The Joys of Imperfection

The Canterbury Tales crew looking ready to break out into shenanigans

The Joys of Imperfection

Perfection. Excellence. Superiority. To be unparalleled. To be sans peur et sans reproche.

To be boring.

When you create a character, you probably do the same thing everybody else does—start with a vague character conception, choose race and class, roll dice for statistics, assign points or proficiencies, and finally settle on a name and sketch out a history. But how do you differentiate this new character from the hundreds of others you or your friends have played over the years?

One way is to choose an interesting personality flaw for the character right from the start.

A good personality flaw should affect the character, not the whole group. It should sometimes exasperate the other characters but never anger or alienate them. It should be good for laughs but also lend itself to tragedy. And, finally, it should be something that the character must overcome as s/he gains wisdom and experience as an adventurer.

Although the list of potential personality flaws is endless, here are a few of the easiest to start out with. They can be mixed and matched, but the first time you decide to roleplay a character who is flawed from the start, you may want to start with just one.

Ambition: This character always has an eye on the next goal. If the character starts out as a commoner and finally becomes a noble, s/he will begin to eye the throne. If this character earns a throne, s/he will begin to eye the heavens. Be careful not to let your ambitious character succeed at the expense of other characters—that will quickly lead to hard feelings. An ambitious character may become very successful in a campaign, but the character should expect to eventually face the choice between achieving a prized goal and retaining the love or respect of his or her friends or family.

Arrogance: This character knows s/he is better than the rest—has bluer blood, comes from purer stock, was trained at a more prestigious school. This flaw is dangerous because it can easily alienate other characters, so temper it with good sportsmanship and a sense of noblesse oblige. Your arrogant character should acknowledge others’ strengths in different areas (an arrogant fighter can still acknowledge a farmer’s skill at husbandry or a mage’s skill at spellcasting, and still respect a noble’s social rank) and help those who are less skilled in their own area of expertise (“Here, young knight, I’ll defend you. Watch carefully—you may learn something.”). The classic roleplaying scenario for this character is to be put into a situation where s/he must learn humility to succeed.

Cowardice: This character simply doesn’t understand how some adventurers can charge the monsters without a second thought and prefers to stand back and look for a good opening. This is a flaw best suited to a mage, cleric, or thief—someone who doesn’t necessarily need to fight in the front rank. Be careful not to make your cowardly character useless to the party, though. The character should be able to screw up enough courage to defend endangered companions or cast spells from the back of the group. Cowardly characters who overcomes their reluctance to save a companion or perform a great deed are true heroes, because there’s no mightier opponent than fear.

Foolhardiness: This character rushes into things without thinking and is quick to accept a dare or challenge. Because this flaw can easily lead to a character’s early demise, your foolhardy character should be willing to listen to other’s advice before leaping into action. This flaw is best played with a touch of slapstick humor and cheerful bravado. A typical scenario for this flaw involves foolhardy characters’ rash actions endangering their friends or loved ones, thus teaching the characters to look before they leap.

Greed: This character always wants more, refusing to believe that there’s such a thing as “too much.” Be careful not to make your greedy character untrustworthy—a little honest avarice is forgivable, but stealing from other characters is not. The greedy character who finally, reluctantly, gives money away to support some noble cause or forlorn individual will have lots of fun roleplaying the act and can enjoy grumbling about it for many years afterward.

Subservience: This character seeks to serve others as well as possible—to be the perfect servant, follower, sidekick, or assistant. This flaw tends to inspire other characters to try to convince the subservient character to stop acting like a servant. Your subservient character may continue to be a sidekick throughout the campaign (in which case mixing subservience with dry sarcasm or slapstick humor often works well) or may evolve to become a leader in their own right.

Underconfidence: This character flaw is similar, but not identical, to subservience. This character believes they are less talented, skilled, handsome, or worthy than any other character and suffers from uncertainty and self-doubt. This flaw will often inspire other good-hearted characters to try to convince the underconfident character that they are just as good as everyone else. Underconfident characters should hesitate at important moments and worry about whether they are making the right decision. This character may eventually come to develop a sense of self-worth, perhaps with the encouragement of friends or loved ones.

Vanity: This character wouldn’t be caught dead in an unstylish outfit, abhors activities that might muss a new hairstyle or ruin a manicure, and dreads the thought of another awful mission through the sewers. This flaw is best tempered with a touch of humor to prevent your character from seeming too petty or condescending. The vain character is doomed to lose outfit after outfit to the perils of adventuring and will bemoan every broken plume, ripped doublet, tattered dress, or broken nail as they travel.

Not everybody wants to play a flawed character. Roleplaying is a form of escapism, and sometimes we all just want to escape into a world where we are perfect. But if you get tired of playing the same old generic hero game after game, try playing someone a little less perfect. After all, the real heroes aren’t the ones who have everything going for them — they’re the ones who succeed despite falling short of the ideal.

Originally written August 16, 1998

Image Source: Chaucer for Children, 1877.

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.
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