Lessons from a TV series bible. #6: main character breakdowns

Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:

6 . Character breakdowns . Now that you’ve introduced your series, it’s time to list and describe your main characters. List each character by name, approximate age and race (if relevant), and role (professional title, place in the family, etc.), followed by a one- or two-paragraph-long description of the character’s personality, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and relationships to the other characters. What does each character want? What are the obvious behavioral peccadillos that make this person interesting? (For example, Dr. Shaun Murphy in David Shore’s The Good Doctor is an autistic savant.) If the character is going to change over the course of the series (e.g. Walter White in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad ), how will that change be manifested? Avoid lengthy biographical information. All buyers want to know is who this character is now.

Only list your main characters. Try it keep the list down to six or seven. Spend the majority of time describing your lead characters, less so supporting characters.

Character generation is such a prominent feature of RPGs that this is hardly an item that we would be in danger of forgetting to do if it were to be left off our checklist. But there are points in this paragraph that are worth listing and working through. A lot of roleplayers are in the habit of considering a character-sheet full of capabilities and limitations to be a character, and when you press them to tell you what their characters are or are like (besides what they are capable of) they give you backstory instead of character. Capability is not character. Backstory is not character. Ury lists a few things that belong on a checklist for players when designing characters, but I doubt it is complete or entirely apposite.

  • name,
  • approximate age and race (if relevant),
  • role (professional title, place in the family, etc.),
  • personality,
  • motivations,
  • strengths,
  • weaknesses,
  • relationships to the other characters.
  • What does [the] character want?
  • What are the obvious behavioral peccadillos that make this person interesting?

I think “personality”, “motivations”, and “relationships to the other [player] characters” are the ones that role-players most often give short shrift. I would probably write “habits and manners” rather than “behavioural peccadillos”. I think I’d add “attitudes” in there somewhere.

“Interesting” needs to be qualified: in a TV show it may be assumed to mean “interesting to watch”, “good to identify with”, or perhaps “good to resent and hate”. In an RPG I think the emphasis has to be on “interesting to play”, “fun to portray”, and “interesting and fun to be on the team with”. Some players have to be reminded that their characters points of interest really ought to appear in play and not merely in a backstory and journals that no-one gets to read. Some players manifestly play RPGs of the interior experience of being the character in the situation, and not all of them can or can bear to play their characters as a performance for others to enjoy. There’s no point in busting those players’ chops. But the rest of us can sometimes do with a reminder to design and play our characters with an eye to the entertainment of others.

Relationships with the other PCs are an area that often gets less work than it should. Character-players are often jealous of their sovereignty over their characters, maybe because they have rather too little control otherwise. But campaigns are often better if each PC has a niche or specialisation within the team: not a special capability as such, but a characteristic approach and attitude. On thing that I think character-players do well to collaborate on explicitly is to create characters with contrasts or attitude and approach that allow each to act as a foil for the other.

Avoid lengthy biographical information. All buyers want to know is who this character is now.” can be quoted for truth.

Ury seems to be thinking of the series bible as being pitched to appeal to “buyers”, i.e. to the studio with the green-light authority, while also serving as a reference to free-lance script writers and the staff in the writers’ room. But RPG campaigns don’t work that way. Character breakdowns don’t belong in the pitch document for an RPG because character-players will usually be designing and generating their own characters after a pitch has been accepted. The information about characters that goes into the pitch is the more categorical and less specific X in “the PCs are X who do Y in setting Z”, which we dealt with under “premise”.

In an RPG the “main” characters who most obviously get the thorough breakdowns are the PCs. But there is a case for the GM sometimes doing something of the sort for a few key NPCs. These breakdowns usually ought not to be revealed to the character-players as they would be to writing staff and freelance writers on a TV series.

As I understand it, the main use for a series bible is for writers: who are these people and what do they do? So I think there’s some relevance here to pre-gens for convention games: as well as the basic numbers, I like to have a bit of text about who this person is, just enough for the player to get some idea of what I was thinking of (which they can of course then take in their own direction during play).

I’ve noticed that several recent games ask for group character generation, and enforce links: pick a character you rely on, pick a different character you try to protect, or something of that sort. This can certainly produce something more plausible than “I, a person trained in violence, have met other persons trained in violence in a drinking establishment, and we have decided to kick in someone’s door, kill them, and take their stuff”… hmm, actually that seems all too plausible. Of course in a high-death game you still need to work in the replacements.

I think “behavioral peccadillos” are intended to be what I’d call the tags, the things that that character always does that make them distinctive.

As far as backstory goes, I try to work on the basis that this, the campaign that’s starting, is going to be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to the character. Backstory should be there to support that, not to be exciting in itself. (More mechanically, it justifies traits and provides anecdotes. My guy has Marksmanship and Courtesy Rank and Flashbacks because he was a soldier; and when we’re about to kick down the door, I can say “this reminds me of that time in Fallujah, only with less C4 and more tentacles”.) On the other hand, I do like to write up for my own benefit a timeline of the backstory; not so much “he was a soldier” but “he was in this war with that unit in those actions”.

Even if an NPC has no game numbers, I need to know what they want and how they’re planning to go about getting it. (And a name.)

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For me, that’s because those are the things i won’t get to grips with until I’ve played the character for several sessions.

I might have seeded some potential motivations in my backstory, of the Mulder wants to find out what happened to his missing sister sort. But if the GM doesn’t bite then those will wither on the vine.

Unless it is built into character gen, I have no idea what my relationships with other PCs are. And even if it is built in, so I start out knowing Roger’s PC is my sister or your PC once saved my life, until we’ve done some RP of those characters, I don’t know how to react to them and interact with them. Will Roger be playing a sweet and innocent sister I can feel protective towards, or a murder-hobo psycho sister I’m beginning to suspect is a serial killer?


[innocent look] Well, you’ve been in a few games with me by now…

I suppose that seen through a mechanistic lens this comes back to develop at start versus develop in play; a game like GURPS really wants you to know about the character before you start playing them, because many of those personality traits are advantages or disadvantages that impact your point budget. I suppose the ideal there would be a group character generation session in which players work out their PCs’ personalities and try to build some relationships as well. But building that sort of thing before play feels, I think, less satisfying than doing it “live”.

Something to add to this point in general: if you have a system that has a relatively small number of archetypes / templates / character classes, this is where the GM says “this game would be a particularly good fit for Shooter, Wheel Man and Tech Rat, probably not so much for Face Man, and Hacker is banned because it doesn’t fit the setting”. Or less formally things like “build a modern person with a bit of free time on 100 points plus 100 on psi powers, you can move your mundane points to psi but not the other way round”.

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I think I have a strong version of that feeling. I remember being shown the rules for a game based on Firefly, which included a requirement to define a bunch of people your character had certain relationships with. I took one look and said, “I could never play that,” because I would be stopped at character generation.

How I approach character design can be illustrated by my creation of La Gata Encantada (named after a Sousa march that turns out not to exist—I have no idea where my belief in it came from). I started out with her being a speedster not so much in the Flash running-fast idiom (she could almost get up to freeway speeds) as in the Spider-man acrobatic idiom. That led me to other abilities that worked with her primary ability; to the idea that she had been learning fencing, and had to give it up when she gained superpowers, but she still had her fencing teacher as a Patron; to personality traits such as Impulsiveness and inability to sit still; to a need for extra food intake and an addiction to chocolate and a skinny build; to a love of march music; to Second-Class Citizen, Struggling wealth, and Status -1 (she was from a working class Hispanic family) . . . All of this fell into place as I was thinking through her character concept. But if I’d been handed a list (or a template) and told, “Take two from column A, one from column B, and three from column C,” I would have just been totally stuck. And a lot of her personality emerged in the course of play.