January 29, 2010 – 9:16 am
Though the author seems mild mannered and well intentioned, watch out for this post. It’s written by Uthas, Feathermoon’s own personal evil incarnate (mostly), and when it comes to making a really awesome bad guy, Uthas does it well, particularly since he frequently plays those bad guys in game (rather than making them into fiction foes or rarely played alts for the sake of the story). As expected, this post is as much about creating a really believable, well rounded character as it is about creating the next iteration of really good Bad Guys, which makes it all that much better! Enjoy!
When I was a kid, one of my favorite games was So You Want to Be a Hero? I loved the idea of some official body of heroes that was taken only halfway seriously by everyone in the world. It had a meta-humor that appealed to me, but I was always disappointed that there wasn’t a companion game series called So You Want to Be a Villain?
I have always been far more fascinated with villains in stories than in the heroes.
This is a bit strange because I was a straightlaced Momma’s Boy growing up, always afraid of breaking the Rules. I don’t think that my fascination even comes from any desire to shrug off the shackles of conservative behavior and vicariously let my hair down. No, I think it’s because the villains were ACTIVE.
In the stories I read and movies I watched, the villains were always the ones with a plan, taking an active role in how the universe around them was shaped. The heroic side was always merely reacting to the bad guys, and because of this were often less fully realized than their black-hatted counterparts. The good guys were not only kind of boring, but even worse, they were PASSIVE. Think about the most popular of the heroes of the Star Wars trilogy – Han Solo. Why is he the most popular? He’s active and knowledgeable, because he’s just a little bit bad.
When I hit an age where I began to craft my own stories, it was often easier for me to focus on the antagonist of a piece than the protagonist, because in the common tropes of speculative fiction, it’s the antagonist that is actually be PROactive. They kick the story off and drive it to the necessary places. While occasionally stories appear in which the good guys are the driving force, this is far rarer than the reverse. They are generally just trying to get the world back to normal. As a writer, it was easier for me to guide a story through the eyes of the person shaping events, and in time, I (hopefully) became good at it.
My first real story based character in the World of Warcraft was a villain.
I rolled on an rp server a few weeks after the game came out in ’04, and quickly got involved in the forum rp scene developing there. There were many stabs at villainy back in those days, but I quickly became frustrated with them, because I thought they were all BAD. Not bad as in evil, but bad as in poorly done. My frustration led me to challenging myself to see if I could do better, and one epic storyline and a few thousands screams of exasperation from my victims later, I feel that I may have some tips for people when it comes to crafting villains.
Without further ado, here are my basic steps to crafting villainy.
1. There is no such thing as a villain.
Whatever character you are designing is first and foremost a person. They had parents, acquaintances, some type of life prior to the story that defines them as a person. Very few people in life define themselves as villains. The good guy or bad guy in a situation often depends entirely on who has the best PR. Don’t think of the character as a villain, think of them as a person with a role to fill in a narrative. Make them human, so that people will care when you kill them.
2. Give your villain a goal.
An overarching goal is possibly the single most defining feature any antagonist can have. It is what separates them from the rest of the flock of generic heroes out there. The villain has a goal, and possible a plan to achieve it. They do not exist to drywash their hands and laugh evilly. They want to accomplish SOMETHING.
3. Make your villain comparable in power to the threat they are posed by anyone trying to stop them.
Stories are boring if one side of a struggle is vastly over or under powered. Bells and whistles are not what will make your villain cool. It is their backing character that people will latch onto, not their fancy black Cape of Head-Shrinking. It’s important to note that power does not always come in the form of a magic sword or huge fireball. Just being smart, or tenacious, or willful can often give someone great power in a situation.
4. Eschew the evil laughter.
Unless your story is firmly rooted in the campy adventure style of the 30s and 40s, you don’t need to identify your antagonist as a villain by making them give off peals of laughter like lightning. That is one of the worst forms of telling and not showing that is possible for an antagonist. If you do your job well in telling the antagonist’s story, while people may identify with them, there will be no doubt in their minds what role the character has fulfilled.
5. No evil for evil’s sake.
If you have followed step 1, your villain has a goal. Make sure that every action they take sticks to that goal somehow. If they are despoiling the countryside, or putting the hero into an elaborate deathtrap, make sure those actions actually serve some kind of commonsensical end. If the motivation behind a villain’s actions isn’t clear, or is just non-existent, your villain becomes a cape-wearing caricature. That is not to say that every villain needs to be obvious in what they do, which leads us into . . .
6. Give us a little bit of mystery.
Never make a villain completely obvious. A good story is often the slow revelation of the villain. Just avoid mystery for mystery’s sake. The art of the reveal is a difficult skill to pick up, and is done poorly all over the place. 90% of long arc television shows have adopted this mystery for mystery’s sake writing style, and it’s terrible. Be more Count of Monte Cristo, less smoke monster from Lost.
7. Be ok with losing.
Villains are defeated. Most of the time, anyway. That is part of their role within the structure of a story, and it is very important never to forget it. At some point, your extremely cool dark character of forbidding terror will be foiled either by their own folly, or by the wits and strength of a do-gooder. Them’s just the breaks, and if you accept it, you can make that defeat just as compelling as every single other part of your villain.
Armed with this set of basic thinking points, pretty much anyone can come up with and narrate a compelling villain. Remember that the best villains are not the ones that are completely inscrutable in their evil, but rather the ones that we can all relate to. There is far too much darkness in the human soul to need to invent any extra.
January 28, 2010 – 8:00 am
This post is brought to you by Sean, formerly of Blogatelle. While he’s no longer blogging, he and I struck up a little cross-blog friendship that has continued even past his and Jess’ decision to take Blogatelle offline. He’s an excellent RPer and writer, and I hope you enjoy his post!
It’s Not as Difficult as you Think!
A while back, Anna wrote a post called XX and XY in RP. It was about her difficulties with role-playing characters who were of the opposite gender to herself, and more generally about the difficulty of anyone role-playing cross-gender. Well, for those who followed Blogatelle, they’d know that my favourite character I made in World of Warcraft was a nervous gnomish girl named Fulthruttle McKenzie Winterspring. But it goes deeper than that. Most of my regular characters were female, only one of them (Baron Ligradi DeMontafe) was male, and furthermore in most computer games, MU*s and even tabletop games, I’ve tended to play women more than men.
Why? I don’t know, to be honest. Something about women is simply more appealing to me than playing a man. Maybe it’s that it’s another level of escapism, an extra level of remove from who I am. But whatever it is, I’m here to tell you: Playing a cross-gender character convincingly isn’t as hard as you think it is.
A Quick Primer in Communication Theory, and why it matters.
Anna admits the weirdness inherent in finding it easier to play a well-behooved blue-skinned alien from another dimension than playing the Guy Next Door, but she explains her understanding of this problem succinctly:
Whether or not “gender” is correct, biological, chosen, culturally shaped, or whatever, gender exists in the real world. Night Elves, however, do not.
And she’s right. But why?
Let’s talk a little about talking. It’s easy to assume that talking and listening is a one step process. I talk, and this speech is then picked up on by the person hearing it. Speaking is active, listening passive. But the reality is more complex than that. Think about it. The listener needs to pay attention to what someone says. You bring your own preconceptions to it. Biases creepy in and twist the original meaning. The end result can mean that what one person said is very different to what the other person actually hears.
This is one of the reasons why playing a non-human race works so nicely in World of Warcraft. You put your spin on what a, say, troll would be. Then the other person, seeing your troll character, thinks, “Oh cool, troll,” and begins interpreting your character as a troll. Really, unless you do something majorly brain-breaking, that’s how it works. If you start playing a troll as unusually eloquent, your opposite number usually won’t think, “Man, that’s not a troll” but “Huh, he’s an unusually eloquent troll!”
So, neat. We can see that in fact, role-play in Warcraft is somewhat self-reinforcing. But here’s the thing: This works for cross-gender role-play, too. If you see a female/male avatar, do you find yourself thinking, “Oh man. That’s got to be a guy/girl”? Of course you don’t, unless that (usually female) avatar is being ridiculously caricatured. So unless you’re dancing on mailboxes naked, or spending all your time talking about how hot you are, quit it. But apart from that, seriously, you’re fine.
I think the biggest issue people have with playing cross-gender isn’t being convincing, but being convinced that they are being convincing. You, after all, have direct access to your own thoughts, and those thoughts are, “Man, I’m being totally like myself here. This is guy think! No girl would ever be like this.” When in reality, they’re thinking, “OK, so she’s a bit tomboyish. Cool.” The reinterpretation kicks in. Instead of thinking you’re doing things badly, most people reinterpret to find a way to see your performance as good. You just need to roll with it.
Hints and Tips
So, with that in mind, here’s how I’d advise role-playing a cross-gender character. None of this is particularly stunning stuff, but just good, common sense.
- Relax. Seriously, this is the big one. Just relax, and trust you’re doing a good job. If you don’t let on, most people will believe you are.
- Don’t think gender. Think attributes and motivations. There’s no such thing as a male way of thinking, or a female way. We’re the products of our upbringing and society. So sure, maybe your male human paladin is gruff and stern, very masculine. Why? Because as a boy, he was quickly taught that emotion shouldn’t be shown to the enemy. Now you have a hook for role-play, and can think not only about when to be gruff and stern, but when to not be. Or, conversely, maybe your female mage is very vain and appearance focused. Why? Because getting stolen glances from boys when growing up was a self-esteem booster. It makes her feel better. Now you know how someone can piss her off: When they ignore her. If you think of attributes and motivations, you’ll have a better comprehension of their character, and play them better. Or, to put it another way? Play people, not sexes.
- If you can’t play a man/woman in general, could you play one specifically? OK, so you’re still not feelin’ it. That’s fine. So here’s a question: Is there an established fictional character similar to the one you want to play? If so, then fine. Play that person. File the serial numbers off first, of course; find the core part of what you think makes that character cool and keep that while ditching the surplus. Find someone you do find masculine/feminine, and play them. It’s a perfectly valid technique.
- Finally, if all else fails, just don’t play a human man or woman. Who the hell is to say what gender politics are like amongst orcs? Who knows what a stereotypical gnome girl is like? How can you say for sure what the goblins expect of a man? Seriously, once you get into the non-human races, everything’s up for grabs.
But above all?
Kick back. Don’t worry. The odds are very good that nobody else believes you’re being unrealistic. The only barrier to playing cross-gender satisfyingly and convincingly is you.
January 27, 2010 – 7:46 am
Three years ago today I married my best friend.
We’ve known each other since we were both in High School, though we didn’t start a romantic relationship until five or six years into our friendship. Known affectionately as Spaceship Husband (since he is, in fact, a rocket scientist), he is my other half, and I am lucky to have met him and thankful to have married him.
While I can’t credit him for video games – I’m the one that got him playing WoW – I absolutely love that we have this hobby together even if we play it in very different ways.
SSH is a fantastic tank, a fellow Paladin, a lot of fun to hang out with, and the only person I’ve ever successfully leveled a character in tandem with (Aely and his Paladin, when WotLK started). And while I’m learning how to tank with Annie Mae, and he’s talking about rolling a healer class someday, it’s really fun to be an endgame Tank/Healer duo. We’ve developed pretty good coordination thanks to playing in the same room and not needing Ventrilo to communicate, not to mention grouping together for the last 5 years in WoW, and in other games before this one.
And though he’s not really particularly interested in RP, he does occasionally come hang out or make an IC offhand remark. He’s very supportive of my writing and quite tolerant of my ability to sit around for hours in game “without doing anything.”
So here’s to our first three awesome years. I can’t wait to see what the future has for us.
The title of this post is an old joke that started in Karazhan, back when each raid member had to individually loot their Badges of Justice, since they were items and not currency. At some point, we started counting out how many badges everyone should have picked up, to avoid the inevitable “Crap! I’m two badges short and the bosses all despawned!”… which lead to SSH doing a Count von Count impression in vent after boss fights. Three! Three Badges! AH Ah ah ah ah…
January 26, 2010 – 8:00 am
This first post in my week of Guest Posts is brought to you by Haemon Shadowind, known generally as Shad: tree healer extraordinaire, occasional tank, distributor of <3s, and always awesome. Enjoy!
Hi, Anna’s other readers! I’m Shad, and this is my first blog post ever. Anna asked nothing at all of me, and I wrote this anyway. Let’s see if she notices.
On to the meat (or delicious baked goods) of the post.
How to start a character can be a conundrum. Some people have the fortune of having a character walk into their head, fully formed, introduce themselves, and demand to be played. Mostly, though, folk start with something a bit more bare-bones. Do you roll the toon first, and let the personality naturally build itself? Do you sit and write out a huge backstory before you ever even see if the name you want is taken? Do you start with a few ideas and roll with the punches?
The Gimmick is a common basis for a new character, for both new and old RPers. Particularly for the new, there is great appeal in implanting an RP hook in your character’s backstory: something to make you stand out from the crowd, a shiny facet of your gem of a character about which people will ask and gasp and be struck with awe.
What is a gimmick? To apply a fairly broad definition, it’s the end to the sentence “I think I’ll make a character who…” That next phrase can be just about anything, from “is a vampire” or “lost her parents in a horrific fire” to “is a human with a dwarven accent” or “is absolutely perfectly normal in every way, shape, and form.”
The term “gimmick,” of course, brings with it a lot of negative connotations, but to make it clear I don’t think of this as a bad thing, I’m going to begin an extended similie.
Character gimmicks are like homemade cookies.
Fun: Both gimmicks and cookies are pure fun, from beginning to end; fun to create and fun to enjoy, unless you’ve really botched them up. It’s a fine line to walk between leaving them half-baked and burning them, but you’ll probably get a good feeling for it after a few tries.
You are not inventing the cookie: You are also not reinventing it. You are not even inventing a new flavor. Your gimmick has almost certainly been done before, be it the tortured death knight or the gleeful death knight, and I promise there are thousands of secret worgen from Darkshire out there. To quote many a more cynical blogger, You Are Not A Special Snowflake, and neither is your character trait.
Your flair makes it awesome: On the other hand, just because it’s not new, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it well. Like with recipes, it’s okay to steal so long as a) you’re not feeding it to the person from whom you stole it, and b) you add a little something of your own to it. What can you do to play it better than you’ve seen it played before? Make sure you’ve got an answer to that before anything else, because it’s your treatment rather than the trait itself that really makes the mark.
Some cookies were never meant to exist: Okay, so you could invent a new one. Some people enjoy the taste of bologna, Swiss, and mayo. No one, however, would like that taste in a cookie*. For a taste like that, you go to sandwiches. Likewise, not all plotpoints mesh with every universe. Night elves are not Drow, no matter how much you want them to be. Arthas has no sons. Or daughters. So you’re not one. If you go about making a cookie that does not belong in the cookie realm, expect to find yourself limited to interaction with people who have very eccentric tastes.
Man cannot live by cookies alone: This, in mine opinion, is the most important point in my ridiculous comparison. So you’ve got a great cookie. You’ve done some awesome piping work with the icing. It looks amazing. But it’s not a meal. If you eat just the cookie, you’ll be hungry. If you make a bunch of cookies, and eat them all, you’ll feel downright ill. So it goes with a character. You can build a character around a gimmick, yes, but you have to actually build the character. Leave it as a gimmick, and it’ll feel empty; fill it with multiple gimmicks, and it’ll go bad fast. Make your character a meal–a whole person–and your gimmick will be a delicious dessert.
So the questions go to you: Have you ever seen a gimmick or cliché done well? Or have you seen one done poorly, and thought about how you might do it better? If you’ve got a gimmick character, how much have they grown? Do they still retain their original gimmick?
Are you hungry now?
*I realize that making a blanket statement such as this one merely invites contradiction. Should you think I am wrong here, I challenge you to eat such a cookie.
June 29, 2014 – 4:39 pm
So I’m not really in a position where I should be creating alts. This, of course, does nothing to deter me from making alts when the inspiration strikes. I’ve been really enjoying my Alliance hunter, and she’s my raiding main …
November 19, 2013 – 4:46 pm
Bad things are happening in Stormwind – and beyond.
The Hand of Lothar, they call themselves.
Yva Darrows was their first target.
Tirith and Aely were their second and third.
They have since… expanded their reach and escalated their methods …
November 13, 2013 – 9:59 am
The cathedral bells stop ringing overnight, except for chiming the hours. Three bell strikes, and Angoleth padded softly around another corner of the Cathedral District, staying carefully in the shadows. Trained ears picked up Mogget’s soft breathing – nearly inaudible …
November 7, 2013 – 1:33 pm
(Written by Jolly, Tarquin, and Annalea)
The highlands of Lordaeron were not for the faint of heart; be it the putrescence of the Scourge’s long-lingering remnant, or the rock-strewn hills and valleys that made farmers out of only the most …
September 13, 2013 – 7:11 pm
(With Tarquin and Annalea)
Once more, four people made their way through the thickets and hills of Lordaeron, this time in the crisp chill of late morning, seeking after the Rider. Aelflaed had snatched what sleep she could while Chryste …
September 11, 2013 – 9:47 am
She hadn’t wanted to leave Jolly – not so soon after finding him again – but once away, it took about five minutes for Aely to figure out she had a problem.
That problem had just announced that …
September 9, 2013 – 10:05 am
It was an uneasy goodbye for him, but it was agreed by both he and Aely that a stroll back to Hearthglen would not be very easy to explain, nor would the explanation needed for the three Argent soldiers once …
September 7, 2013 – 9:02 am
“Light sent me ye when I needed ye afore – an’ now again when I need ye. I canna ask fir more than tha’.” She sighed and slung the shield back across her shoulders. “It’s… Light. Been awhile hasna it? …