If you’re a fiction writer, you might already be familiar with a certain oft-repeated piece of folk wisdom: that you can use personality tests to help flesh out your characters. By filling out a personality test as the character you want to develop, giving the answers you think that character would give, you can force yourself to consider different aspects of the character’s psyche. What do they value most? How do they differ from other characters? What factors weigh on their mind when they’re making decisions?
This practice is perhaps one of the purest forms of authorial roleplaying: as an author, temporarily taking on the role of a fictional character in order to further develop your understanding of the character in question.1
This, however, is by no means the only form of authorial roleplaying that’s out there. Consider, for instance, the practice of playing tabletop RPGs in order to develop characters and settings for use in other works – or of meticulously screenshotting and documenting everything that happens in a strategy game, with the ultimate goal of writing up a really good “after-action report” at the end.
A closely related practice, especially prevalent among writers of fanfiction, involves the placement of familiar characters into alternate universe (or AU) scenarios. Extracting characters from their original setting, canon, or context and dropping them into a new environment gives the fanfic writer an opportunity to examine what is most essential or fundamental about the character. What traits, relationship dynamics, and so on remain constant (perhaps out of necessity) even when the setting is changed?
Several of the most popular AU settings – “modern day”, “high school”, and “coffee shop” among them – are noticeably more mundane than the fantastic settings from which characters in fanfic are typically drawn. The popularity of these familiar settings for AU stories can, I think, be explained partly by their utility for authorial roleplaying. Since mundane AUs expose characters to “everyday” situations, fanfic writers working in these settings can draw on their own real-life experiences to concretely envision what-if scenarios that might arise and possibilities for how the characters might react.
Similar practices can also be found in acting.2 Most obvious here is the practice that some actors adopt of remaining in character for extended durations – even when off-camera or offstage – during a run of performance (e.g. the filming of a particular movie). One benefit of this practice, at least in theory, is that it exposes the character to a wider range of situations and stimuli, thus giving the actor more opportunities to consider how the character would react and why.
So far, we’ve only discussed how authorial roleplaying can be used to flesh out the model of a character that exists in the author’s head. But couldn’t we also use roleplaying to flesh out the model of a character that exists within a computer?
Authorial roleplaying techniques, it seems to me, could potentially provide a key part of the solution to a longstanding problem in interactive fiction: the problem of crafting non-player characters that are capable of reacting believably to a wide range of player actions, including some actions that the author couldn’t possibly anticipate ahead of time.
Imagine an IF authoring tool in which the author can “train” NPCs by roleplaying as them in hypothetical game situations. By showing the computer how an NPC would react to certain concrete scenarios, the author could also teach the computer how the NPC might respond to similar (but not identical) situations. Authoring would essentially become a form of programming by demonstration, with the author’s actions as a particular NPC in roleplay scenarios being used as the training examples of how that NPC generally ought to behave.
Some scenarios for authorial roleplaying could be hand-crafted, while others might be procedurally generated using a library of generic or game-specific characters, settings, social practices, and so on. Scenarios could even involve the player character, with an AI temporarily taking over the player’s usual role.
Creating an authoring tool with all these features wouldn’t be easy, but it’s also possible to create much less sophisticated tools that still take advantage of roleplaying as an authorial practice. Remember those personality tests? For games that use well-understood models of personality (such as the five-factor model) to guide NPC behavior3, simply including an actual personality test in the NPC creation process could do a lot to help the computer develop an internally consistent characterization of each NPC.
It’s a well-established cliché in creative writing that, at some point during a successful writing process, the characters will “come to life” in the writer’s mind and practically start writing the story on their own. This is only possible, however, once the author has developed a sufficiently deep understanding of each character’s motivations and defining traits.
If we accept that games themselves are authors, the creation of lifelike NPCs would likewise seem to hinge on the development of similarly rich models of character personality and motivation within the computer. And in teaching computers to develop such models, I think we could do much worse than to look at the techniques used by human authors – authorial roleplaying among them – for inspiration.
[^1] Insofar as authorial roleplaying differs from the ordinary kind, the difference is one of intent: authorial roleplaying is undertaken with the specific goal of developing through play a character that you intend to use in another fictional work.
[^2] As creative practices, acting and writing fanfiction have a lot in common. Both the actor and the fanfic writer must step into the shoes of a character originally created by someone else and work to develop a particular interpretation of that character. Frequently, audience members will judge this interpretation against other portrayals of the same character, and a particularly striking or well-received portrayal may become an accepted standard of characterization for the character in question.
[^3] For example, games based on the Talk of the Town framework for social simulation, which normally incorporate only procedurally-generated NPCs but could ostensibly be extended with hand-authored ones as well.