Personalizing a Character

Two people talking, an angry person striding by

Personalizing a Character

Certain modes of communication carry great symbolic weight. A clever roleplayer or GM can use these social symbols and stereotypes to immediately reveal something about their character.

SPEAKING SPEED

Fast Talker. To roleplay this, a player should begin speaking very quickly, without pausing to think about what s/he is saying. A fast talker can either be enthusiastic, nervous, or untrustworthy. The enthusiastic talker will stumble over words in the excitement of conveying a thought. The nervous talker may speak quickly but stammer and use filler-noises like “uh” or “you know?” The untrustworthy talker will speak quickly but smoothly, glossing over parts of an argument that won’t hold up to scrutiny and attempting to establish rapid bonhomie.

Slow Talker. To roleplay this, a player should speak very slowly, perhaps counting to two or three before starting the next word, phrase, or sentence. A slow talker might have trouble getting their thoughts into order and finding the right words to convey them, might be speaking in a different language, might be carefully considering their words, or might be isn’t certain how much s/he wants to reveal and must sift through all of the information before doling any of it out to the listener.

PROXIMITY AND TOUCH

Close. To roleplay this, the player should lean toward other players when speaking and/or reach out to touch the person being spoken to on the shoulder, arm, or hand. Close speakers can be friendly and/or aggressive. Friendly speakers move close because they feel intimate with the person being spoken to; close friends, family members, lovers, or just people who are naturally warm and physical will tend to stand closer to each other or use more touch when communicating. Standing close or using touch can also be a sign of aggression and dominance, however. Superiors touch employees more often than employees touch their superiors, two men getting ready to fight may belly up close to each other, and people who are careless of another’s feelings may casually punch a relative stranger in the shoulder while talking. Note that there are also cultural differences in closeness: the Americans and English usually keep quite a bit of distance between themselves, whereas men and women from other countries may stand quite close or even put their arms around each other while talking.

Far. To roleplay this, the player should lean back in his or her chair when speaking, perhaps drawing away a little should another player lean forward. Distant speakers can be formal, shy, or cold. Formal speakers feel like touch is an intimacy that, for whatever reason, is not appropriate at the moment. Shy speakers often have low self-esteem or are afraid of being hurt, and draw back defensively when somebody gets too close. Cold speakers stand aloof from others, unwilling to be touched by inferior hands. Again, there can be cultural and gender differences here that can lead to misunderstandings.

HABITS

Speaking with Hands. To roleplay this, a player should gesture a lot while speaking. Speaking with hands often implies an ebullient, outgoing nature, and possibly a touch of hot-headedness, since people fear a person who uses her hands to talk might not hesitate to use her hands to strike, either.

Speaking Habits. To roleplay this, a player should choose a particular accent, word, or dialect and keep using it. For example, accents can communicate the part of the country or world your character is from. Habitual words can also tell others something about your character—for example, a character who constantly exclaims “Jumping Jehoshaphat!” is one type of personality, and a character who keeps repeating “Thanks be to God” is another. Habits of speech can also communicate something about your character; for example, using ’30s slang versus ’90s slang; choosing long, intellectual words or short, hard-boiled ones, and so forth.

Hand Habits. To roleplay this, a player should choose one or two gestures and keep using them throughout the game. For example, a nervous character might rub his hands together a lot or finger his collar or glasses when talking. An exuberant character might pump her fist up and down in triumph and give others high-fives. A saintly or exasperated character might fold his hands together and lift his eyes to heaven a lot. A rude character might give others “the finger” whenever disagreed with. One or two of these traits, used regularly, can convey a lot about a character’s personality throughout a game or campaign.

There are other ways of personalizing a character, of course, such as wearing a bit of costume to the game or using a prop like a pipe or long necklace. But when you’re just starting to play a new character, concentrate on providing clearly visible or audible clues to your character’s personality, and don’t worry about overusing them … although the gestures or words may seem strained for the first game or two, soon they’ll become second nature, and whenever you’re in character the traits will come naturally.

Originally written January 19, 2001

Image Source: More Tales from the Arabian Nights (1915)

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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