Occasionally someone at the table will say, “I’m not sure what my character would do.” It happens to everyone though I suspect more often to newer roleplayers than experienced ones. It’s that moment of hesitation brought on because you don’t know your character well enough to say with surety what course of action he would take when presented with a new situation. Maybe you’re new to the character and you just haven’t fully crawled into his skin. Or maybe you spent hours fleshing out this guy’s background and just never came up with a response to this particular scenario. For some players this isn’t really a big deal. For others it can break immersion.
The problem, I think, is not from a scarcity of information regarding your character’s background motivations but rather an overabundance of non-essential information relative to the essential and an inability to sort out one from another. To put it another way, you've overcomplicated your character background.
One of the most important lessons I took away from my graduate program was about the nature of understanding. You don’t truly understand something, whether it's a concept, theory, or a personality unless you are able to describe it to someone else in three forms: a paragraph, a sentence, and a single word. You demonstrate your mastery of a subject by being able to simplify it. My graduate mentor's favorate go-to example was ketchup.
Ketchup is a type of condiment that is typically made of tomatoes, vinegar, and sweeteners like sugar. It’s tangy and sweet taste can be used to complement bland foods that are high in starch content or as a dressing on cooked meats. Ketchup is also known as catsup, tomato sauce, or red sauce, depending on regional slang. The origins of ketchup are mostly unknown.
Ketchup is a tangy and sweet condiment made of tomatoes, vinegar, and sweeteners.
Granted, my mentor was trying to teach us the physical-chemical properties of drug molecules, but I don’t see why the same philosophy can’t be applied to roleplaying games. The key here is fundamental understanding. If you’ve spent hours writing up a background for your PC, how much of that will help you figure out what he does in a given situation? You include personal history, challenges he faced, things that he cherished and lost. All of this becoming justification for certain actions he’ll take in the future. This gives you a rough idea of who your character is because you can glean details of his personality based on what has happened to him in that past. But that may not help you if your character encounters a situation that doesn’t match up with the background you wrote for him.
Don’t misunderstand, I think background write-ups are a wonderful way to start thinking about your character. I just don’t think it should be the stopping point. If you’re able to distill your background paragraph down to the essentials it can allow you the flexibility to consider what your character might do in an unexpected situation. Something like, “My character is a devout cleric of Sarenrae,” is a lot less of a story to hold in your mind and it allows you to answer any number of questions about your character’s motivations without extrapolating from a long and involved character background.
Furthermore, you can break that single sentence into the core words that describe your character. You can get down to the essence of who and what your character is. Descriptors like pious, righteous, and unyielding are fitting for a Hand of the Dawnflower. Yes, events in my character’s past do have an impact on who he is today, but ultimately these three core concepts will define his actions and justify his decisions.
Remember that understanding your character is the key to roleplaying your character convincingly and in an immersive way. By simplifying details down to the essential core of your character you can immediately make intuitive decisions from your character’s point of view, opening the door for a more continuous roleplaying experience overall.
*Ketchup is a physical suspension (similar to balsamic vinaigrette) of vegetable matter in water and vinegar. Because its constituent molecules aren't chemically bonded to one another, if left to its own devices for long enough, it will separate into easily discernible layers.