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Basic Information

Characterization is the process of depicting and conveying information about characters, especially their personality, motivations, etc. There's several ways to go about it.

Explicit characterization involves directly saying what a character is like on a personal level. This can be done by the narrator, or by another character. For example, the GM can say "he looks like a tough hombre", a player might introduce his character as "My PC is your badass western gunslinger - think Eastwood in Fist Full of Dollars", or an NPC might comment "My advice: don't mess with him - he's slippery as a rattlesnake and twice as venomous!"

Implicit characterization is where the personality is merely implied, and the audience (or, in our case, gamer) is left to draw their own conclusions. This might be done by their actions, style of dress, speech, etc. The GM might describe that the stranger is dressed in weathered leathers, and has two guns holstered and knife in his boot. A cigar is clenched in his teeth as he enters; he puts it out on the door frame, leaving a dark mark upon the paint. His eyes shift about the room from person to person. His gravelly voice barks "whiskey" at the barkeep, then he walks up behind another man that's engrossed in a poker game. Towering over the oblivious card player now, he holds his hand at his side, fingers outstretched just inches from his holster. "That's my chair yer sittin' in…"

Naming Considerations: The character's name is also important and needs to be genre appropriate as well as awe-inspiring unless, as with the "Boy named Sue", you intend a subversion.

See Also:

Characters as Device
Characterization Tropes



Game and Story Use

  • What methods you use will vary depending on the character and situation, your personal style, the pace of the plot, and the importance of the character to the plot.
    • Background characters are often best summed up explicitly and quickly.
    • If your game is a slow-building stew of tension and mystery, you might rely heavily upon implicit characterizations, or explicit ones that are given in-character by NPCs whose bias could be called into question.
    • If the game is more about plot and action, frequently you can get away with stock archetypes and only minor customization.
    • In situations where the plot will grind to a halt unless the PCs size up foes quickly or extend trust to a potential ally, the GM may feel the need to just bluntly hang a label on them. "She's a damsel-in-distress" or "she has the eyes of a cold blooded killer, and the gait of a huntress on the prowl."
      • Take care though. When you're presenting PCs with omniscient narration that could be interpreted as spoon-feeding them conclusions, you need to make sure you don't give them information that's inaccurate or misleading, unless there's some sort of enchantment or mind control at work.
    • For truly memorable characters, use implicit characterization - engaging the players minds to puzzle out the persona can be a flashing neon sign that says "this character is important!"
  • It'll help to familiarize yourself with the Characters as Device and Characterization Tropes pages.
    • Character Tropes describe roles and personality types that are instantly familiar to players - even if you're intended a multilayered subtle characterization, using a trope as a starting place can help you and the other players quickly get a handle on the basic concept of the character.
      • Less confusion means less chance the PCs will jump the gun and grease that new NPC you spent hours developing.
        • Except for obvious villains, of course. If the character is meant to be the hidden Evil Mastermind, then perhaps being a little vague or avoiding established tropes will help keep him around. At least, until your players figure out that the NPC who isn't a genre archetype is always the hidden villain. Then you'll have to start mixing it up again, perhaps by making a villain who seems to fit a trope that's never used for villains.
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