplying you with weapons, demands that you wage a war with your crew with one of his other costumers, with whom business hasn’t been going well enough. You know this war will wipe your gang off the map. The supplier becomes the opposing force to your action - he becomes an antagonist, in turn making a protagonist out of yourself. The circle is closed; conflict arises.
2. All is going well. You’ve managed to overcome the conflict above and you’re an established gun supplier in the area. One day, you get the news that an up-and-comer is now in town, laying claim on your operations. He wants you out. You are the protagonist and the antagonist in that scenario. He makes a decision to knock you off the top; you make the decision to keep your position. The circle is closed, conflict is on.
Notice how in neither of these scenarios are money, weapons or power given emphasis. You might have all you want and stay at your IG mansion, bored to death. What you really need is conflict. The hope of resolving the conflict to your advantage keeps you playing and succeeding at it gives you satisfaction. It truly bears repeating:
Once you've decided to try a new character playthrough, feel free to give some of these ideas of mine a go. Start by selecting the physical and psychological consistencies of your character. Then, build a background for him that will support and explain these traits. Once that is done, pick the variables and establish their chances of manifesting themselves ingame. Only then can you start pondering upon what kind of conflict(s) is your kind of character capable of. And then... you're good to go. Start playing, go get 'em.
I realize that this is a long guide to sit through. Some of you may feel discouraged to read it judging by the sheer length of it. It does, however, contain all my reflections upon roleplaying I've had up to this point packaged in a coherent and precise package. I hope this work will prove useful to some of you and I look forward even more to hear your thoughts on what I've touched upon here.