Breathing Life in Characters Part 2: The Self and Philosophy

The last post in this series looked at the concepts of politics and opinion. Once you have the external elements of a character down, it’s a good idea to look at their worldview. You may not want to do this for minor characters, especially ones that the players are unlikely to interact heavily with, but characters who may need to make consistent decisions or who are going to be showpieces of a session need to get a little more fabric put into their design, and their self-concept and philosophy. Like with political beliefs, many characters from the same society will have similar religious and philosophical viewpoints, and you can create a sort of baseline that lets you direct actions in a believable manner without a lot of micromanagement.

First, you could use the basis of standard personality tests as a building ground. The popular Myers-Briggs test is just one of a dozen such tests; taking a test for yourself as well as reading about the theories behind it can be important—tests tend not to terribly accurately represent a personality, as they do shift over time and people respond differently in various contexts, but having an idea of how a character prefers to behave (for instance, being introverted leads to staying guarded around strangers) can give you a baseline for behavior.

Second, consider the philosophy of a character. Certain personalities lend themselves more to navel-gazing, and not all characters will have solid philosophies, but most characters have a few guiding principles. Characters may have a strict egoist philosophy that motivates them to act for personal gain, but it’s also likely to have characters with philosophies leaning toward the concept of a “greater good” or likewise.

Most characters’ philosophies will be dictated by their society. For instance, most of Western society is humanist, placing a high value on human life. Even things that are highly valued, like technological progress, come after the concept of cost of life—this is why human testing of drugs is highly regulated and restricted; killing someone with a half-finished prototype is considered to be the worst possible outcome.

An example of a humanist evolution common in science fiction that has seen some adoption in reality is extropianism: the concept that humanity should actively seek to upgrade itself into something greater than human; extropianism is aligned with the concept of transhumanism common in the cyberpunk genre and explored throughout many modern works of science fiction. In some branches of extropianism, the focus shifts away from the individual focus of humanism, as the desire to improve overrides the value of an individual and would justify scientific tests that have a net benefit even if some subjects suffer side effects.

Add objectivism, in which the search for self-benefit is cited as a force for universal good, nihilism, in which objective morality is rejected, and there are at least four interesting philosophies for creating dynamic characters in a variety of settings, and which can be used rather easily in a variety of settings.

Religions also play a large role in the way that characters will interact with each other. A character who is duty-bound to their deity to perform certain actions will typically do so, albeit with the occasional lapse of human error and usually with a “sanity check”: few characters are more annoying than the archetypical “Lawful Stupid” paladin who immediately seeks to slay those who violate their deity’s tenets (those proscribed slaying will at least lecture, whine, and throw tantrums to get their way).

Social structures provide a third window to a character’s internal philosophy. Even within the context of societies with a generally prevalent school of thought and a fairly uniform body of religious practice, certain people may have certain rights and privileges granted to them. Combined with a character’s personality, this can make people noble or ignoble regardless of their walk in life: a noble who wields power like a tyrant and a peasant who lies and cheats both tend to earn themselves roles as villains.

Where there is a high degree of social stratification, there are often special rules for how that power can be wielded; there is sometimes a concept of “noblesse oblige”, where a character who has a social position has a certain code of etiquette associated with it.

However, codes of etiquette are hardly limited to the elite. Men are (or were) typically expected to open doors for women, or let them go first in a queue, or walk on the side of the sidewalk closer to vehicle traffic. Shaking hands is often a sign of business agreement, because it would (in theory) reveal any concealed weapon: although there is little reason to suspect that the average person in the modern day has a weapon strapped to their forearm, the tradition and habit has stayed. Your world will likely maintain many of these rules and play with them; give your characters expectations to go along with them. Characters who follow these codes of etiquette can immediately convey trustworthiness or nobility or reveal deceit and self-interest, and they provide good ways to immerse players in the world.

In matters of both religion and social etiquette, there is also the matter of commission and omission to be considered. A religious character will likely have some concept of sin: an action that offends their deity and runs contrary to their moral code. They will almost never commit a sin, unless they have a moment of human weakness or a poor understanding of their own moral code. However, a sin of omission is likely to bother them as well: the devout and righteous head priest of a good religion is unlikely to smile upon adventurers murdering a political rival, even if it benefits them.

Etiquette works differently. For example, it would be rude, and potentially the basis for a duel, to explicitly exclude someone from a public event. However, “forgetting” to extend an invitation often sends the same message, albeit with less direct insult. Etiquette comes with the same expectations that a moral code does, although they may be toned down in certain situations: an outsider is expected to avoid murdering people, but might be forgiven for speaking out of turn. How much a character cares about etiquette and morality can speak volumes about their personality.

Individual characters, of course, will have their own interests. It is not a bad idea to have a few sentences of dialogue mocked up for each character, coming up with prompt and response for them. A character who is asked “Why should I help you?” and responds with “Because my cause is just, and you have the power and therefore the responsibility to do so.” will be different from a character who responds to the same question with “Because I’ve got a sack of gold with your name on it.”. A noble character might, of course, offer a financial incentive, but it says something about a character’s beliefs and motives if their first step is to offer a bribe.

By working through the basic ideals and beliefs of a character, you can easily give them a way to respond coherently in a number of different situations, which is great for when something comes up that didn’t fit into your planning, and the general practice will help you make characters that feel more alive and act with a spark of initiative that is difficult to garner otherwise.

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