We’ve all made mistakes, done things that we regret, mourn missed opportunities. We all have shameful little secrets that we would not want to have exposed, usually deriving from our childhood or youth – but sometimes from later in life. This is actually a sign of maturity and moral growth in the individual by virtue of the regret and shame associated with the secret.
Quite often, what we regret can therefore be a signpost to the values and morals of the individual. It can profile the character in several key respects.
One of the first questions I ask when I’m constructing a PC or an important NPC is, therefore, “What does this character regret? What’s his ‘Shameful little secret’?”
The Deed Itself
First of all, consider the deed itself. It could be an opportunity missed (leading to the logical question of why it was missed – was the character hesitant or untrusting or miserly? Did they simply make a misjudgment?) or it could be a case of opportunism, a yielding to temptation – or it could be a personal failure of some kind, or even something completely out of their control.
Here are just a few of the many possible examples of shameful secrets:
- Stole food from a hungry family
- Lied about a misdeed and saw another punished
- Was tempted by his brother’s wife
- Envied the success of another to the point of sabotaging them
- Could not save his parents from a violent death (shades of Batman!)
- Inadvertently caused the death of a sibling
- Took more than his share
- Never got to say goodbye to a parent, sibling or child
- Never got to ask forgiveness of a wife
- Cheated on an exam they could have passed with a little more effort
- Gave up an opportunity offered to them for what seemed like good reasons at the time
- Made a mistake under the influence of alcohol
- Was deceived by a con-man
- Took a violent revenge – on the wrong person
Means, Motive, and Opportunity = Personal Circumstances = Key Backstory
The circumstances surrounding the event will define an important element of the character’s personal backstory, touching on the economic and social parameters of their formative years – as well as those of the time surrounding the event. These will then have ramifications and knock-on effects into other aspects of the character. They are defining aspects of the character’s life.
Consider the first example listed above.
There are several possible reasons to steal food that come to mind:
- The character was starving/hungry
- Someone depending on the character was starving/hungry
- The character wasn’t hungry but got a thrill from the crime
- An immature attempt to make the character look cool or manly
- A dare
- An act of rebellion
Take only the first of these, and consider the following possible circumstances (Means + Opportunity) and what the consequently mean for the character:
- The character was a peasant who stole from another peasant family
- The character’s family was wealthy/noble who took from a peasant because his family had power and it was his right to satisfy his whim
- The character was a child in the great depression
- The character was a survivor of Hurricane Katrina (or some other natural disaster, especially one that was mismanaged in some way)
- The character was in a concentration camp
- The character was a German Jew and it was the early 1940s
- The character is Ethiopian and it was the 1980s
- The character was from a broken home and living with a parent who couldn’t make ends meet
Regrettably, there are some people in any era who went hungry, and the circumstances always leave their marks on those who experience it.
The Discovery Of Shame/Regret
Some acts become seen as shameful simply because the character grows up, or something that they thought was necessary is found not to be. Others are simply causes for regret that become subconscious drives for the character.
Some combinations, however, require an external trigger before the character comes to view the past misdeed as cause for shame/regret. Since I have been focusing so much on the “stealing food” regret as an example, perhaps the character encounters a hungry child later in life who mentions a sibling who starved to death after their food was stolen, or perhaps he falls in love with someone who went hungry at one point, or who works for UNICEF or some other aid organization.
Moral Compasses & Psychological Impacts
The regret or shame can speak about the character’s personality in two distinct ways. Firstly, there is the temptation or judgmental issue or trauma of the event itself, and its moral & psychological impact, and second there are the consequences of the regret.
A key part of Bruce Wayne’s life as Batman is trying to live up to what he perceives his parents would have expected of him. He desperately wants the approval of his Mother and Father (and of course, can never get it). He became one of the foremost detectives and fighters of his era (if not THE foremost) because of the shame he felt at not being able to protect his family – never mind that he was just a child; his entire life since has been a reaction to the helplessness that he felt, and that also plays into the way he treats the helpless that he encounters as an adult (like Dick Grayson). And of course, there is the need for revenge. All these are consequences of the event and his reaction to it. The fact that Batman is such an iconic character speaks to the power of this approach to characterization – the Dark Knight strikes a chord in everyone who’s ever felt helpless.
Another iconic example would be Spiderman, whose regret is that he failed to stop the criminal who killed his Uncle Ben when he had the chance, due solely to his own ego. That’s the trigger that turned a nerd into an obsessed hero – who masks that obsession, and the fear that he feels while acting as a superhero, with wisecracks and flippancy. He will never be able to give up being Spiderman (or not for very long), as a result. Someone once tried to describe Spidey to me as a “thrill-junkie” who gets his buzz from living dangerously, but I don’t find that proposal plausible. While he has found, from time to time, that he loves being Spiderman, he is also acutely aware of the price that he and his friends and family and relationships (both personal and professional) have had to pay. If the “thrillseeker” concept was even close to correct, it would be boredom that led to his returning to the role after giving it up for a while; it’s not, it’s innocent lives.
It is sometimes said that there is no-one more zealous than a convert. I’ve used the principle in characterizations myself. But I think that it’s an exaggeration and that this is an appropriate place to go into the subject briefly.
I can think of only four types of behavior that warrant what I am calling “HyperZeal”. The first is that of the addict who lacks confidence in his ability to withstand temptation if surrounded by others still partaking of the substance to which he is addicted – whether that be alcohol or nicotine or anything else real or imagined. The second is an individual who is already prone to obsessive behavior. The third is someone who receives some benefit from grinding his new axe; and the fourth is someone who has been brainwashed. Only if one or more of these circumstances apply would someone become an extreme fanatic in consequence of a reforming experience.
Less extreme, but still a radical change of behavior, is someone who objects to being around those who do as he once did, or is prone to lecture them when they are encountered – a reformer, or true believer. A reformed smoker might be uncomfortable around other smokers, might lecture them on the evils of cigarette smoke, might even go out of their way to avoid smokers (and complain when he is not given the opportunity to do so at, say, a restaurant) – but he won’t go around plucking cigarettes out of people’s hands and crushing them underfoot (without good cause, of course).
Most people will stay exactly the same people they were before – but with a temptation that they continually or occasionally have to fight. The reformed thief will still habitually assess each room he walks into for security and valuables worth stealing. The reformed hacker will still habitually assess computer security vulnerabilities. The reformed member of a congregation will believe in the tenets of his newly-chosen faith, will ensure that he attends services as frequently as is required or more, and will resist temptation to do anything he used to do that is now forbidden – but will usually not think of the religious limitations imposed on his behavior as his first thought. In fact, he will usually go about his daily routine without a second thought – until something acts to remind him of his newly-held beliefs.
I don’t (normally) think about my philosophy regarding personal responsibility when watching an episode of Undercover Boss or whatever – not unless it comes up in the course of the episode. I don’t think about my religious beliefs when ordering a hamburger unless the act itself is a religious prompt within that faith. I have a mild lactose intolerance – I don’t think about it when ordering food, only after the fact when I experience the symptoms that tells me I’ve consumed more milk products than my system can handle. I have friends who are diabetic – they act when necessary in response to the symptoms that they have consumed too much or too little sugar, give it passing thought before purchasing a product that is extremely high in Sugar content – and ignore it the rest of the time, except when running their regular blood sugar test.
It’s a truism of screenwriting, scriptwriting, and fiction writing: characters in conflict are more interesting than those who are not. Hyperzeal makes the character internally unconflicted to an extreme, but tends to place that character in conflict with everyone else around them; while all lesser approaches internalize conflict (making the character less predictable) but better able to relate to others. Or, to put it another way: Hyperzeal restricts the plot manifestation of the conflict to those occasions when the subject of the hyperzeal is present; less narrow characterization can apply more frequently and more broadly – which makes the character interesting more of the time.
Disproportionate Shame or Remorse
The degree of shame – from personal embarrassment to abject humiliation to (literally) die-before-admitting – normally depends on the severity of the act relative to what is permitted by the individual’s moral standards, and the severity of those moral standards in the first place. Note that this says nothing about society’s standards of accepted behavior; this is all about the character.
If the character’s normal moral standard is extremely straight-laced and morally conservative, even a slight deviation from that acceptability is a Big Deal to that character; most people, if the source of the shame were to be revealed, would wonder what all the fuss was about, because it doesn’t seem all that serious from an outside perspective. A character whose moral code was less rigid might reply, “That’s nothing, I once….” – to which the only correct response from the morally rigid is “How can you live with yourself?”
That’s normal. What sets these defining moments apart from a more routine existence is that there is usually a disproportionate degree of shame, humiliation, or remorse involved. It’s character-defining by definition because the event is defined as one that, more than any other, has shaped the personality of the individual.
Denial and other reactions
Having considered how the event has impacted the character’s motivations and thought processes, and how the guilt, remorse, or shame that character feels has further shaped the personality, the next aspect of the event to consider is how the character consciously or publicly reacts to similar events or to mention of his ‘dirty little secret’. It’s not uncommon for people to deny that such watershed events in their lives have had any impact on them whatsoever. It’s also not uncommon for them to embrace the change in themselves as being effect, rather than cause – “I didn’t change because of the way it made me feel, I felt the way I do about it because I changed.”
Most people will be happy to talk about the encounter that triggered the change of perspective as a turning point in their lives while never mentioning the reasons why it had such an impact on them, i.e. their “shameful secret”. Sometimes you can infer the nature of that secret from the consequences, but usually it’s not possible to do so. The bright, shiny cylinder heads of the refurbished engine get all the credit, but the power of the engine comes from it’s hidden depths, to push forward another analogy. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to deny that the “secret” event ever took place at all, or that they were involved in it if it did.
Particularly extreme reactions can include a guilt complex in which – in order to avoid accepting blame for what they have really done – people subconsciously camouflage their guilty feelings by becoming harshly self-judgmental about other, unrelated issues. When others perceive the pattern of blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong (whether it’s rational to do so or not), they will often overlook the singular case in which the guilt is warranted, preserving the secret at the cost of the character’s mental health.
To use a character’s fictional “dirty little secret” as the driving force behind their characterization, it is necessary to identify as many ways as possible for the event and the reactions associated with it to influence the character’s personality. There will be both positive and negative reactions to any event, and sometimes these can be hard to pin down. As a general rule of thumb, the consequences and the event come as matched pairs; if you don’t like the way the personality shakes out as a consequence of the guilty secret you’ve chosen, pick a different one, being guided by the part of the consequences that you don’t like.
The Current Context
Something else to bear in mind when assessing the impact of a given secret shame is how that secret has driven the character’s subsequent life choices, and the context that this places on his current status. That context can have quite different effects if the character is a priest or a con-man, a cop or burglar (reformed or otherwise).
That “or otherwise” demands further discussion. Consider the personality potential for a D&D thief who feels guilty about stealing from people – but doesn’t stop, instead “making up for it” in some other fashion – donating to charity, or religious devotion, or simply getting blind drunk after each “big haul”. Any of those makes an immediately plausible and interesting character, with subtlety, depth, and nuance. It might take a brilliant psychoanalyst and many, many couch sessions before the character even knows – consciously – why these feelings of guilt follow a successful crime.
Nor does the uncovering of that cause automatically reform the character – it simply grants him understanding. Coming to terms with the sense of shame or guilt might simply enable them to steal without remorse thereafter.
Which brings me to that singular group of people who can honestly say they have “no regrets”. There aren’t many of these; to have no regrets either makes one a dangerously unbalanced sociopath without conscience, a worm with absolutely no sense of ambition at all, or someone who has come to terms with the events of their life – or someone who has abdicated personal responsibility for those events and decisions to some “higher power”, a desperately fatalistic perspective restricted to the true religious zealot.
Let’s think about it for a moment. It’s become fashionable over the last fifty years or so to regard someone who says they have “no regrets” as being wise, gentle, at peace with himself and the world – a saint. It ain’t necessarily so. If a character has no regrets, they have no reason NOT to do anything that leaps into their heads. On physical incapacity can stop them from attempting the impossible, or the near-impossible – depending on how practical they are. Such characters can be heroes, or villains of the first order. Even in comparison to a maniacal dictator who regrets his occasional failure to inflict pain on others, a villain who genuinely has “no regrets” can be a scary proposition.
Food for thought, and yet another example of how powerful a technique this approach can be in defining a character. When the one descriptive label can include saints, devils, and the meekest of the meek, and make all of them more interesting as characters, it’s got something going for it.
I rarely divulge a character’s “dark secret”. I find that to do so generally defines the character as “the secret”, reducing them to caricatures of the rounded personalities that they could have been. Instead, I’ll write the secret at the top of a sheet of paper labeled “How to roleplay (character name)” and never show it to anyone – except possibly the GM.
But there are exceptions. When we were redesigning Blackwing for my superhero campaign (refer items 25 and 27 in my recent article The Acceptable Favoritism: 34 Rules to make your player’s PCs their favorites and the section “Example: The Blackwing Evolution” in The Moral Of The Story: The Morality and Ethics of playing an RPG), it was decided that we should clear the air a bit concerning the integrated character background we had developed between us. Blackwing’s dark secret was that he had been unable to protect his younger sister from the abuse of his father, a policeman – a memory so traumatic that he not only denied it, he suppressed it. When he himself became a cop, he entered a self-destructive behavior spiral – becoming a corrupt cop who hated corrupt cops (and himself most of all). While this cycle leveled off from time to time, even showed brief reversals, ultimately it dragged the character down almost to the point of thrill-killing enemies in combat. He made Wolverine seem positively new-age enlightened in comparison, and came that close to crossing the line into supervillainy! Only the fact that they were enemies engaged in the service of a villain making a deliberate attempt to subvert the rightful government of the country saved his bacon as a team member. In order to start the rehabilitation of the character, it was necessary for the shameful secret to come to light, which occurred in a crossover adventure with the Warcry campaign. With this revelation and the understanding that came with it, the other players suddenly realized that their characters had unwittingly become enablers, feeding the character almost enough rope for him to hang himself. Prior to these developments, Blackwing had been a contender for second-in-command of the team; he is now close to the bottom of the pile. But he has regained his self-respect and is working through his issues – some of which were worsened by outside sources, to be fair.
We were able to hang almost every aspect of the character’s personality – including many things that were otherwise mutually incompatible and almost incomprehensible – off this central “dark secret” and its impact on the character. And, while the character is now recovering nicely, he will be dealing with the scars for a long time to come – especially when it comes to relations with women.
(If you want to know what his player and I have planned, and you aren’t a player in the Zenith-3 campaign, check out the “Big Example” from The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure (roughly the second-half of the article). You might want to start with the first of the comments, though, to put events in context – or you could read the plotline first and discover what it’s all about the same way the (other) players will.)
The Value Of The Shameful Secret
Most people have a shameful secret. Therefore, the same should be true of most characters. Deciding on the nature and circumstances of that secret can be a fast-track to rich and unique characterization – and what GM doesn’t like a shortcut in their repertoire?