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All the World's a Stage: Character diamonds

All the World's a Stage is your source of roleplaying ideas n' stuff. The usual columnist is grateful to Alex and Matt for covering for him the last couple weeks while he got ready to defend his MA thesis.

Getting into character isn't all that easy. First of all, as Matt demonstrated last week, one must have the desire and the gumption to just do it. You can't sit back and say, "But I don't know how to do it right!"or "But what if people don't like my roleplaying?" or any other excuse like that. You have to put your fingers to the keyboard and just start playing your role. Whether people like it more or less depends upon a bunch of things, including your skills and knowledge about how to do it well, but first and foremost it depends on your willingness to go out and try things out -- then look back and learn from your experience. You won't stop having problems and making mistakes, but you will get better over time.

Today I'll share with you one idea I found that helped me a lot with a problem I was having: when I found myself having a bit of trouble "logging in" to a particular character's personality, I found the concept of the "Character Diamond" to be extremely valuable in pinning down exactly who this character is, how she would respond, and what it feels like to be inside her head. This concept was originally thought up by a screenwriting teacher named David S. Freeman, but it has gone through a bit of modification to suit the MMORPG world. So, with permission from the folks at Dramatis Personae who first taught me about it, I would like to sum it up for you here as a starter's guide and reference for making character diamonds of your own.

A map of the mind

You can think of a character diamond as a map of your character's mind. A real person's mind, of course, is an unfathomably complex maze of emotions, desires, ideas and many other things, but a fictional character, thankfully, can and should be much simpler. As with any form of storytelling, the real people listening to your creative expression don't want to hear all the nitty gritty details and random thoughts and feelings that they have to live with in their own head every day -- in a character, they want a cohesive presentation that makes sense, someone they can relate to.

Distinctive qualities

For this, we need to have a small list of your character's definitive traits -- not too many and not too few. Four is about right to feel believable, but more than that might get overwhelming, both in your attempts to roleplay and in other people's attempts to understand you. Each of these four traits marks a point in your character's diamond, and each one is distinct from all the others.

This part can be a bit tricky -- it's easy to say, "Oh well my character is 'friendly,' 'nice,' 'happy,' and 'outgoing!'" when actually "sociable" could encompass all these meanings in one word. One way to figure this out is to brainstorm all the traits which pertain to your character in no particular order, and then proceed to organize them into different categories, pushing them in to four different corners, if you will, and selecting one overall category word to describe each corner of your emerging diamond. So if the character in your mind is sociable, that would be one corner that shows how easily she gets along with other people. When it comes to dealing with herself, however, maybe she doesn't do so well, she puts herself down a lot and keeps a lot of unsociable thoughts locked up in her head where they don't get in the way of her interacting with others -- so in this corner we can write "introverted" ...and so on. There are several ways of categorizing these four corners, which we'll come to later. For now, the important thing is just to see each word as a separate aspect that may interact with, but does not depend on, any other quality in your diamond.

Permanent qualities

It's important to remember all these traits should be permanent aspects of your character, too, not just stages of life or moods that your character is going through. "Proud," "lonely," "confident," and "nervous," could all be temporary feelings that might pass through anyone's mind and heart no matter what kind of person they are; more permanent alternatives might be "arrogant," "pessimistic," "assertive," and "high-strung." A thesaurus and dictionary are very helpful in finding just the right word that fits your character. Don't hesitate to look up every word that you're seriously considering for your diamond, just to get a better sense of what it really means and to see if maybe another word might fit even better.

Comprehensive qualities

Finally, these four words should describe pretty much everything there is to know about your character's fundamental personality. The dictionary and thesaurus come in handy here, of course, because your words will need to be generalized enough to cover the whole spectrum of experiences that your character might encounter. If this seems impossible, remember that your character is not "real" in the same sense that you are -- his or her status as a fiction of your imagination means that he or she only experiences those things which are relevant to your roleplaying in the game. Besides, as time goes on, you may discover new facets of your character, or certain events may permanently alter the way he or she is, either of which may cause you to rethink certain aspects of your character diamond at a later date. For now, though, it may be helpful to think of your diamond as a piece of age-old rock that won't change in the foreseeable future.

This method bears a certain resemblance to personality tests that differentiate different kinds of people (e.g. "Achiever, Explorer, Socializer, Killer"): They are clearly oversimplifications of reality intended as mere guides to help us understand who our character is and how he or she behaves, even though the actual details of it will of course be more intricate. All in all, such a clarification of a character really helps to not only make them more believable as people, but also helps us to get inside their head at a moment's notice.

Getting organized

As I did this with my characters, I found that some characters come easily, while others (especially the ones most like myself) were more difficult. It can help to decide beforehand what sort of qualities you are looking to put in each corner of your diamond. One way to do this is to break up your traits according to different aspects of life you feel are most relevant for your character. Suppose you decide that there are four great human concerns: self, others, work, and time. You might ask yourself,
  • How does my character relate to herself (e.g. 'Meditative')?
  • How does she relate to others (e.g. 'Gregarious')?
  • How does she relate to activity (e.g. 'Disorganized')?
  • And how does she relate to time (e.g. 'Impetuous')?"
You could even take a personality test from the point of view of your character rather than yourself, in order to get inspiration for good descriptive words. This is a good way to begin, but you wouldn't want your character to seem too blandly realistic, just like any other ho-hum person with the same personality test result. Your character needs words that sparkle and dance a bit -- but not too much! Just enough so that it feels interesting and inspired.

Another way to look at it, as suggested by Mishell at Dramatis Personae, is to draw your four traits from four different sources inspired by Warcraft lore:
  • something racial, shared by others of the same race as your character;
  • something unique, which differentiates your character from others of that race;
  • something professional, which inspired your character to take up his or her class and skills of choice, and
  • something quirky, which makes him or her memorable in the eyes of others.
A gnomish rogue, for example, might be inquisitive (as gnomes tend to be), practical (as opposed to other gnomes who tend to be off their rocker), crafty (always getting what he wants in his roguish way), and musical (in the sense that he absolutely loves beautiful music -- especially opera, and will sing for you if you give him the chance. He even thinks of life as a grand performance, with himself backstage making things happen). Two of these traits (the first and the third) are sort of what you would expect from a gnomish rogue, while the other two might catch you a bit off guard and peak your interest.

Examples

To help give you a sense of how this works from a different point of view, I've selected a couple of my favorite character diamonds from the original forum thread at Dramatis Personae that got me thinking about all this in the first place. Normally, I would just link you to the forum where they are posted, but in this case it requires one to register for access, so these two friends have been kind enough to let me post examples here for others to see as well.

The "dark jester", Lexanne
(Forsaken rogue), by Alanna
  1. JOCULAR - Everything is a great big joke to Lexanne. She never misses an opportunity to make fun of something, and very little, if anything, is sacred or off limits.
  2. PERVERSE - Lexanne elevates schadenfreud to an art form. She loves make other people uncomfortable, and has no shame in doing so. She is finding her extreme ugliness since her return to (un)life helps her in this, though she still hasn't seen her own face (just the reaction). (Jocular + Perverse = Major byotch -- I'm not sure why people seem to like her anyway :D)
  3. CURIOUS - Lex loves to get into everyone else's business. "Subtlety" is not a trait one would immediately associate with her, but it's her spec so she can sneak around and find stuff out better. She lives to eavesdrop and find out secrets.
  4. GREGARIOUS - Lex feels the need to be a part of something. She doesn't know where it comes from, but she has a strong desire to be liked. This often conflicts with the perverse streak.
Virjaal (Draenei mage), by Finnegan
  1. BRILLIANT: Virjaal has an incredible analytic mind. The world is a series of puzzles to be unraveled, and, for Virjaal, the unraveling is often swift. Unfortunately for those around him, he is also very aware of this, making him rather...
  2. ARROGANT: He is handsome, intelligent, powerful in the arcane arts, and, until the escape from Draenor, wealthy. The one thing he has always lacked is a sense of humility. Not only does this mean that he has a nearly impenetrable sense of self worth, but he has little patience for those who prove themselves flawed in his eyes. If they are not as worthy as him, he is loathe to sully himself with their company... which usually results in solitude.
  3. DRIVEN: Solitude is not unwelcome, however, because Virjaal's primary interest is his study. He has a nearly compulsive devotion to his work, which springs from a firmly held belief that an empirical understanding of the arcane is the only way to responsibly employ it. Without the research of him and his peers, Virjaal fears that the folly of the Eredar is doomed to repeat itself.
  4. PESSIMISTIC: Every cough is pneumonia, every snapped twig is an ambush, every drop of rain is a monsoon. Virjaal always has a grim prediction to counter any gladness or cheer, and he constantly prepares himself for the worst. When he is proven wrong, he only becomes more certain that an even worse fate lies around the next corner. In fact, the only times when he is not utterly assured of cataclysm is when all available evidence indicates a complete lack of hope. When reality looks more dire than any of his fatalistic predictions, his brain turns in the other direction, and, in these rare instances, Virjaal becomes a font of reassurance.
Now you have a try: share your own character diamonds or similar techniques in the comments bellow!

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Virtual selves, RP, All the World's a Stage (Roleplaying)

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