Implications of protagonist self-identification

This post has been sitting in my hopper for a couple of weeks now, and I’m still not entirely sure what I want to say about the topic.  It’s not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, it’s something that I think most of us are remarkably well aware of.  The topic of character identification

Character identification isn’t a phenomenon restricted to roleplaying.  In fact, it might well be argued that it’s a necessary element of all fiction worth reading.  If the audience does not identify, in some way, with the characters of a narrative, then the narrative has no real power.  However, I do think that roleplaying has a strong tendency to produce extremely high levels of character identification, and interestingly to do so in a very narrow way

Often, when recounting roleplayiing experiences, players speak as if they had taken the actions that fictional characters have taken.  And we often refer to the actions of other characters by their players.  ‘I punched him right in the nose, and then he called my mother a whore!’  Of course this isn’t really a bad thing, it’s probably something of a tacit acknowledgement that we, the players, really are the ones doing things at the table.  So character identification isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

But in roleplaying it seems fundamentally different than in other sorts of fiction.  We tend to identify extremely strongly with a single character (or very small set of characters).  Even crazy hippie games like Capes and Universalis which permit anyone to take up any character tend to, in my experience of actual play, end up with each player having at least one character that they are primarily responsible for.

Further, I see less character identification with other characters.  I find that I am more likely to identify more strongly with more characters in non-roleplaying fiction, while in roleplaying fiction I am likely to idenfity very strongly with one character, but think of almost all the other characters as foils.

Thinking back to my old post Play is Chaos, I am beginning to think that a lot of roleplaying actual play can be interpreted as a bunch of single-protagonist stories mashed together into one.  Where each player has a radically different character-centered interpretation of what the story is about.  Of course in a functional game the ‘what it’s about’ will mesh across all the stories in some way, but we’re still looking at different interpretations.

But I feel like there’s more here.  This is a big topic, and not one I’ve seen discussed much.  Especially not outside of immersion discussions.  Yet I think this is a topic bigger than immersion.  Even players who tend to identify as non-immersives seem to do a lot of character identification of this type.  So, what else have we missed?

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8 Responses to “Implications of protagonist self-identification”

  1. Fred says:

    I’ve seen a lot of talk about trying to kill character ownership, what was it, about six months back? Vincent had a lot to say on that topic.

    Why do you feel that there is more to discuss?

  2. Thomas Robertson says:


    Because while a lot of games (Universalis, Capes, etc.) make it possible to kill character ownership, it doesn’t seem like actual play is following through with it. While it is possible that we only identify as we do with characters because it’s a bad ol’ gamer habit, I suspect that we have very good and important reasons for it. I want to figure out what those are…


  3. Jonathan Walton says:

    There have definitely been games in the past where I’ve identified more with other characters than the one I’m playing. I’m thinking of instances where I could sit back and watch other people play (often with a goofy grin on my face) and not focus on playing my own character. This also happens often when other people are really good at characterization or if I’m playing with people who are just better actors than I am.

    In general, I think roleplayers’ main difficulties with this come from the de-emphasis of LISTENING to you fellow players as a crucial roleplaying skill. This is something that’s emphasized A LOT in acting and improv, but not in roleplaying.

  4. Thomas Robertson says:


    That’s a pretty good point, actually. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the tendency not to listen/pay sufficient attention to other players was a huge contributor to the tendency to care less about other peoples’ stuff than your own stuff. I mean, you’re always listening to what you say, after all.

    However, I wonder if there isn’t something more at work here as well. It seems plausible to me, at least at first glance, that one reason we are so invested in our own characters is that we are their primary authors, and as such they are telling precisely (or at least something close to) the story we want to tell. Having greater control means having greater security in the idea that the character won’t go in directions we don’t like.

    Consider the problem in long-running series of fiction (serial TV, comics, long novel cycles), or even in long novels, where when things get started you get all invested in a character because they have so much potential to tell a specific story that is important to you. But they’re also able to tell other stories. And after all that investment, you find out that the story the author wants to tell isn’t the one that you’re most interested in having told.

    I think that may play some role in the phenomenon, I’m just not sure how much of a role it plays. Because you’re right: other players have awesome characters too, if we would only pay attention and see it.


  5. Anthony says:

    Some of it may also relate to character generation, not just character authorship during play.

    Players want to focus on the characters they have generated. They want to see their stories unfold as they originally envisioned it during character generation before all the “other stuff” happened during play. With this interpretation, it would be only natural to want to see that one character develop, despite the “other stuff” that may happen.

    We should test this. Have some players generate characters and then play each other’s characters. I’m fairly certain there would be a great deal of disatisfaction.

  6. Thomas Robertson says:


    I do think that character generation probably plays a part in it. That said, I don’t think it’s the primary motivator. I think the primary motivation is about control. Think about how invested you can get in a character in regular fiction.

    I think it’s not so much about who creates the character, but who gets to shape their story. It’s about risk. The risks of getting invested in a character are not so high if you feel that you can guarantee, to some degree, that the story will go in a way you care about.

    So, yeah, character generation probably plays a role, but I don’t think it’s actually that big a deal. I’m betting that I could swap generated characters with most of my play groups and have a great time playing.


  7. In a roleplaying game, you have to make decisions about your character; either as your character, or as the author of the character’s story. Whether you use ‘actor stance’ or ‘author stance’ more – presuming these two can be seperated – doesn’t really matter: you will always have to imagine how you character would feel and act in the situation that is shaping itself in play. You have a responsibility, and understanding your character is an important part of carrying out that responsibility.

    This means that whenever play is about another character, you will be primarily concerned with how this impacts your character; what will she think of it, how will she react to it? What does it mean for her story?

    Because of the responsibility you have for your own character, you tend to look at everything through your character. Therefore, you generally identify much stronger with her than with the other characters, and stronger than with the characters in a book or movie, for whom you are not responsible.

  8. Thomas Robertson says:


    This is a very good observation. The responsibility for a character should quite naturally push awareness of that character such that everything that happens in play will be intrepeted, to greater or lesser extent, in light of that character.

    So I think that’s a strong understanding of why people become invested in characters for which they are responsible. But that raises a related question: why do people feel primarily responsible for a single character, or even feel primary responsible for any given character (rather than all characters being held by the group communally)?

    What is it that drives the play paradigm in which each character is, in some sense, primarily under the authority of a single player? Tradition? Or is something more interesting at work here?


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