What You’re Really Saying When You Say: “My Character Wouldn’t Do That.”

“My character wouldn’t do that.”

We’ve all been at a game table where someone has said this. Maybe you were the game master, or another player, or even that player, but it’s happened. And it’s one of the most frustrating situations you can find yourself in no matter which of these people you happen to be.

As the game master and other players you are frustrated because this phrase typically grinds the story to a halt, and as the player who uttered the phrase you are frustrated because you’re having a difficult time reconciling the story with how you envision your character.

Here is the thing though: when you say “my character wouldn’t do that” and then stonewall any further discussion, what you’re effectively saying is “I refuse to participate in this story.” This, of course, is a problematic stance to take in a game that hinges on collaborative storytelling. So let’s take a look why we should avoid doing this and discuss some other things we can do instead.

I feel like I should take a moment to pause here and say that I’m not talking about hard moral stances, things like “my guy won’t let innocent people die,” although at times even this could be a fun dilemma to wrestle with (remember: Spock taught us that sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one). However, if this is the sort of stand you find your character taking on a regular basis then you’re probably playing with the wrong group of people. At the very least you’re probably playing the wrong sort of character for the style of game that everyone else is wanting to play. Anyway, I’m not talking about that sort of thing. What I’m talking about are less extreme situations and character traits that still evoke the “my character wouldn’t do that” reaction. Things like “my guy won’t go in to cities,” or “won’t get on boats,” or “won’t cooperate with members of a certain class or race.” 

And here’s the irony: creating characters with strong convictions like this is actually a good thing – hell it’s a great thing – but there’s a catch:  you need to be ready – eager, even – to explore what happens to your character when those convictions are challenged. It’s fine to make a dwarf that “doesn’t work with elves,” as long as you’re excited to roleplay (in a way that moves the character and the story forward) what happens when he has to work with elves. Why? Because stories are driven by conflict, and the characters that inhabit stories are at their most interesting when they are outside of their comfort zones. If “The Hobbit” were a three hundred page book about Bilbo Baggins sitting on his fat ass eating biscuits and having tea because hobbits don’t go on adventures it would be one of the worst books ever. Likewise, “Once upon a time there was an elf who didn’t trust humans and so never went in to cities, the end,” is a terrible story. So don’t write that story with your character!

The places where the narrative rubs against your character’s convictions, and the dynamic changes that happen to both things when this friction occurs, is the story. This point of friction is where the best role-playing opportunities exist for your character – don’t take these opportunities away from yourself and shut the game down by refusing to explore (or creating a character who refuses to explore) what happens when circumstances force that character to challenge his convictions and make compromises. Instead of thinking in absolutes and making a character who wouldn’t do “that,” whatever it is, describe you’re your character instead as being uncomfortable doing “that,” or just say he’s never done “that,” but give yourself the wiggle room to acknowledge that he might have to do “that,” and think about what will happen when he does.

I feel like I could keep rambling on about this, but instead I’ll wrap things up. The bottom line is this: Don’t do yourself and the game a disservice by creating characters that are so uncompromising that you’d rather shut the game down for everyone instead of evolving those characters through roleplaying.




5 thoughts on “What You’re Really Saying When You Say: “My Character Wouldn’t Do That.”

  1. My default starting personality for new characters is normally based upon some kind of conflict between two opposites. I have a character who I try to make disobedient and obedient at the same time. Deciding when to bend rules, when to break them and when they need to be adhered to is what makes him fun to play.

    I have another character from a very poor background who is feels obliged to send most of his adventuring gains back home to help is family and community but at the same time frightened of being poor. He doesn’t like carrying large amounts of wealth in case someone takes it from him and he is left with nothing. On the other hand he doesn’t feel he can trust people when he want to send money home to deliver the gold rather than steal it away for themselves. So as a beginning character he have lots of internal conflicts going on.

    The characters’ personalities come out as they and I resolve these conflicts as they face the choices that adventuring throws at them.

    I think what you are describing above is more of a problem if the characters personality is more one dimensional and that is their only personality trait, the player then instantly gives in to the first conflict against that trait then they are left with no identity or reason for being for their character at all. That is why they dig their heels in and say their character wouldn’t do that.

    1. That’s an excellent point, and I’m inclined to agree with you! I believe that this problem does indeed plague “flat” characters more often than well-rounded characters like those you described.

  2. So only if we IRL would understand it to be a moral conviction (don’t kill innocents) is it okay to be uncompromising? If most of us would find it ‘wrong'(racism) we should play them comprisingly?
    The only thing I hesitate on is that this does not leave room for a fully fictional world. Sure you can have elves and dragons, magic and elementals, not Earth geography…but all of those differences will create different moral systems. We can’t completely plaster our expectations of what’s a backwards conviction to a fantasy world.

    1. I did specifically say that this article was not about moral stances, but rather it was about other personality traits – like “my guy refuses to go into cities” – that can grind play to a halt and box your character out of good roleplaying opportunities. Issues of morality are a different matter, and it’s up to your group how you deal with that sort of thing and how often.

      1. Exactly. In a fictional, fantastical setting…something like entering cities could be a moral question. It isn’t just geography and biology which would change in a fully fleshed out setting. Granted, one doesn’t *have to* develop the setting that deep, but one can.

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