Larp Design: Write More Flat Characters

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.

Forster was prolific–he wrote short stories, essays, libretto, and some masterful novels, including A Room with a View and A Passage to India

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…

Flat Characters

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.”

Round Characters

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.

Writing posts is hard work, and I’m able to continue blogging here thanks to the generosity of my wonderful Patrons. If you enjoy my work, consider supporting it with a few dollarsand joining the conflagration of awesome people underwriting my blog on Patreon.

3 thoughts on “Larp Design: Write More Flat Characters

  1. Nice post! Many useful thoughts here.

    To me as a game designer right now (this means freeform/tabletop scenarios), in between the very flat and the very round is where the action is.

    That could mean almost-flat characters, not one note but two notes slightly at odds with each other, leaving a space that demands interpretation, a space in which the players can move. Or it could mean almost-round characters that just have some thin spots here and there, in important places that draw the players into inserting (bleeding in) their own feelings and experiences while still having an apparently round character as alibi.

    • I think you make a good point, Troels. Flat/round isn’t an either/or scenario–but rather a continuum. It’s possible to make some parts flatish and some parts more roundish. This is a tool for evaluating how one has written a character, not a stipulation that everything has to skew to the flat extreme.

      And prompted by a thought from a Facebook discussion of this post:

      Players also aren’t roundness-generators. Usually you have to help them out some. You can do this with character sheet structuring–as Troels suggests, leaving some parts thin or having the characters fill in some blanks. The structure of a workshop, for example, can help players co-create relationships and structure the time they spend thinking through the character. An act structure can force a character to become round by stipulating elements of character development.

      So the character sheet isn’t enough on its own.

      And I think I disagree with Karina about time–all we ever see about a character is a momentary glimpse because the game is finite. I’ve had awesome game experiences where I really felt in flow and in character in shorter games, and I’ve had lame long game experiences where I felt disengaged–for me that has more to do with how the game experience is structured (is there a workshop? Are there tools to help me develop the character? Is there an act structure?) than the amount of time spend in game. (Am I reading you right? Is this what you mean when you say time?)

  2. A couple of thoughts.
    Time is important and also directly related to how flat or round the character is. In a short story (just as in any short larp form) one can never portray fully a round character. It doesn’t mean the character has to be flat, it’s just that we see/experience only glimpses of thoughts and emotions. I remember playing Previous Occupants and expressing all those strong emotions – fear, anger, etc., but never having enough time to portray and experience my character as a whole. Short larps usually (always?) have a theme and it helps to make your character round in relation to that theme, but leaves little space for anything else. I’m not saying it’s wrong, actually I think it’s necessary.