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Personalizing a Character
There are numerous pop-psychology and modern
communication books on the market about how to read strangers, how to
nonverbally communicate messages, how to dress for success, what manners
are appropriate to what social venues. All of these ideas can and should
be used by the roleplayer.
Certain behaviors and modes of communication
carry great symbolic weight. A canny roleplayer or GM can use these social
symbols and stereotypes to immediately reveal something about their character.
Because a roleplaying game is more immediate and active than a book or
even a movie, it's important that the symbols appropriated for a character
be visible and obvious. Thus, while spending some time in the library
researching the personality differences between first- and second-born
children might help you write your psychology term paper, it will do little
to enhance your player character in others' eyes. Instead, you want to
look for more obvious ways to communicate your character's personality.
Here are just a few ideas:
• Fast Talker. To
roleplay this, a player should begin speaking very quickly, without pausing
to think about what s/he is saying. A fast talker can either be enthusiastic,
nervous, or untrustworthy. The enthusiastic talker will stumble over words
in the excitement of conveying a thought. The nervous talker may speak
quickly but stammer and use filler-noises like "uh" or "you
know?" The untrustworthy talker will speak quickly but smoothly,
glossing over parts of an argument that won't hold up to scrutiny and
attempting to establish rapid bonhomie.
• Slow Talker. To roleplay
this, a player should speak very slowly, perhaps counting to two or three
before starting the next word, phrase, or sentence. A slow talker can
either be stupid, foreign, thoughtful, or hesitant. The stupid character
will speak slowly because s/he has trouble getting thoughts into order
and finding the right words to convey them. The foreign character may
speak slowly because s/he is trying to translate thoughts from one language
into another language. The thoughtful speaker may speak slowly because
s/he is thinking the answer through and is unwilling to leap to conclusions.
The hesitant speaker will speak slowly because s/he isn't certain how
much s/he wants to reveal and must sift through all of the information
before doling any of it out to the listener.
PROXIMITY AND TOUCH
• Close. To roleplay
this, the player should lean toward other players when speaking and/or
reach out to touch the person being spoken to on the shoulder, arm, or
hand. Close speakers can be friendly and/or aggressive. Friendly speakers
move close because they feel intimate with the person being spoken to;
close friends, family members, lovers, or just people who are naturally
warm and physical will tend to stand closer to each other or use more
touch when communicating. Standing close or using touch can also be a
sign of aggression and dominance, however. Superiors touch employees more
often than employees touch their superiors, two men getting ready to fight
may belly up close to each other, and people who are careless of another's
feelings may casually punch a relative stranger in the shoulder while
talking. Note that there are also cultural differences in closeness: the
Americans and English usually keep quite a bit of distance between themselves,
whereas men and women from other countries may stand quite close or even
put their arms around each other while talking.
• Far. To roleplay
this, the player should lean back in his or her chair when speaking, perhaps
drawing away a little should another player lean forward. Distant speakers
can be formal, shy, or cold. Formal speakers feel like touch is an intimacy
that, for whatever reason, is not appropriate at the moment. Shy speakers
often have low self-esteem or are afraid of being hurt, and draw back
defensively when somebody gets too close. Cold speakers stand aloof from
others, unwilling to be touched by inferior hands. Again, there are cultural
differences here: For example, an Italian might think an American is being
snobbish when the American keeps stepping back to maintain his or her
relatively larger social distance from the Italian, who is used to maintaining
a closer social distance. There are also gender differences: In general,
in the U.S., woman stand closer and are more comfortable touching each
other than men are.
• Speaking with Hands.
To roleplay this, a player should gesture a lot while speaking. Speaking
with hands often implies an ebullious, outgoing nature, and possibly a
touch of hot-headedness, since people fear a person who uses her hands
to talk might not hesitate to use her hands to strike, either.
• Speaking Habits.
To roleplay this, a player should choose a particular accent, word, or
dialect and keep using it. For example, accents can communicate the part
of the country or world your character is from. Habitual words can also
tell others something about your character—for example, a character
who constantly exclaims "Jumping Jehosaphat!" is one type of
personality, and a character who keeps repeating "Thanks be to God"
is another. Habits of speech can also communicate something about your
character; for example, using 50s slang versus 90s slang; choosing long,
intellectual words or short, hard-boiled ones; using "Valley-speak"
• Hand Habits. To roleplay
this, a player should choose one or two gestures and keep using them throughout
the game. For example, a nervous character might rub his hands together
a lot or finger his collar or glasses when talking. An exuberant character
might pump her fist up and down in triumph and give others high-fives.
A saintly or exasperated character might fold his hands together and lift
his eyes to heaven a lot. A rude character might give others "the
finger" whenever disagreed with. One or two of these traits, used
regularly, can convey a lot about a character's personality throughout
a game or campaign.
There are many other ways of personalizing
a character, of course, such as wearing a bit of costume to the game or
using a prop like a pipe or long necklace. But at first, when you're just
starting to play a new character, concentrate on providing clearly visible
or audible clues to your character's personality, and don't worry about
overusing them ... although the gestures or words may seem strained for
the first game or two, soon they'll become second nature, and whenever
you're in character the traits will come naturally.
originally written January 19, 2001
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