As a discipline, roleplaying draws from many different others–it’s got aspects of theater, psychodrama, spectacle, film, and novel. In some of my previous posts, I’ve explored the relationship of larp design to theories of writing.
Now, I’d like to do that in a little more depth. There’s this classic writing text, Aspects of the Novel (free download) by EM Forster, drawn from a collection of lectures he gave once at Cambridge. It’s a pretty standard text at schools of creative writing, and I wanted to explore how one aspect of his critique–the idea of flat and round characters–might map on to game design.
Forster Was an Awesome Dude
Seriously. Forster (1870-1970) was part of the Bloomsbury circle–a licentious literary circle that included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry and more–that I spent much of my youth dreaming about.
He was also gay and out to his friends (but not the public) during a time period that was eight jillion times less friendly to homosexuality than now. He wrote a lot about class, society, and alienation.
And when it comes to writing, dude knew his stuff…
Basically, flat characters are caricatures. As Forster puts it, “In their purest form, they are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round. The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.”
Flat characters are useful in novel writing–they help round characters stick out more. They are also memorable to readers–it’s easy to recognize them when they enter a scene for the second or third time, and they leave an impression afterward.
Take the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. She’s definitely a flat character. You can easily sum her up with the sentence “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too.” But she doesn’t have too much to her beyond that.
Forster says that flat characters are at their best when they are comic. As he puts it, “A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore. Each time he enters crying “Revenge!” or “My heart bleeds for humanity!” or whatever his formula is, our hearts sink.”
In contrast, round characters have dimension and nuance. They are capable of change, have motivations and thought-processes, which can be inferred, even if the writer does not choose to show their internal states to the reader.
Dorothy is a round character in The Wizard of Oz, for example–she grows and changes over the course of the story.
Forster does not describe the round character explicitly, but rather says that their attributes may be inferred by comparing them to flat characters. Also, importantly, he doesn’t suggest that all characters fit in one or the other box. Rather, they exist along a continuum–some are rounder than others, and might be made round and then flat again during the course of a novel, or even within the span of a single sentence.
Flat & Round Characters in Larp Design*
Forster writes about writing characters, but in larp, it’s what you do with written characters–how you play them that counts.
So to me, flat and round characters actually describe the designer and player halves of the experience.
I think that in the best larps, as a player, I breathe life into a character. It’s cool for the designer to pre-write a role for me, but I don’t want to get a character that is too full of nuance and personality on paper–part of the pleasure of larp is interpreting what is written and finding a way to make the character interesting to me, not just as I think through it, but as I physically play it out. If a character is over-written, then there’s not as much left for me to discover, and I get bogged down in whether I’m doing it “right.”
As a designer, flat characters do everything I want my characters to do.The germ of a character’s personality can be rendered in only a few sentences. Flat characters are memorable to the player, who can quickly grasp the essence of the character without the need to refer to a piece of paper during the larp. And flat characters give the player the opportunity to shape the character to their own needs.
Designers create the outline of the character, and the players round them out.
Flat & Round Characters In Play
In play, I think it is inevitable that all larp characters become round. Finnish larp scholar Markus Montola has written that larp has a first-person audience. In other words, I am the primary consumer of my own larp performance. In order for a character to interest me for a few hours, days, or even longer, I have to flesh that character out, to develop motivations, and likes and dislikes that are complex.
Playing a one-note character for too long would become boring, and in my experience, the moment players begin to embody a character, they find themselves forced to develop a more complex stream of thoughts and feelings almost instantly.
Of course, larp is a communal activity. It may have a first-person audience, but my character’s thoughts and feelings are not necessarily transparent to my co-players. Even if my character is rounded to me, I might present them as one-dimensional to my co-players for any number of reasons. Perhaps I want to play my character for laughs, or perhaps I am a villain and there’s no in-game reason for me to share the reasons for my actions.
This can produce powerful experiences for players. For example, in the US run of Mad About the Boy, a larp about the world after all the men die, there was a trio of conservative characters. Many of the rest of the cast treated them like stereotypes, pushing liberal dogma in their faces constantly. During the post-game debrief, the players of the conservatives described the emotions and reasoning behind their actions, which produced revelations in the rest of the cast about conservatives in their families and social circle.
By the same token, game mechanics can influence how easy it is to perceive another character as flat. During the the metatechnique of monologuing, one player opens a window into their character’s mind and discusses the thoughts flitting through it while all action around them pauses. At the end of the monologue, play resumes–the characters in the scene do not act as if they have heard the monologue, though of course the players have.
In this way, monologuing is a tool for making characters round–both for the player monologuing, who must then quickly develop an internal thought stream, and for co-players, who are forced to confront the character’s depth beyond the flat visible surface.
*The obvious application of flat and round characters in larp would be to say that player-characters are round while non-player characters are flat. I want to resist that interpretation both because I think it’s boring, and because in my larp life, it’s irrelevant, as I mostly don’t play games that have non-player characters.
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