Sunday, March 17, 2013

How to Play the Lovable Jerk (And not go too far)

When Han Solo was about to be frozen into Carbonite, Lea kissed him and told him that she loved him.
“I know.” Han Solo replied leaving many fans laughing to themselves or swooning over his brazen audacity.
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) (Dir. Irvin Kershner)
Did you know Harrison Ford actually changed his lines here to better fit Solo's character? (image from here)
So why did the audience not condemn him for being rude and arrogant? Because Han Solo is a lovable jerk.

People come in all shapes, colors, sizes, orientations and personalities. Therefore it is no wonder that the characters of the roleplaying community are just as varied as in real life (for the most part). This includes heroic traits and questionable traits as well. In tabletop gaming these traits are usually called perks and flaws. Flaws tend to be negative aspects to ones character that give back points to spend on perks for ones character. Now, although perks can be nice and desirable such as higher levels of education, generosity or extra strength they are, in my opinion, sometimes rather boring. Flaws are much more interesting and excellent roleplay tools for a character. Is your character irritable? Are they prone to fits of anger? Do they have to overcome a lack of education? Do they have a physical infirmities to make up for? Are they misogynistic or maybe even racist?

These qualities can make for some very interesting roleplay tools but they can also run the risk of being very distasteful and even offensive to some other players. So how does one play a character with these questionable traits without making them extremely unlikable to the point no one wants to play with you?

I have found in my time roleplaying that there are two key tools to playing a character with less desirable traits and these often take the combined efforts of both the player and the people they spend time with: Character Growth and Moderation.

Take for example the TOR iteration of everyone's favorite agent: John Hawkens. Hawkens was an agent of Imperial Intelligence stuck as a defector in the Republic when a botched run forced him to execute his Sith lord in order to prevent them from systematically decimating the survivors of his team. The thing was, Hawkens was still a loyal Imperial. Finding himself struggling as an outsider amongst the enemy was a difficult situation for him and it heavily colored his personality.

Are you really going to make me sit through all this?

Come on Hawkens, it's a good example! To begin with, Hawkens was bitter and rude. Though he accepted that the rule of the cruel sith needed to be ended to preserve his people he only just barely tolerated that it meant he would need to work alongside the very people he was at war with. When the SIS (the opposing Intelligence force) interrogated him, he was largely unhelpful and often times irreverent to their authority over his asylum. Eventually he ended up earning enough of their trust to be allowed to work through them, a process which was shortened to give him a reason he was allowed to work with others in the roleplaying community. It was at this point that, although he would do his work unquestioningly, he preferred to stay a recluse, speaking to others only when necessary and reveling in their hatred of his Imperial heritage.

Once a man told me to lose my Imperial accent in order to avoid being shot by Republic troops. When I told him that in that case I would at least die with honor he just hung his mouth open in stunned silence. It was quite amusing.

Hawken's character at this point was barely likable. In fact, he relied mostly on his intrigue towards other characters to survive in the community. Thanks to the inquisitive and compassionate nature of many of the Republic characters, they slowly dragged his story of defection from him, allowing a glimpse into a much deeper personality then his abrasive surface. By providing this window into his humanity, his bitterness and irritability became more tolerable.
Though his toleration of others certainly took time (Screenshot from SWToR)

Not long after his guild began to get to know him, Hawkens ran into one especially good curveball that changed the course of his personality forever. While briefly disclosing his hopes to one day contact his family to let them know he still drew breath he encountered a shock when a character he was not overly familiar with offered to do the information run for him. This character had very little motivation to help him at this point, in fact, as Hawkens had largely avoided or scorned her bubbly nature. But through a series of amazing roleplay writings, they became unlikely friends.

(If you'd like to read the short story that changed Hawken's character. You can check it out here.)

And thus Hawkens began to grow.

The evolution was subtle and took time, but the agent slowly evolved his perspective on the world around him. He became someone easier to interact with and made efforts to not just hide in the corner and let the world pass him by. In fact, he even ended up the leader of a small intelligence operations branch within his team, providing a key link with SIS assets and information. Slowly his blind hatred of the Republic began to blur as he learned their faces and names, as he was forced to accept they were not much different at their cores then his own people. Rather then simply preach Imperial superiority, he tried to teach those around him about the strengths and benefits of his culture, to make them see their enemy as more then just obstacles to overcome. Of all people it became the agent, the assassin himself, who had the greatest reverence of the lives around him.

I believe I commented on this three posts ago, yes?

It was this very evolution that made Hawkens lovable. He never lost his irritability and actually earned an endearing reputation for his quintessential scowl. His hardened exterior became a challenge to overcome and his mysteriousness became an alluring attraction to discover. As one of the very few defectors who did not wish to actually defect, Hawkens was an exotic personality even amongst his own people. But to bring this back to my original point, these traits all took time, growth and careful moderation to achieve.
 photo JohnColored.jpg
In almost every instance I drew him, I had to add in Hawken's quintessential Scowl. (image by author)

Had Hawkens remained the bitter recluse he had begun as, he quickly would have driven away all interested parties. Who wants to play with someone who will barely speak with them? Had he remained solely convinced on the might of the Imperials and allowed no redeeming qualities to show for the Republic he would have quickly turned irritating to others. Who wants to play with someone who will never recognize your positive qualities or what you represent? Though Hawkens retained the chip on his shoulder and certainly was prone scorn and indignation he also made it clear that he was much deeper a character then his harsh exterior. It was that softer center that he tried to hide that made him interesting. By not always being angry or irritable (moderation) and through his evolution of his perspective, personality and dreams (growth), Hawkens not only became a more lovable character to myself, but to the people who interacted with him. Those who could see that their efforts, just like in real life, could help shape the people around them into better people then they began.

One of the best parts of roleplay is the ability to interact with others. To have these unpredictable personalities and situations that shape our characters and those around us in ways we never could have guessed. And it is this very growth that helps us to play the lovable jerk. They never have to quite give up some of those less desirable qualities if you don't wish for them to, but if they learn to grow, to see new perspectives and ideas they can become much stronger for it. If they show their good despite their rough edges, if they show a willingness to be impacted by the people and events around them, they can retain a strong personality.

However, if they do not grow, if they stagnate and refuse the help of those around them, these very same characters may find themselves reviled. If they can never let go of their misogynistic tendencies or if they are always cruel to other races other then themselves, they can grow irritating and maybe even offensive to play with. Though these aspects can add realism and flavor to the world of roleplay they can also take away a lot of the fun when used poorly. We deal enough in real life with strife and acts of cruelty and inhumanity. Isn't it nice to have, in a least one place, the control to see the overcoming of such things?

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the lovable jerk and how to play them well. Now if you will excuse me, I think I owe Hawkens a drink before he scowls a hole through my head. 

Until next time!


Thank you once again for joining us, dear readers! As always feel free to leave comments and suggestions to either myself or Agent Hawkens and we will reply as soon as able.

(This blog topic was suggested by Evion from Thanks Evion!)


  1. Its a fine line between playing the character as you envision them and finding yourself on everyone's ignore list. great article.

  2. Thanks! And very true. But one of the beauties of roleplaying is having full control over your character and being able to tweak them until you find that perfect balance.