A guide to help you flesh out your MUSH characters.
by Linda Naughton ("Faraday")
“Characters must be true to their own past and their beliefs, not shoved about simply in service of plot.” Christina Skye, Building Believable Characters
Creating a character on a MUSH can be a complex, challenging, and fascinating task. An important step in that process is writing your character’s background, even if your MUSH does not require you to formally submit one.
No background is ever truly complete. As you play your character, you will constantly think of new angles, new tidbits of past history. But the more you know about your character when you begin playing, the better you will be able to portray that person in a consistent and realistic manner. This guide is meant to aid you in fleshing out your character.
Table of Contents
I have often wondered at the vast number of MUSH characters with no family. Sometimes these backgrounds are done for dramatic effect - the struggling orphan loner, or the tragic hero whose family was wiped out by the bad-guys. But other times, they’re done out of sheer laziness. A player doesn’t want to take the time describing brothers and sisters, so he makes his character an only child. He doesn’t want to be bothered playing his parents as NPCs, so he says they died years ago. Players who do this are missing out on a golden opportunity.
If you want to develop your character’s family, start with a simple family tree. Draw his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, spouses, children, etc. for each, decide who they are. What are their names? What do they do? Where do they live? What is your character’s relationship with them? Was his father disappointed that his son didn’t follow his footsteps into the family business? Were he and his older sister the best of friends? Did his Uncle Owen traumatize him as a child by throwing him in the deep end of the pool? Does his brother hit him up for money every chance he gets (or the other way around)?
In addition to the “traditional” family members, don’t forget about the non-conforming modern families. Stepparents, half brothers and sisters, unmarried partners - all can provide interesting character development. Not to mention friends who are sometimes closer to a character than his real family. Who is your character’s best friend? Who does he turn to when the chips are down?
Keep in mind that you don’t need alternate characters for family members. Nearly all MUSHes will let you use puppets or @emits. If you’re really adventurous, you can recruit other players to portray your character’s family (either on a regular basis, or every once in awhile for a TP).
However you handle them, family members can enrich a character’s background immeasurably. It is a shame to see so many players take the easy way out and overlook the importance of these people in their character’s lives.
Nearly all characters have some form of schooling, whether it’s formal education or the school of hard knocks. Working out some details about your character’s education can give you some fun insight into his personality.
Where did he go to school? Was it a happy middle-class environment where the biggest worry was getting your lunch money stolen by the school bully, or an inner city school where the students feared for their very lives? How did your character do in school? What were his favorite subjects? It’s easy to say that he excelled in everything, but isn’t it much more interesting if your hero has a weakness in math that nearly cost him admittance to college, or loved history so much that he volunteered after school at the library to read every book on the subject?
High school, in particular, offers a number of unique angles. Peer pressure, first loves, first jobs, first cars… it’s a time when a young person is first beginning to develop a true sense of independence, and when they really begin to find out who they are. Don’t overlook the importance of this period in your character’s development.
College and post-graduate work can also prove interesting. In particular, consider where your character got the money for such education. Was he on scholarship, independently wealthy, or is he still paying off loans? What did he study? Was he one of those “undecided” majors for a long time, or were his goals clear from day one? Did he have a part-time job while in school?
For military characters, remember that modern military academies (in America at least) require a nomination from a congressman or from the appropriate military department (Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, etc). All students at such institutions are on full scholarships, and are required to serve a term of service (usually four to six years) with the military upon graduation.
What we do is often a big part of who we are: “I’m a doctor” or “She’s in the Army”. Therefore it’s important, when creating a character, to consider his profession.
Start with the basics - what is your character’s current occupation? Where does he work? How did he get the job? Who is his boss, his coworkers? What about his job does he like and dislike? Keep in mind that most positions are more specific than their stereotypical titles. A doctor might be a pediatrician, oncologist, general surgeon, neurosurgeon, etc. A soldier might be an infantryman, a medic, an engineer, a tank driver, or a number of other military occupational specialties.
Besides his current job, consider a character’s past employment. Even part-time, seemingly unimportant jobs can give you insight into your character’s history. Did those skill points in the “Electronics” ability come from the two summers in college when he worked as a computer tech for the University? Does your character have a soft spot for waiters and waitresses because he once worked as a busboy to pay the rent?
Perhaps the most important question to ask: What are your character’s career goals? Is he studying to become a lawyer, or bouncing around from one dead-end job to the next waiting for his “big break” in the movie business? Is he a struggling author who works at the local restaurant to pay the bills? Is he happy with his current career or is he thinking about a change of pace?
People spend a good chunk of their lives at work, so it’s important to consider your character’s career history when writing a background.
It is often said that people are shaped by their environment, so it’s not surprising that geography plays an important role in developing your character. Some people spend their entire life in one place, dreaming of life in exotic locales. Others bounce around from place to place, lamenting their lack of roots. Those are the extremes, and your character’s life could fall on either end or anywhere in between.
The first step is determining where your character has lived and what brought him to each place. Was it a job opportunity? Wanderlust? College? A long-standing obsession with Antarctica? Where exactly did he live while there? Did he stay in a series of youth hostels or a 5-star hotel? Did he live in the city or the suburbs? In a nice neighborhood or a rough one? In a house or an apartment? How well did your character like each place? Did he enjoy the warm weather or find himself longing for cold mountain air and snow? Would he ever want to go back?
Aside from places you’ve lived, there are also placed you’ve visited. Maybe your character took a month off after college and backpacked across Europe. In a sci-fi setting, consider whether he’s ever been off his homeworld, and if so - how did he find the means to travel?
It always helps to do a little research about the land and culture in places your character has been to, especially if those areas are unfamiliar to you. It will give you a better understanding of what your character has experienced, and provides extra material to help color your roleplay.
All work and no play makes for some very dull characters. Real people have outside interests, which are sometimes more important to them than their jobs. Think of what a different person you might be without an interest in computers, or in MUSHing or roleplay.
When creating a character, consider what he’s interested in, what he enjoys. What are his hobbies? Does he sew needlepoint or throw himself into video games? Does he enjoy reading or television? Is he athletic, or more of an armchair quarterback? Is he into refinishing furniture and visiting garage sales to save a buck, or is he a power-shopper who always has to have the latest and greatest toys?
Don’t feel limited to a MUSH skill system when picking interests. Yes, you could look at the list and say “Oh look, the History skill. I have some extra skill points I guess I’ll buy my character an outside interest in history.” But many systems won’t have skills for non-academic hobbies: Ceramics, crochet, gardening, reading, collecting stamps, basket weaving, or whatever. Outside interests define your character and can give you vast amounts of roleplay material, so use your imagination.
It is important to think about your character’s motivations and beliefs. This category can get into some pretty heavy stuff, and is often glossed over with stock, clichéd answers. Try to avoid that and get at the heart of what makes your character tick.
A relatively easy place to start is with your character’s career. What makes him go to work (or school, or wherever) each morning? Is it for the money? Does he do it simply because society expects it of him? Is it a stepping-stone to future fame, fortune, and success? Maybe he just plain enjoys his job? Maybe he rebels against the status quo and doesn’t go to work each day.
Once you’ve established the basic “why do you get out of bed in the morning” motivation, you can get into some deeper concepts. What are your character’s hopes and dreams? Is he happy? Does he want to start a family, or focus on his career? Is he considering a change of lifestyle (midlife crisis)? In short, what does he want out of life?
This is also a good time to look into your character’s core beliefs and values: Religion, Politics, Right and Wrong, Current Issues (environment, lifestyles, whatever the “hot topic” of your MUSH’s setting is) and so on - all of the really big topics. What does your character believe in, and perhaps more importantly - why? Would he ever steal? Kill? Lie under oath? Betray a friend? Betray an enemy?
Some authors recommend imagining your character in various crisis situations and ask how they would react. This can help you get a better handle on their personality and can also give you some good plot ideas.
Many life-changing events will fall into one of the categories above: Family (love, marriage, divorce, children, death), Employment (new job, lost job, laid off, promoted, demoted, scandal at the office), Education (went off to school, failed biochemistry, graduated with honors, dropped out), or Geography (visited Antarctica, studied abroad in Kazakhstan, moved to Hollywood to become a star).
However, there are just as many earth-shattering things that may not have been covered in any of the previous sections. This is a good time to stop and consider anything else that might have shaped your character’s life. What happened? Why did it happen? How did your character react to it at the time? What lingering effects are there? (There must be some, otherwise it wouldn’t be an earth-shattering event!)
A character’s skills and abilities are directly related to his background so I’m going to go on a little tirade about this. Even if your MUSH does not have a formal skills and ratings system, you should still consider your character’s important abilities.
Always take great care not to fall into the trap of saying: “Oh, look, the martial arts skill! That’s too cool. I just have to be an expert in karate.” Choose skills that fit your character’s background; nothing more, nothing less. If you have to come up with some convoluted explanation for your character having the skill, don’t take it! You’ll never pull off: “I was never in the military, and had no formal pilot training, but my dad was in the Air Force and snuck me into the base at night when I was a kid and let me play around with the billion-dollar aircraft. I therefore have an Expert rating in the Pilot:JetFighter skill.” If you are really that set on being a fighter pilot, then work that into your background in a reasonable manner (like flight school, and military service).
Another common trap to avoid is missing skills, particularly when it comes to formal training programs like college, medical school, law school, or a military academy. All too often players pick and choose the ‘cool’ skills and completely ignore all of the other skills taught in these programs. For example, picture your average “hotshot fighter jock” MUSH character (forgive me for picking on the fighter pilots but they’re such an easy target). Top of his class at the academy, outdid all the other pilots in “Top Gun” training - you know the type. Yet when you look at his character sheet, his only decent skills are Pilot:Fighter, Gunnery:Fighter, and of course, Martial Arts.
Compare this to what someone in that position would really learn. The US Air Force Academy has a core curriculum just like any other college (including courses in Humanities, Math and Physical Sciences, Foreign Languages, and Social Sciences) and also includes Military Science, Physical Education, Leadership, and Aeronautical Engineering. And that’s just for the basic officer training at the academy - it doesn’t include what you’d learn at flight school! Someone who was top of their class would have to excel at all of those areas, not just flying and shooting.
A good way to determine what skills your character should have is to go through his background, starting from the beginning. At each “turning point” in his life (childhood, early school, high school, college, each job, etc.) jot down the skills he would have learned since the last turning point. When all is said and done, you will have a complete list of everything your character knows. You can then translate that into whatever skill system your MUSH uses. Be reasonable when assigning ratings to skills. You don’t always have to be an expert in everything. Most people aren’t.
Sadly, most MUSH systems are point-driven, so you may not have enough points to get everything your character should logically have. When this happens, the first thing to do is to clarify the skill system. Do you really need to spend points on Physics and Math just because your character studied them in college? Or does the system assume that everybody has college-level math skills and spending points really means that you’re on your way to being the next Steven Hawking? Do you have to actually buy the Literature skill just to say that your character likes to read? Or does that skill imply more advanced analysis of literary works and the ability to quote obscure passages from the Iliad at the drop of a hat?
The thing to avoid is omitting skills entirely just because you don’t have points for them. It makes no sense whatsoever for a doctor character to have Medicine but not Biology or Chemistry. It’s equally silly for a military officer to be missing Leadership and Tactics, or a front-line infantryman to have Firearms but not Unarmed Combat. Work with the admin, juggle skill points, and change your background slightly… do anything you can to avoid this situation because the alternative is just plain ridiculous.
Whether your MUSH has a formal skill system or not, determining what your character knows and doesn’t know is important for clearly defining him.
Here are some excellent resources I’ve found for developing characters.
Card, Orson Scott. Characters & Viewpoint. Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio. 1988. Wonderful insight into character design, with ideas, exercises, and humorous anecdotes.
McCutcheon, Marc. Building Believable Characters. Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio. 1996. Contains an introduction with six authors’ commentaries on creating characters, but the bulk of the book is a reference with tons of character traits, descriptive tags, personality disorders, and more.