Yeah, I did it. I invoked the much-maligned theme song from Star Trek: Enterprise.
Hopefully you’re still reading, because I used that line for a reason and that reason was not just to annoy you or to get that song running through your head. Which I expect it is. My real reason for using that line is that I would like to have a chat with you about character arcs and how important they are in story-based role-playing.
Some of you may have heard me discuss character development on the UFOP Starbase 118 podcast in November, so you’ll already be familiar with a few of the points I’m going to make here.
What is a character arc?
I’ll start with this basic point, though I expect none of you really need this explained. A character arc is the growth of a character between two set points in your plot. This could be as straightforward as Point A being the character’s introduction and Point B being the character’s death, or it could be between the character marrying the love of her life and her realizing that he’s really kind of a jerk and divorcing him. The arc doesn’t necessarily have to have an impact on the plot itself, but it does have to impact the character, it has to if not change the character then certainly affect them in some way.
An easy example of a straightforward character arc is Han Solo. He’s introduced (Point A) as a dick only worried about himself. Then, in the final battle (Point B), he has a change of heart and helps save the day.
Why are arcs important?
To put it bluntly, if your character doesn’t grow, your character is boring. It doesn’t matter how intricate or interesting your plot, if its populated by characters who are exactly the same on the final page as they were on the first page, your story is not going to be particularly interesting. For reference, please see Meyer, Stephanie.
But that’s a novel — this blog is about role-playing games.
Ah. Fair point. However, the same general idea applies. Think about the nature of these games — the ones here at Ongoing Worlds as well as the one where I hang my hat, Starbase118.net. While we’re certainly each participating for our own enjoyment, we’re also participating to entertain each other, are we not? And no one likes the idea that they’re boring their audience. A strong character arc that is not necessarily tied to a current plot gets other players invested in your character. It gets them wanting to read your next post and, hopefully, makes them feel disappointment when they log in and see you haven’t posted. The more invested we all become in each other’s characters, the stronger our games will be because we will all be excited to everyone else’s work.
Let’s face it, we’ve all had situations where we just skim posts. My feeling is that most times this happens, it’s because of a lack of emotional investment in the character.
Another prime reason to have character arcs to work with is to help kill off the doldrums. We’ve all been there — for whatever reason, the game is lagging, it’s progressing at a crawl if it’s progressing at all and many people are simply not posting. It’s at times like that when you can really dig into the guts of your character development and smear its entrails all over the place. When the overall group plot is moving along at a quick pace, there isn’t always time to get in a large amount of character development, so this is the perfect time. Having that arc to work on not only gives you plenty of material to work with while the game cycles back up, but having your material to read and to inspire them can frequently get the other players back on track and posting. After all, when no one is posting anything is when a game dies.
The big and the small.
When I talk about arcs, I don’t necessarily mean a major arc like Han Solo’s. Of course it could be a major arc. One of the arcs I’m working on aboard the USS Drake is to have my character, who started out in the game four years ago as a complete jerk who didn’t like anyone, gradually grow into a command role. That’s a pretty big arc, but I’ve also had smaller arcs for him — becoming friends with our Intelligence Officer, acknowledging his feelings for a member of our medical staff, etc. Of course all of those actually feed into the larger character arc, but they give me smaller, more manageable chunks to work with.
The important aspect of a character arc is that it changes the character in some noticeable way. If the character doesn’t change or grow as a result of the arc, then the arc has been a waste of time.
As important as it is to know your character’s past, it’s just as important to know your character’s future. I’m not saying you need to map everything out — that would likely kill the fun of playing the game — but have a general idea of where you would like this character of yours to go. Give yourself a handful of key “character milestones” you want to hit, things like overcoming his fear of spiders, discovering she was actually adopted, falling in love. In other words, something you can work toward over time that will allow your character to grow. However, the key is to not put a time limit on these character arcs. Develop them, but don’t force them. No one believes in the love story that just pops up out of nowhere without any foreshadowing or actual development to get them there. Again, see Meyer, Stephanie.
Thanks for reading.