Chut-chut Gizkas. Here’s an issue for you: Cool Guys, Tough Nuts, Ice Queens & the Dearth of Personality. Four in five characters you meet reel off the same smirks and chuckles, sip delicately, or quaff mightily and fondle blasters, or sashay and preen and dance in half a thong.
But they don’t laugh. You never seen their teeth. They don’t fold like a concertina at the raucous antics of a friend, they don’t deliver a jovial nudge, they don’t sneeze, they don’t choke on their drink, they don’t groan and slump into an easy chair in disarray. They don’t trip and stumble. Why not?
I think that these players are trying to pull something off. They’re trying to pull off cool, and in the process, forget to inject any personality into the character. Now, let’s get one thing straight: There’s nothing wrong with whatever character concept you come up with per se. What I’m talking about, here, is presentation. How you get that idea across, and how you avoid the pitfalls of Mr. Cool & His Wry Smirk.
And that’s it. Right off the bat. You start typing /me smirks, and then you stop, and you delete that. And you write something else. No-one smirks all the time. People who smirk all the time come off as smug and grating. No-one chuckles all the time, either. A chuckle is a often a calculated, ugly little laugh, reined in to keep composure. Now, if you want to write a character who comes off as smug and calculated, alright; you’re still in the same boat as everyone else, writing the same two drab emotes, and you can do better.
Is the character actually a composed individual, wearing a (metaphorical) mask? Alright, fine! Have cracks in the mask show. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Have them think no-one is looking and relax the guise. Have them fail to reign in a laugh and splutter. Have them startled and smile. Have them pull in an unchecked gasp then quickly regain composure. Show that the character has composure and is not Just Boring. Be aware of the impression given, not just your intention.
You know your character better than the person next to you, and your job in the scene is to change that as much as possible.
Set on the Brooding Man? Alright! Brood! But show them the gloom. Be animate, as a writer. Don’t just stand there. Let the character fiddle, fidget, interact with the environment. Cling to the attention of others when it’s offered. The subtle glance, the roll of the jaw, the scratch of the chin. It doesn’t have to end with /me disassembles & reassembles his blaster whilst necking Corellian whiskey.
Is the character meant to be a charmer? Charmers smile and grin and laugh and lounge and throw confidence around like it’s going out of fashion. They don’t hide behind a few hotkeyed actions. They engage and they swagger and they laugh at other peoples’ jokes and frown in sympathy, because that’s what makes folk like them. Conversely, writing a timid character? Have them fumble, have them laugh nervously, have them take a moment to compose themselves and tamp down the tics. Player silence is no substitute. Write the awkward! The shy don’t want to be shy. Have them strive. Have them try. They don’t have to succeed. You can let them fail. Write it.
Why not try a total goofball? Why not have them gigglesnort and slap people on the back and totter around tipsily and hiccup and be natural? You may not view it as very flattering for your Big Guns Trooper to gather up two dear friends in a graceless impromptu embrace that they never asked for, but it’s warm and it’s real and it’s stupid and it’s human.
Sometimes the act slips.
It doesn’t have to be big and flashy and showy, either. You can use the base emote commands to great effect, to show that your character is one with their environment. Especially /peer, by Jove. It’s my personal crutch. Short, sharp, frequent emotes trump purple prose for conveying character. If you want to show off your shiny writing, that is fine too. In the right context. Open with it, or close with it, or insert the odd long bit with fancy-schmancy words here and there, but don’t fill the entire scene with it. Your audience will stop reading and scroll past, as the bulk text seeps into the background as white noise.
The TL;DR: How many times have you found yourself staring vacantly into space on the bus, with your jaw slack, while you dig lunch out of your fillings? How many times have you realised your hair is a mess and scrambled to wrangle it before anyone notices? How many times have you stopped to tie a shoelace? How many times have you passed the minutes with a finger lodged firmly up your snout? How many times have you pretended to check your smartphone to avoid meeting someone’s eye?
We’re not always composed. We don’t always do what we want ourselves to do. We don’t always manage to be who we want ourselves to be. That must be true of our fictional characters, too. That’s how you make them real and natural and believable and honest and true.
Forget the fantasy of perfection. Show the human flaws.