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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.


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" versus "Gangsta-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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