Character Spelunking

Is your character really just you with a stat block?  I bet you could get more out of your game if you let go of You and embrace your Character.  Here are some techniques you can employ to help you bring your character to life at the table.  It will take some effort, but you may find your escapism brought to another level once you get into it.  While there are some practical tips in here, this is real mental and emotional work, more a deep cut than a skim.

First and foremost, you’ll want to write a history.  A character without a history is like a flat tire. Sure, you can still travel with it, but it puts strain on the rest of the tires when they have to drag you along for the ride.  There are a couple different ways to go about this. You can make up a story about how your character, we’ll call them Hazel, grew up including some significant events in their life (loves lost, laws broken, that sort of thing). and think about what kind of person these events would produce.  Conversely, you can start with a vision of Hazel the Destroyer and go backwards to determine how Hazel became the Destroyer. Either way, you have some idea of what makes Hazel tick. If you have zero idea how to write a history, here are some questions to get you started (there are no wrong answers, but your GM may ask you to explain why/how you got to be whatever level you are, so go ahead and think of that).

  • Where was Hazel born?
  • What station/rank/living condition were they born into?
  • Has Hazel discovered romantic love?  How is that playing out?
  • Have they ever been injured?  How?
  • What favors does Hazel owe?
  • How have kindness and meanness been modeled for them?
  • Who has betrayed them?

Another thing you might want to do in your history is leave some mysteries for your GM to play with.  Who killed your friend? Why does your mother leave the house under the cover of darkness once a week? What’s the story behind that family heirloom?  Who has been leaving you secret messages that have saved your life? These are openings for your GM to create personal plots for you, which is a great way to get further invested in what’s happening in the game.

Another useful thing to do to get to know your character is to take notes, and do it as your character.  Write in first person from Hazel’s point of view. Include what they think of the other characters (not players) and their actions.  You might say, “Joe hurled his broadsword into the fray from across the room.” Hazel might say something more like, “That idiot almost took my head off throwing that stupid sword across the room again!”  It might take some valuable time away from the game to do this in the moment if you’re not used to it. Take the notes as yourself to begin with, and then take the time to go back over your notes after session and write them out again as Hazel.  

Something else you can do, if you’re willing, is dress up as Hazel.  If you can’t go out and buy a costume or the thought of wearing it in front of people makes you uncomfortable, just go through your wardrobe and pick the thing that Hazel would be most likely to wear.  It could be because it’s their favorite color, or would be comfortable to fight in, or fancy enough to attend a high-brow party. You could even do it with a single item. Wear or hold that item every time you play Hazel and you will begin to associate that item with them.  It could be a hat, shoes, necklace. This could also work with a prop such as a fancy pen, a toy sword, or an action figure, anything that brings Hazel to mind and won’t be a distraction for others.

A more advanced thing to do is to practice a kind of meditation where you watch your own thoughts.  What that means is that you suspend being You for a little while. You’ll still be in there, just on pause.  To begin paying attention to your own thoughts and impulses, practice saying the following to yourself (internally or externally, whichever works better for you), “I am having the thought, ‘(your thought goes here).’”  Just note the thought, there’s no need to try to change or direct it a certain way. Write it down, if you have the time or inclination. As more thoughts arise, make the same notes for them. Just do it whenever you think of it, or set up some occasional, random reminders.  This process can give you a meta perspective on your thoughts and put you in the role of an observer, which is what you’ll want to be during game if you want to let Hazel play out their own actions.

Once you get into this habit and know how your thoughts look and feel, you can then begin to do the exercise for Hazel.  So what you’ll do is have your own thought, and then insert, “Hazel is having the thought, ‘(Hazel’s thought goes here).’”   If you don’t know what thoughts Hazel might have to begin with, do them in parallel as in the examples below.

“I am having the thought, ‘I would like to eat some melted marshmallows.’”

“Hazel is having the thought, ‘I would like to eat some charred goblin guts.’”

“I am having the thought, ‘I sure would like to give my boss a piece of my mind!’”

“Hazel is having the thought, ‘I want to cut off my leader’s foot and feed it to him!’”

Maybe you don’t know your character well enough to think in their thoughts yet.  This is where your character history comes into play. Pick an event in the history.  Take a few minutes and consider how that would affect someone. Think about how it would affect you if something like that were to happen.  Would it make you feel hurt or hopeful? If you included it in the history, it came from your own mind. Ask yourself what the significance of that event is to you and how you think.  The difficult thing here is that we have some murky waters to wade through before we know genuinely how we would act, while our egos feed us fantasies of what we would do. Gift your ego to Hazel and let them be the hero while you identify the core of truth in your motivations and actions.  What is the essential difference between your core being and the ego you’re projecting onto your character? What fantasies are you playing out about who you don’t get to be in real life? Hazel gets to be the you that you can’t be. They are part of you. Deep down, you already know their thoughts.  They’re the missing pieces of your life experience.

Getting to know your/your character’s thoughts this intimately may cause some bleed, where you feel things yourself that only Hazel should be feeling.  Do your best to keep game and real life separate. Be careful not to replace your thoughts with your character’s thoughts. And do not act on Hazel’s thoughts.  A professor of mine once taught me that thinking through someone else’s ideas is like putting on a hat. You’re wearing the hat, but the hat is not who you really are underneath.  

After all this, you should have a pretty good sense of where your character came from, what experiences shaped their life in the past, what they think, and how your thought processes differ.  It does take a bit of time and effort at first, but an investment in your character is an investment in your game experience. And if other players see how into the role you are, they may be inspired to up their game as well, making the game even more enjoyable for everyone.


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