The Psychology of a Likable RPG Character Part 1: Fun

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Somewhere on YouTube there is a self-help series where this guy goes through and talks about the four emotions you have to hit to make strangers like you. Unfortunately, I watched it at some point last year and have cleared my cookies and browser history many, many times since then and am unable to find the video in question, so let me open this with a bit of a disclaimer; these ideas are not mine. I would love to link that video here. If you happen to know what it was or who it was, please leave a comment so I can go back and properly credit him. (And then our wonderful Nerditor Doug found it for me, so if you want to check this guy out he’s over here and makes a lot of Game of Thrones references.)

That said, we will not just be rehashing what this person said in this article! We’ll be taking a lot of those ideas, but applying them to fictional characters. Because while his advice was totally useful for real life, I have (surprise) gotten more use out of it as a tool in fiction and in roleplaying.

Characters are the backbone of the RPG experience

RPG character fun
Sure, your new character has cool glowing eyes, flame producing hands and generally helps the party effectively. But are they likable? [Art by Aaron Lee]

Now consider this; you have a new RPG character that you are super excited about. You’re thinking, “The guys/gals at the table are going to love this,” and you excitedly bring your character sheet (or the first draft of your story) to the game (or to the writing circle) and get into the meat of things.

But no one likes your character. In fact they seem kind of annoyed. And you’re sure you did something awesome this time! Why don’t they like Larry as much as you do, he’s a badass!

Well, I’m not going to promise I have your answer here, but I might. Because this is good stuff and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people trip up on something like this. So we’re going to get cerebral for a minute and go through the list of four emotions you have to hit to form meaningful relationships with people. Except, they are also the four emotions you have to hit (in order) for your character to form a meaningful relationship with your reader/the rest of the gaming table.

First, you have to make them have fun

This seems obvious, doesn’t it? We’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, we’re reading a book — these are leisure activities and they should be fun no matter what. But that doesn’t always go without saying because in this case in particular, it’s about making them have fun.

Of course you think your RPG character is fun! You wouldn’t be playing them otherwise. But that doesn’t mean other people are having fun with your character.

Remember your audience.

When you crack open a book, that’s your first impression. They don’t know your character yet. You want to open with them doing something memorable and true to their character to establish their personality, yes, but you also want to open with them doing something a reader is going to find engaging.

When you sit down at the D&D table, or start typing your opening posts in a paragraph or script style roleplay, that is your first impression too. I know you already know your character and you think they are interesting already. That isn’t true of your roleplaying partners. Even if you’ve played this character before, even if they are an expy, even if you’ve played this character with these people.

First, you have to make the other players have fun.

“But Megan,” I hear some of you saying, “that’s the Dungeon Master’s job.” Fie on that, says I! Fun at the D&D table is everyone’s responsibility! And you want people to like your character, don’t you? Otherwise why would you be reading this?

I thought so.

So, then, you might be wondering, how do I make other players have fun with my character? Typically it’s kosher to sit and think “What would I find fun in this situation?” but for some of us that can be a big blind spot. I’m not an exception to that, by the way. I think spiders are fun and apparently most people…don’t.

But seriously the answer is simple; you make it about them. Stop and pay attention to what other people are trying to do, and throw in with that. Invite them into what you are trying to do. Have your character ask theirs questions. Start an argument.

I know that looks super counterproductive, but it’s not. Conflict is the life blood of any roleplay, be it at table or elsewhere, and there is a huge difference between starting a fight for fun and just being an a-hole at table. If your characters have something to disagree over, let them disagree, and — this is the most important part — don’t take it personally when the other character says mean things to yours.

Have you ever been in a roleplaying situation where two characters got really riled up trying to prove a point to each other and you were on the edge of your seat? If you have, I guarantee you remember it. It might even be making you feel hot under the collar right now but I bet you had fun.

Don’t…

…obsess over your character winning the argument, if there is one.

You have to let your darling lose sometimes. The second it becomes important to you that your character wins the argument, things are going to get personal and no one is going to be having fun anymore.

…try to make the other player have fun by having your character act just like theirs.

No one wants to feel like someone is stealing their thunder. It’s totally okay if there’s some overlap. Right now, the party I’m in is running three rogues. There’s a lot of overlap but we’re all different specs and we’re having a blast. The point though is that the way to get your character to get along with other characters is not to be like “see, we’re the same.” It’s to come at them with a character of your own and see how they interact with each other.

…fall into the trap of mistaking your interest in their character for them owing you interest in yours.

To be fair, I don’t see this one at the D&D table as often as I do in chat streams and on forums, but play-by-posters this one is for you. You have to be interesting and you cannot be passive. Your character has to want things, and no, “wanting to be this other character’s friend” doesn’t count. Want vengeance. Want to be the very best at cooking. Want to amass wealth so you can get your family out of the poor house. Give the other players a reason to root for your character. The more they want this thing, the more interesting they will be.

…sulk if other people aren’t as into your character as you want them to be.

Seriously. This won’t make them like you and if they start to act like it, it’s because they pity you and not because they like the character. I don’t think you actually want that. The words “but I’m bad at roleplaying” or “but no one likes my character” had better never come out of your mouth. Leave the pity party at the door please, this is going to sound harsh, but no one wants to hear you whine.

If you want better roleplaying, be a better roleplayer. If you want people to interact with you, go and interact with them. If you want readers to engage with your character better, listen to them and edit so you have a better character to engage with. Do not ever put the responsibility of how your character is viewed on other people. They came to this game (or book) to have a good time and they don’t want to be guilt tripped or scathed at and they definitely don’t want to be responsible for entertaining you when there’s no reciprocation.

Which is to say, put some focus on the other players.  Ask them about their lives. Come up with ideas for fun things your characters can do together — fun proactive things that the other player can actually effect the outcome of!

That said…this was supposed to be one article but I guess I had more to say about it than I thought so we’re gonna break it up. Next time: You have to make them trust you.

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Follow Megan R. Miller:
Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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