Monday, December 12, 2011

Character Series Part 1: Character Archetypes.

After doing the article on RPG's and movies I wanted to do an all encompassing article on just one story element.  The element of character.  There is just plain too much info to get into one reasonably sized and organized posting so here is installation one.

Character Archetypes

If you have studied literature in any depth you will have heard of character archetypes.  These are the rough categories that characters fall into and how I feel they can be addressed by players in roleplaying games.

Not being a lit major myself I looked up character archetypes and found a great article here: that I used as reference for the categories of the archetypes themselves.  This article is from a literature perspective and mine is from a roleplaying game perspective.

The Archetypes:

Main Character

Hard to define in RPG terms as this is the character through whom the story is told.  Each player character, to the player, in an RPG is in this sense the Main Character but not so in literature although some novels have the perspective of the story change from character to character based on writing style and who is observig the action.  This does not translate well in gaming terms except for perhaps Varric in Dragon Age 2.  He is used as a gimmic.  The game and all of its plot elements and choices is being related by Varric during an interrogation that serves as a plot framework for the game.  He has a gift of omniscience in this mode as he is relaying the choices you make in the story even if he was not there and did not experience the events.

Varric being Varric


The Protagonist is the character who moves the plot forward.  Still not a direct hit on RPG's as all of the players and the game runner share this duty.  Most often in fantasy literature and film this is a second role of the hero.  A fine example of this not being the case is "Big Trouble In Little China", a movie where John Carpenter made the decision to have the Hero, Jack Burton, tag along as the sidekick or companion of the Protagonist, Wang Chi, who was more of an archetypal sidekick but one who moved the plot.

Big Trouble In Little China trailer


Classically a hero would be a scion of a deity.  Someone with power beyond that of we wee mortals but also someone with high moral character who does the right thing ad infinitum.  In RPG terms this would perhaps be an especially gifted Paladin type character who plays "Lawful Stupid" as an alignment.

Aristotle defined the Tragic Hero, one who was not super perfect and without flaw or doubt in character but one who would have a flaw that would "change" his or her "fortune".  “The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad.”  This would never fly in the world of electronic gaming where it is an unwritten rule that characters, especially player characters, get more awesome over time but for table top this is a flavor of character to consider.

There is also the Anti-Hero.  An anti-hero may be powerful or even a scion but foregoes morals for results.  An anti-hero may be pursuing a moral goal but they feel free to be immoral in the pursuit of that goal.  My favorite anti-hero, of course, is the one and only last Emperor of Melnibone, Elric, one aspect of the champion eternal in fiction written by Michael Moorcock.  If Marvel comics is any gauge of the anti-hero then anti-heroes are obliged to say the word "Bub" a lot.

It is perhaps easiest to cast yourself in the hero role in roleplaying games.  You want to do right and with character advancement you would like to think that who is stuck on doing the right thing.  I present to you the joy of breaking that mold and playing your hero on the tragic side, with a flaw, and perhaps on the anti side and have less than predictable morals.

Doc Savage as the hero.

Chow Yun-Fat as the tragic hero in "The Corruptor".

Bruce Dern as the anti-hero in "Silent Running".


We are finally getting into the meatier roles for the player character.  Antagonist?  That's the bad guy isn't it?  The antagonist is the counter to the protagonist.  The roadblock and scheming counter to the advancement of the plot.  In the nature of conflict in literature, film and gaming, that of person versus person the antagonist is that person that is versus the person we readers, watchers and players care about.

The antagonist should not be purely the realm of the game runner.  As a game runner I will pull a player aside and give them the role of an antagonist and have been assigned by runners to BE an intentional antagonist in their game.

As a player antagonist you should not be wholly against the group goals and ideas.  Referring back to last week a player antagonist may very well be aligned with the group mission of getting the "MacGuffin" but might want it for themselves and not to return to its owner or the person who sent you on this mission.

Everyone in the cast as the antagonist in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre".


Think Monty Python.  Think the holy grail.  Repeat after me ... "NONE SHALL PASS".  The Black Knight in that movie was a brief-lived and comic obstacle character.  B.A. Barajas in "The A-Team" was a narrowly defined obstacle character.  He wouldn't fly in aircraft.  In order to get from A to B by air the rest of the squad would have to sneak up on him and drug him so that he could go with them.

As a player I see the obstacle character as the one who lives by a code.  A priest who will not allow party members to murder or do evil.  A shaman who will not let other characters harm their totem animal and their totem is an agressive alpha predator that is common in these parts.

The obstacle character is not a full blown antagonist.  They are not contrary to the mission but the way that they go about doing the mission.

"None shall pass ..."


The most easily recalled character who fits in the logic archetype in pop culture would be Mr. Spock.  Even he was not purely logical at all times but had this 'flaw' in his character that he behaved along the lines of logic.

I see the logic character in RPG's as a soldier.  This is a character type that has a code and it might not be the most warm and fuzzy code but it is a codified set of behavior that may not fit in with what is moral but by what is necessary to advance the mission.

There will be conflict in playing a logic based character.  But then again what is drama?  Drama is conflict.  If everything was smooth and happy there would be no reason for literature or film or even roleplaying games as entertainment.

Leonard Nimoy as the logical Mr. Spock.


I just finished reading Jim Butcher's "Storm Front".  There was a great example of an emotion character in the story.  That example was "Toot Toot" the fairy.  Toot is a classic small fairy.  He has no real long term memory.  He has wants and needs and a pro forma set of behavioral rules.  If challenged he blusters.  If threatened he blusters.  If appeased he blusters.  Everything to Toot is either great or terrible.  Pizza is GREAT.  Being summoned by a wizard is TERRIBLE.  The pizza that the wizard used to summon him is GREAT. (No he wasn't summoned by pizza in "Storm Front" but if summoned by pizza Toot would think it awesome.)

The emotion character is the inverse of the logic character and potentially just as annoying to have around.  Greed is another example of how this emotional character may act.  If you are familiar with the race of Tieflings then their untargeted and racial greed for shiny and precious things is the example of emotional characters.

Rik Mayall as Drop Dead Fred.


The most pervasive example of the companion in American pop culture is the sidekick for the cowboy hero in western movies.  From the late 1930's to the early 1960's every hero in the genre had a sidekick, a horse and a dog.  All with names and who would follow the great hero on his adventure.  One of the easiest ones to recall is the scout Tonto to the hero the Lone Ranger.

Sometimes the companion role is nebulous and this is especially true if both the hero and the companion share the role of the protagonist.  For example in the United States The Green Hornet had a companion named Kato and in China Kato had some goofy gwai lo following him around on The Kato Show.

What are the goals of the companion?  The goals of their hero.  Where is the companion going?  They are going which ever way the hero is going.  The companion role to me is a very buddhist role.  The role of the companion is to relieve the suffering of the hero as the hero goes about on their journey.

A good example of this in gaming are the companion characters in BioWare games.  They are along for the ride and to share the experience of the hero.  Someone for the hero to speak with for movies as well.  Being a Jack Kirby fan I know the real reason that Captain America had Bucky as a companion.  Cap had Bucky as a literary device so he wouldn't have to talk to himself all of the time.

As a player character a companion is not a stretch to play.  Go along with the group and cooperate.  A well played companion can be a boon to the entire group.

Jay Silverheels as Tonto giving The Lone Ranger his life and his name.

The above archetypes can help you in figuring out how you want your character to behave and what pigeonhole they belong in.  To be honest a player group of eight players with all eight of them are playing in the hero role bores my socks off.  Try making your character another archetype to season your game.

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