This entry is part 4 in the series The Characterisation Puzzle

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New techniques for getting under a character’s skin don’t come along every day; the techniques described earlier in this series have been my standard weapons for such tasks for the last two decades. So, when I thought of an original one earlier this year, I paid attention.

This new technique is, in many ways, even simpler than those that preceeded it, but is also less certain of producing results. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that it comes at the problem from a completely different direction to the preceeding techniques, and the hard work can be done concurrently with ordinary tasks that we all perform: shopping.

I’ve foregone generating yet another variation on the Merchant that I’ve used as an example in the previous sections, first because it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid contamination of the results from previously-concieved ideas; second, because I’m going to have a hard enough time picking between the two versions of the character that I’ve already got; and thirdly, to make room in today’s post for the conclusion of this series.

1. Prep

Like the previous techniques, this uses a sheet of paper divided into boxes to collect and organise idea kernels. So you’ll need paper, a pencil, and a pen, or two pens of different colours. Unlike the previous technique, these do not start prelabelled, but we will be adding labels to them at a later point, so leave space.

2. Shop

Each time you go into a new store, don’t just buy the things you need; take a look around for anything that the character might buy (or it’s technological equivalent), and anything that the character definitly would not have. Each time you come out, list the three or four most relevant and distinctive answers on your sheet of paper, a different box for each store that you visit.

As you shop, you will accumulate a stockpile of ideas for the character. Diet, furnishings, standard of living, idiosynchrosies, habits. Stop when you are down to 4 empty panels.

3. Generalise and Interpret

For each item on the list, there is a reason why you (in the persona of the character) chose it. The next step is to work out what that reason was. Use 1 box to accumulate a list of the reasons for each selection that you decide apon, interpreting and generalising as necessary – if you chose something just because it looked cool, that might suggest that the character is “impressed by appearances” or it might suggest that the character has “refined tastes” – or “good taste” or “bad taste”, if you are feeling judgemental!

Each time you derive a new character trait, go through the list of remaining “purchases” and cross off any that mean the same thing. It will be commonplace for the one subconscious idea to be reflected in multiple purchases (but hopefully not all of them!)

4. Interpolate As Necessary

Finally, it’s time to reflect the character traits that have been determined in various aspects of the character’s life. With most characters, the areas of greatest interest will be “personality”, “profession/occupation”, and “home/family”, but some characters may have other areas on which it is more profitable to concentrate. Give each category a box and then search for some way in which each character trait can be reflected in that aspect of the character’s life.

Broadening The Technique

It’s easy to see that a deliberate choice of stores in which to “Window Shop” can give more diverse results, and that you can tailor your investigation in order to achieve a more comprehensive examination. If I were employing the technique, I would include a “$2 store”, a Furniture shop, a supermarket with grocery section, and a store chosen to relate to the character in some respect – a military surplus store for a soldier, perhaps an electrical retailer for a mage, or whatever. If no such store was obvious (because I had no concrete ideas about the character yet), I would choose a “collectables” store near me that stocks all manner of strange objects, from platters to hookahs to pirate-style miniature treasure chests, or perhaps a general second-hand goods store. Throw in a Jewellers, or perhaps a bookstore, and I would be confident of finding something representative of the character.

Quick & Dirty Application

If you are in a hurry, you could substitute the brochures and sales catagalogues included in the last weekend paper (because there tend to be more of them included in the Saturday/Sunday papers than in a weekday newspaper). The lack of variety may limit the results, but when you’re desperate, anything is better than nothing.

Conclusion

Defining a character through his posessions in this way has a number of advantages. For one thing, you have some item that you’ve actually observed that you can describe; for another, you can use the items selected as representative of the character to describe the scene for the players, saving yourself additional work; and for a third, because you are choosing from a range of items beyond the sources that usually come to mind, you will evolve characters that are more diverse and avoid any bad habits that you may have gotten into at the same time as you evade the mental block that is making the characterisation such a problem in the first place.

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