Last week, I published a guide to immersive roleplay. One of the fundamentals covered in that guide was the importance of creating believable, relatable characters. Today’s post gets a little deeper into character writing and is designed to help you create engaging characters that will drive roleplay and hook your fellow roleplayers into your plots.
To that end, I’ve invited fellow writer and roleplayer Amika to share the character arc roadmap she uses to create memorable characters. Amika is a stellar roleplayer who uses screenwriting techniques to create memorable characters and stories.
First, though, let’s talk about what a character arc is and how it applies to roleplaying.
What is a character arc?
In literature and film, a character arc is a transformational journey that shapes a character in a meaningful way.
Often, the arc is divided into three parts: the starting point, the middle, and the end. The protagonist starts off one way and, due to a turning point and some obstacles in the middle, becomes someone different by the end. The end isn’t necessarily the end of the character’s entire story, though; it’s just the end to that particular journey.
A character can have multiple arcs throughout the course of their life. Each arc is something that changes them in a noticeable way. That’s one reason it’s called an arc – because the journey often results in sweeping changes to the character. Character arcs are used in writing, including screenwriting, to create relatable characters and plots.
For example, take the 1980s film Scrooged, which borrows its plot from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In Scrooged, the main character, Frank Cross, starts out as a selfish and mean-spirited corporate exec. After being visited by three ghosts, and being forced to confront his past, present, and future, Frank learns to embrace generosity and compassion and changes his fate. By the end of the movie, Frank is much less of an asshole!
What is a character arc roadmap?
In everyday usage, a roadmap is simply a plan you use to get from point A to point B. Because a character arc also has a start and an end, a roadmap can be used to plan out how a character will change as a result of their journey. Thus, a character arc roadmap is a blueprint you can use to plan out or explain important turning points in a character’s story.
How does a character arc roadmap work in roleplay?
Text-based roleplay and other forms of RP differ from writing fiction because you don’t control all the characters in the story – just your own (and possibly some NPCs). Because of that, roleplay can often take surprising twists and turns. That’s one of the reasons it’s so much fun: it’s impossible to anticipate everything!
But this also means that you won’t be able to precisely map out your character’s future. So what good is a roadmap? Well, a roadmap in this case is just a plan; it’s not set in stone. It’s a guide to help you roleplay through your characters’ unexpected ups and downs.
Adding depth to a character’s backstory
Another way you can use a character arc roadmap is to explain how your character came to be the person they are now. This works especially well for creating an engaging and memorable character straight from the get-go because you’ll be building in flaws and depth.
But don’t worry – you don’t have to write out a novella’s worth of backstory. The roadmap simply gives you a starting point that you can carry forward in your roleplay. Use it for characters in your favorite MUD – or any other type of writing game. You can even apply it to your TTRPG characters!
To explain how it works, I’ve invited Amika, a fellow roleplayer (and an excellent one, at that), to walk us through the character arc road map she uses, which is from the Save the Cat! series of screenwriting books. In her own words, the roadmap “works surprisingly well [for roleplay] because TV characters have to be designed to get in trouble every 22-60 minutes.”
Below are Amika’s steps, including both hypothetical and real-world examples. We hope you find them useful!
Amika’s guide to using the character arc roadmap
Based on Save the Cat! methods for creating engaging characters, the form presented here isn’t meant to create a whole character profile, and it’ll probably sound pretty tragic on its own. Its purpose is to make sure your characters will struggle and change. It also helps ensure that, despite their flaws and their ways, your audience (fellow players) can still root for your characters and will want to play with you.
The outline of the character arc roadmap I use from Save the Cat! looks like this:
1. Relationship to Theme: 2. Flaw: 3. Want: 4. Need: 5. Glass Shard: 6. Broken Compass: 7. Rooting Resume:
Each item in the above list is part of a form that you’ll fill out to build your character’s unique roadmap. To start, copy and paste the list into your favorite text editor.
Building out the roadmap
Next, let’s look at each of these pieces of the character arc roadmap, along with some examples, so you can become comfortable filling out the form on your own.
We’re going to pretend that we’re creating a character for multi-user dungeon (MUD) with a superhero theme.
1. Relationship to Theme
The facet of the game world that your character will highlight.
Example: (Hypothetical Superhero MUD) The difference between goodness and heroism.
A personal problem that needs fixing. Something causing trouble for them in their life. (For ideas, check out Andruid’s list of character flaws.)
Example: Our hypothetical superhero found out that she has a totally villainous reputation and is mortified to learn she’s been terrorizing the other characters with her heroics.
A trackable, tangible goal that seems like it will solve the problem but won’t.
Example: Our superhero wants to correct everyone’s perception of her and balance out her apparent mistakes with an equal number of good deeds.
A less tangible, more spiritual need that will actually solve their problem. The character is not aware of this need at the moment their flaw develops.
Example: With the help of some extremely patient friends, our superhero could learn to accept herself as a flawed human being, grow, and find forgiveness. Fixing her reputation is no longer as important as being genuinely good.
5. Glass Shard
Something sharp, maybe as small as a single moment in their life, lodged deep in the character’s heart. It’s what prevents the character from attaining their ‘need’. If the character is even aware of it, finding it and pulling it out will be as messy and painful as it sounds, which is why they’re avoiding it in favor of the band-aid outlined in the ‘want’.
Example: Our character’s world was always presented in black and white, so she feels like if she does something “wrong,” it’s a permanent stain on her record, and that makes her worthless.
6. Broken Compass
The glass shards your character carries damage their moral compass. In the context of the character arc roadmap, the broken compass is a list of mantras that contain words like “never,” “ever,” or “always” that can guide your character away from the easy solutions and towards trouble and conflict. The example the book gives is when Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul rips up the check that would have solved all his problems. He’d never accept help from his old law firm (broken compass) after they screwed him over (glass shard). A broken moral compass isn’t necessarily one that points to immoral choices; it points to extremes.
Example: “I will never apologize because that would mean I was wrong. I will never let wrongdoing slide. I will never give up because that’s admitting I’m not good enough. I will solve every problem I come across.”
7. Rooting Resume
A list of relatable traits that make the audience want to cheer the character on despite their flaws. An important distinction to make – this isn’t necessarily a list of their positive or admirable qualities; it’s what will endear them to others.
Example: Most people know what it feels like to make a mistake and struggle to make it right after. Our character does genuinely want to help people. She’s a lovable dumb jock who is trying her best. Her mentor’s an even bigger jerk.
Once your character develops by meeting their need (or by it falling permanently beyond their grasp), they’ve finished their arc, and you can do this all over again with whatever fun and interesting new traumas they’ve racked up!
Example completed character arc roadmap used in roleplay
As a complete example of using the roadmap, here’s a sheet for a ballerina character in Alter Epoch, Isaia:
- Relationship to Theme (cyberpunk): Technology has made perfection the baseline in the highly competitive world of performing arts.
- Flaw: She will painfully contort herself to meet expectations, and she thinks the people she loves treat her like garbage because of her inadequacies. If she could just figure out what was wrong with her and fix it, surely they’d come around!
- Want: She’s in the process of digitally airbrushing her personality until she’s lovable, and replacing her body with a perfectly-sculpted, cybernetic one.
- Need: She needs to dedicate herself to friendships that bolster her self-worth and stop putting everything she’s got into one-sided relationships and unrequited affection. She needs to realize being lonely is better than being used up.
- Glass Shard: She was basically human trafficked through a legal loophole and grew up as the ward of a talent company that placed her in a cutthroat transhumanist ballet academy where imperfection meant washing out. After her parents gave her up, she became terrified of disappointing anyone, or finding out she thinks someone cares about her more than they do.
- Broken Compass: “I will fix every undesirable thing about me so that no one will want to throw me away again. I will always do right by the adoptive family who actually wanted me. I will never betray a loved one’s trust. I must prove I am the best at everything I dedicate myself to.”
- Rooting Resume: She’s sure hardworking. She’s also kind of a friendly, awkward weirdo under the rhinestones, tulle, and biopolymer exolayer, and if she opens up, it turns out she’s a huge nerd who talks to the matrix, has a Bayesian AI-compatible tarot deck, and knows too much about Aleister Crowley. She insists on looking for the beauty in everything but herself, and extends her empathy to spiders, slugs, rats, and her dad. She has a pet pigeon off the street that she took to the vet for an infected foot. The pigeon is the alpha in their relationship.
Hopefully, this shows how all the separate pieces of the character arc roadmap fit together.
Amika is a comics artist who used to play DikuMUD on elementary school computers during class when she was definitely supposed to be doing something else. Every few years, she’ll hop into an RPI, and the character arc roadmap is a simple tool she uses to make sure the character she creates will be engaging and memorable.
Thank you so much to Amika for sharing this resource and her technique! You can find the books she uses at savethecat.com, along with resources like beat sheets and writing tips. As for Amika herself, you can find her in the upcoming game The Free Zone, a postapocalyptic MU* slated for early alpha in September (stay tuned).