How to Get Under Your Character’s Skin When Roleplaying

This is a companion to the Twilight Time article that article discussed the idea that figuring out the ways in which your character will grow and change as your game progresses is much easier if you can get under your character’s skin (or allow her to get under your skin). Here are a few tips to help you achieve that fun and interesting state.

Not all of the following suggestions will work equally well for everyone; do what works best for you. Some of these are more likely to make your character get under your skin emotionally speaking; others will just help you to intellectually understand what’s going on in your character’s head. If you feel more comfortable with one than the other, then go with that.

First–A Word of Warning

Everyone has a different point at which they feel that they’re blurring the line a bit too much between player and character. Some people feel fine getting so far under the skin of their character that they cry when their character cries; afterward they have little or no trouble “returning to reality.” Other people find that referring to their character in the first person is a little close for comfort. Personally we’re in the former category; we like to let our characters get under our skin a bit. You have to find your own comfort level, though, and no one can tell you where that lies. You have to decide for yourself what you’re happy with. Stick with what’s comfortable for you, and remember that you can always take a break if things seem a little intense, or try something new if you’re ready to explore things a little further.

Subtlety and going slowly are probably good advice in general when playing with this sort of thing. Lots of people can get into their characters and not have any problem with it, but you need to remember that there are boundaries you shouldn’t cross. For example, it’s probably entirely reasonable to get slightly depressed when your character gets killed if you’ve really gotten into playing him. On the other hand, you don’t want to get so involved that your character’s death causes you serious emotional problems. It’s great to explore a character; it isn’t so great to let it take over your life or interfere with your work and relationships.

Obligatory disclaimer: the above represents our personal opinions. We
aren’t psychologists.

Tips & Tricks

#1. Write fiction that features your character.

It’s probably easiest to write about events from your character’s past, but there’s nothing that says you can’t indulge in a little speculation here, or fictionalize in-game events. If you have to stop and think about what your character is thinking at a given moment, what she says in conversation, how she moves, and so on, then you’ll probably find that you gain a much better understanding of her. This is of course easier if you have some experience writing fiction; it helps to have a feel for how to write good dialogue, work all five senses into your descriptions, and so on. But really anyone can play around with this. You don’t need to be a fantastic writer in order to get something valuable out of this exercise for your roleplaying experience.

#2. Refer to your character in the first person during the game.

Instead of saying “Max picks up the chest,” say “I pick up the chest.” Again, some people feel comfortable with this one, some people don’t. And for some it’s just a hard habit to pick up, even if it doesn’t bother them. It’s a handy trick, though, to help you break down those walls, if you’re having trouble allowing yourself to think as your character.

#3. Think back over each gaming run after it’s over.

Take notes as you go through the game. Not just the names of characters and the locations of places you have to go, but the basic events of the game, particularly anything relevant to your character. After each game is over, using these notes as a guide, think back on the run a bit. How did your character feel about those events? Did they make her sad, angry, confused? What does she plan to do about those feelings? How might those events change her plans for the future, or her ways of reacting to things? Will any of them stick with her for a long time to come? Why or why not?

Not every night of gaming has to have lasting impact on your character, but if you get into the habit of asking these questions after every run, then it’ll become second-nature. Before long you’ll find that you’re answering some of these questions automatically, rather than having to think through them.

#4. Play with dialogue.

Write up dialogues between your character and other characters about all sorts of subjects. People often work out their feelings by talking them over with others, so let your character do the same. If your game master (GM) doesn’t mind the occasional longer dialogue in a game (or is willing to carry one out now and then between gaming runs) then you might involve him in this plan. Talk about anything–politics, non-player characters (NPCs), recent game events, morality, emotions–anything at all that you can justify your character talking about.

#5. Make use of a physical element of your character.

You might buy a used leather jacket that suits your character and wear it to the game, or wear a piece of jewelry that suits her, or tie your hair back in a different way than normal. Even if it’s just in a small, subtle way, incorporate your character’s “look” into the way you dress or carry yourself during the game. You don’t have to go nuts costuming unless your gaming group enjoys that sort of thing; you don’t have to spend lots of money on new clothes. A very subtle change from your usual look can be enough to give you that sense of your character. You can do this with things such as mannerisms, too, not just costuming. Maybe your character tends to sit up straighter than you do, for example.

This is another one of those methods that some people feel comfortable with and others don’t. Like referring to your character in the first person, it can blur the line a bit. It’s a great way to break down walls, but not everyone is comfortable with having those walls broken down. Also keep in mind that lots of costuming can be distracting to other members of your gaming group if they aren’t into it. So if you’re tempted to go whole hog, ask first.

#6. Concentrate on the details.

Play with a character questionnaire. The more questions you answer about your character’s background, history, likes, dislikes, morality, and so on, the more you’ll understand what she’s like and how she thinks. While you answer these questions, concentrate on anything that impacts or explains your character’s emotions, morality, belief structure, and so on. You might choose to only answer a couple of questions during character creation, and save some for later, so that your character’s growth will enter into your answers.

#7. Speculate wildly.

Think about some of the things that might happen on a typical night of the game. How would your character react to them? Think about some of the weirder and more outrageous things that could happen. How would she react to those if they happened? Think about some of the interesting NPCs that populate the world. How would your character interact with them or react to them? What might she say to them? Basically this one is the daydreaming option. Hang out, sit back, and daydream about your character’s life in the game world. What’s it like? How does it affect her? How does she handle it?

#8. Chat with the other players.

Sometimes it can help to talk with your fellow players between gaming runs. You might be able to help each other notice patterns of behavior in your characters that you don’t notice yourselves. Try to avoid coming down on other players for doing things in the game that you don’t agree with, though; that way rarely leads to happiness.

#9. Explore your character’s hobbies and interests.

If your character has an interest in a scientific discipline, get a subscription to a relevant magazine (or read magazine issues in the library, or buy a textbook). If your character enjoys candle-making, give it a try yourself. Do some research in your character’s areas of interest. Indulge in your character’s hobbies. If your character’s hobbies are expensive, then just read about them. If she likes to travel to foreign countries, for example, then buy a few tour guides or relevant history books.

This one comes with what should be an obvious warning: If your character is into “questionable” things, just don’t go there! There’s simply no need whatsoever to experience things like theft, alcoholism, drug abuse, and so on in order to be able to roleplay a character who has problems. Try a little research at your local library instead.

#10. Do some thought experiments: “What If?”

Play the “what if?” game. What if your character were in a certain situation–how would she react? Use situations from TV shows, movies, or books to inspire you. This is much like suggestion 7, except not limited to material from your game world.

#11. Make sure there’s a little overlap with you.

There’s no need to “play yourself.” But sometimes just having a little bit of overlap between your character and yourself can help you initially in getting into the character. I’ve heard some people say that they can’t get into a character at all that doesn’t have at least a little similarity to themselves, however distorted and distant. It could be something as simple as a strong bit of morality you hold, or a way of interacting with people you like, or even a hobby that strongly interests you.

You don’t have to feel swept up in your character in order to roleplay, or in order to enjoy the experience. A lot of people do enjoy this sort of thing, however, and find it easier to play their character if they can think like their character. Hopefully these ideas will give you a place to start if you’re uncertain of how to make the transition.

If the idea of blurring the line a bit is something you aren’t entirely comfortable with, but you want to play with it anyway, then here’s a suggestion for you: Only play with the positive aspects of your character’s personality and actions. Only indulge in hobbies that are related to an aspect of your character’s personality that you like or admire. Or stick to the more “intellectual” options above, such as fiction-writing, thinking back over the game, playing with dialogue & character questionnaires, and so on.

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