My favorite character development hack, courtesy of a role-playing game

Back in college, I was a big fan of White Wolf’s role-playing games. I still think Vampire: The Masquerade was absolutely groundbreaking in terms of playing the monster rather than the hero. Until that point, horror games were about what happened to normal people facing the supernatural — think Call of Cthulhu and Chill. Then White Wolf came along and upended things.

A beast you were, lest a beast you became. Heady stuff.

Yes, it was all very early 90s, very Goth, very pretentious. But our games were interesting, fueled by a referee with a devious and chilling imagination. I learned a lot about character and story from both the game books and my friend Drew’s chronicles.  So much so that, years later when I began writing The Daedalus Incident, I found myself leaning on a particular mechanic used in the classic World of Darkness books to bring my characters to life.

Now, I’m sure I’m not the first author who leaned on RPG mechanics to help flesh out characters — I know of a few who went and did entire character sheets for each of their main characters. I didn’t go that far, but I did rely on White Wolf’s personality archetypes to bring my characters to life. They’re quick and easy to use, but when you start looking into the result, you can get a real complexity of character as you think things through.

So, under the White Wolf system, each character has two personality traits: Nature and Demeanor. Each is assigned an archetype. One’s Nature is, of course, the archetype that really defines their core personality. Their Demeanor is how they present themselves to the world, or how the world may view them. Nature and Demeanor are typically different, though not always — some folks just present themselves as who they are inside, but that’s rare.

It’s really the interplay between Nature and Demeanor that makes a character interesting. Let’s plug in a few characters from The Daedalus Incident as examples. Lt. Shaila Jain, survivor of a terrible accident around Jupiter, is wiling away her days as an ops officer on Mars. She’s cynical and tired, but pretty darn tough. Her Demeanor comes off as that of a Survivor. (The list of archetypes commonly used in White Wolf games is here.) But what about her Nature? Would she be so interested in solving Mars’ mysteries if she was a Survivor by Nature? No, she’d be on the first transport off-world when it hit the fan. Deep down, her Nature may be that of the Explorer — fitting for an astronaut.

Her young 1779 counterpart, Lt. Thomas Weatherby, starts the story with the Demeanor of a Conformist — he’s busy trying to fit in, trying to please his superiors. Over the course of the story, I believe his Demeanor becomes that of Defender, because he truly understands why he’s in His Majesty’s Service and that there are indeed things in need of defense. This goes to his Nature, which at this point in his three-novel narrative I’d peg as Caregiver.

Demeanor can change, of course. Particularly intense actions or events will make people see you differently — and may give you new perspective on the way you come off as well. Nature is harder to change, but that said…novels have a way of really introducing life-changing events, and I could very well see how someone’s very Nature may evolve over the course of the story.

Jain was always an Explorer by Nature during her travails in the Daedalus trilogy, but I think her Demeanor changed a bit. Survivor, Director, Autocrat, Crusader…she went through all these at some point. Weatherby, however, had decades of life experience over the novels, and his very Nature changed to a degree. I think he ultimately became a Defender by his very Nature — which makes a bit of sense if he starts as Conformist, frankly. His Demeanor certainly evolved through any number of iterations, which I’ll leave as an exercise to the reader.

Now think about the interplay between the two. A character who comes off as a Bon Vivant (Demeanor) to others could have any number of Natures. Perhaps his Nature is that of an Eccentric, and nobody really gets him. Maybe he’s just a Rogue who just doesn’t care how he’s perceived. Or perhaps a Deviant or Avant-Garde, using his partying ways to send a message about the status quo. Maybe he’s a Monster and is actively trying to ruin others, or a Caregiver desperately trying to help others have fun to feel better about himself.

Boom. Two archetypes in Nature and Demeanor can give you infinite possibilities that can lead to super complex characters.

As another example, let’s take Cagliostro, the antagonist of The Daedalus Incident. Certainly, he came off to many people as a Monster (Demeanor), but perhaps to his allies he came off as a Evangelist with a distinct goal in mind, or a Deviant challenging the status quo. But how did he see himself if not as a Visionary (Nature)? Think about the interplay between those two archetypes, and how they can exist in one person. All of a sudden, your two-dimensional Monster character has a very interesting third dimension to play with, as the archetype of his Visionary Nature conflicts with how he’s perceived.

Note, of course, that none of my characters in my stories (to date) are vampires. It’s a nifty system, and one that White Wolf used in, I believe, every one of their World of Darkness games. Now, I would say that it’s not an end-all, be-all in terms of creating three-dimensional characters in fiction. You still have to fill in the blanks though, and figure out how a character’s Nature and/or Demeanor may change over the course of a story, and how the interplay between the two helps define the character more fully.

But it’s a heck of a jump-start.

You know, I got to meet some of the original White Wolf folks in Atlanta last year, and thanked them for all those misspent days playing their games. I realize now that those days playing VampireWerewolf: The Apocalypse and Mage: The Ascension weren’t misspent, though.

In a way, they were my first bits of fiction training. So thanks yet again, guys.

The World of Darkness games are now being published by Onyx Path Publishing, and there are updated game materials from some of the original designers  as well as new writers. So if you’re intrigued, check it out. Buy some books from ’em.

(And if you happen to like a bit of classic World of Darkness, or just a good bunch of vampire stories…well, stay tuned. Just saying.)

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Filed under Books, Geek, Writing

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