Friday, April 26, 2013

It's All in the Details: Fleshing out Characters through the use of the Mundane


So this week I was surprised by two phenomenal art gifts from Evion and Sushi. Both of them are humorous pieces featuring a drink labeled “something expensive.” Thanks to this there resulted much hilarity in the WSRP chat the other day. I'm going to share a few of the little quips here. Hope they bring a smile to your face!

Gift art from the talented Evion! Absolutely fantastic! Check out her other art here!

Sushi negotiates a bribe with Hawkins...with dubious success.(Check out Sushi's other fantastic art here!)

  • “When did “Something Expensive” become a brand name? It is brilliant!”
  • “I feel like that belongs in an ad campaign, with a snooty BBV “Received Pronunciation” accent”
  • “I expect it tastes bloody awful, hence the scowl, but it's expensive and that's what counts!”
  • “When circumstances force you to coexist in 'civil' setting with Exile, rather than treating with them at the end of a gun, you may have to drink common swill. For all “civilized” occasions, there's Something Expensive”
  • “Something Expensive: Because we're better than you and our drinks cost as much as your house.”
  • “You could be sensible with your money or, you could buy Something Expensive.”
  • “Something Expensive: For the discerning Cassian.” 
  • Something Expensive"Because there comes a time every day when, no matter what the question is, the answer is: Something Expensive."


When you have near limitless potential at your fingertips, why would you ever waste your time on anything boring or 'normal'? When you can truly create a fantastic character, why would they ever suffer through “everyday life?” Perhaps it seems ridiculous, boring or unimportant, but you would be surprised. Even though in roleplay you can achieve such brilliance in the fantastic you might be surprised that one of the most powerful tools to create a realistic character lies within the exact opposite. It lies within the mundane.

One of the hardest parts of infiltration is playing along with a normal life. How do these people survive the mind-numbing boredom of their every-day like? How can they go through this daily grind without going mad? How can they be /happy?/ And yet, when I go back and return to the life of the shadow and become no more then a whisper on the lips of the fearful, I retain a strange feeling from the life I left behind. A lingering this what it feels to be normal?

A character can do the most amazing things in the world but will always feel flat and distant if there is nothing you or others can relate to. Perhaps the concepts of space travel or super powers might be incredible, but that is not what triggers our human empathy to accept and even show compassion for a character. What really draws us in are the things we can intimately understand, the actions and words we can relate to our own experiences. What really connects us is the humanity found in our every day life. No matter how boring or unimportant it might seem, it is one of the most crucial aspects of our life and our interactions with others.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Doctor isn't his time traveling or his Tardis, but in his empathy for others.(image found here)

Real people do real things. They go to work, they go shopping, the brush their teeth and cook meals. They go to plays and talk on the phone. They laugh and get angry, fall in love and get into fights. They get sick and sometimes do stupid, unreasonable things because they are just people.

We see this. We live it. We know it. Well, as much as we can that is.

One of my good friends Ivania (from my RP days in SW:ToR) once told me that one of their ways of probing another character to see if they were well rounded and interesting was to have her character try to get them to watch a movie with herself. She explained that if they stoically refused on the basis that it was “stupid” or “too non-serious” after a few attempts that she would often look elsewhere for a roleplaying partner. If the characters she were trying to interact with were so serious that they couldn't even relent for a single moment and enjoy something normal then they were really no fun to play with.

I remember finding this concept profound. It wasn't that a character was a “badass military hero” or a “senator” or a “secret agent” that drew her entirely to them. It was what they were like outside of their defining roles. It wasn't their fantastical jobs but their personality and their normalcy This gave me some food for thought. It had taken Hawkens some persuading, but even he had finally relented to watch a movie with her character. Why had he done that? Why would an agent of Imperial Intelligence sit down and /watch a movie?/ Then I found a far more important question.

Why wouldn't he?

I mused over this for awhile. He hadn't wanted to originally because he found mundane actions to be tedious and sometimes boring. Yet that never stopped him from going through the motions of care for his hygiene, of cooking in his own kitchen or from playing an occasional video game. It wasn't about the movie at all. It was about the concept of relaxation, the concept of “letting loose” or “having fun.” He was far more worried about dropping his appearance as a grumpy and bitter individual who only cared for his job and nothing else. By watching the movie, he had strangely reasoned, he was showing weakness or betraying his ideals. And amusingly enough, after prying within these layers of logic (or logical fallacy as it were) I discovered something even more interesting. It was these very instances of normalcy that my friend enjoyed best with Hawkens. They made him relatable. It was when he stopped posturing and became just another man that she found compassion for him.

It made sense. On the job, Hawkens is serious, logical and completely devoted to the task. His attitude changes completely and he often becomes unapproachable. The very cold efficiency that makes him so skilled at his work also makes him completely alien to those around him. There is nothing to relate to in his detachment from humanity. Suddenly this no longer becomes an advantage of his character, but a point of contention.

"The first thing an agent develops is an immunity to guilt" -Cipher Nine (SW:ToR)

I actually find it somewhat amusing just how much the mundane can make a difference in the realism of roleplay and the resulting complexities that can result from it. One of the reasons we usually don't like to play these out, is these emotions, states of being, etc can often be unglamorous and even downright embarrassing. Who wants to play their hero through being sick? Sick is boring and gross right? You might get hot and achy, you might whine a lot or act weaker then you normally would. You sneeze out snot and rheum clogs your eyes while you sputter about, coughing pathetically. Disgusting. Hardly the glamor of being important and special right? 

We all know how much being sick sucks and we usually don't look nearly this cute. (picture found here)

So how do you react if your friend grows sick? Your family? Do you curl up your lips and walk away, disgusted in them? No. You find yourselves compelled to help, compelled to empathize and sympathize with them. You remember how much it sucked to go through being sick yourself and therefore you find the strength to overlook the weakness with compassion. Perhaps you bring them a gift to cheer them up, or food to help them recover. Maybe you keep them company so they do not have to suffer alone. Instead of filing away your reaction to them at their worst, you help them to become strong again and help the even to pass by.

Take this a step further. Perhaps you are an Aurin who has discovered a Cassian deep in Exile territory. Hatred for the people who drove you from your world might be the first reaction, yes? Perhaps you feel a great deal of hostility and animosity for this person before you. It they were standing, staring you down defiantly, you might even move to violence for the deep-seeded wrongs their people has committed to yours. Now let's complicate things. Let's say the Cassian was found to be injured or ill. This immediately changes the terms of engagement. Oh sure, there are some who wouldn't care, or who may not have cared about the entirety of the event to begin with. But the typical reaction will be the struggle of the compelling notion to express compassion and concern for the ailments of another living being. This is empathy. Even though you know you should hate them, could you really leave them weak and alone? Suddenly this concept of an EPIC galactic war falls to its knees in the presence of BASIC 'HUMAN' EMOTIONS! Isn't this amazing!? These mundane reactions are not just relatable to, they're POWERFUL!

Even with all the wrongs they have suffered, the Aurin could still be moved by compassion. (image from here)

You could be the strongest warrior, the most ruthless killer, the most brilliant scientist or the most clever thief but you will never compare to the innocence of a child or the pride of a father. You will never compare to the fear of the lost, the laughter of the joyous or the passion of a lover. This is what makes a realistic character. This is what makes transforms them from someone you could only read in a book to someone you might meet on the bus tomorrow. Real people cook and clean and turn into squealing fools when talking about their pets. Real people go through the boring everyday parts of life and create magic even from the mundane. It stands to reason it can be the same in the world of writing.

The best part about using the mundane to add realism to your character is that it can come from your own personal experience. You can add your hobbies or perhaps some interests that you have. You know best how you felt when you were happy or angry or sad. You know what it's like to go to the movie theatre or go out to dinner. Use this understanding and describe that for your character when they wind up going through the same situations.

Now mind you this doesn't mean you need to dismiss all the other parts of your character development. The mundane aspects need not be the only parts you focus on. Think of them as a flavoring to their already complex story. By adding these in you move the character from a clever idea to something almost real!


  1. very insightful. I look forward to roleplaying some, "Boring," scenarios!

    1. Hehe, indeed. You just might be surprised ;)