I’ve been thinking about the importance of identity to characters for a long time. It’s behind a lot of my work on fantasy races, hero types, power sources, alignment & philosophies, nemeses, “social classes”, and so forth. Whether I had a name for it or not, I was questing for an idea of “Minimum Viable Identity.”

At what point does a lowercase-c character become a “Character?” When do they go from being an empty vessel or vehicle for the story to being the story? I’ve at times valued plot over character for precisely the reason that character seems like a Holy Grail- impossible quest.

I have an idea, emboldened by a term. “Minimum Viable Identity.” And it includes the other half of this post title, “Virtue As A Flaw” which I’ll get to in a bit.

In an iteration of my vaguely-directed game projects, I had developed tons of character options- many of which were required for the game to function. While misguided, I feel these struggles all brought me (at least a little) closer to an idea of “what character is about.” And I think that has to do with the flaws that each piece of a character’s identity brings to them.

Now, if you’ve played a TTRPG with flaws and saw through the nonsense that most of them engender- you might (like me) think that flaws as game mechanics are a .. flawed idea. I have hardly (but not never) seen a quantized “character flaw” serve a meaningful purpose in a game, tabletop or otherwise. Attempts to leverage a player’s flaws at the table are often discouraged and occasionally seen as cruel.

Partway through the Fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons I began to embrace an ethos that a character’s attributes were the character, and a bit of that survives in my present perspective. Second & Third edition had fostered this idea of endless variation & customization of every facet of a character’s identity – ultimately rendering those features meaningless.

After all, what is the point of being a tall halfling, an ugly elf, or a beardless dwarf? Some might see those as “confronting norms” but fail to realize that often the process of removing literally the thing that makes the thing a thing renders it no longer a thing.

Please quote that.

To reiterate, what is the point of playing a halfling if you don’t have to address the challenges of playing a short character? What is the meaning of an elf who isn’t vague, aloof, and (at least mildly) vain? Character options are packages of tropes built to challenge a player in a particular way- they set expectations but also provide the milestones to mark and the “achievements to unlock.”

Quantized flaws (mentioned above) often fail to evoke much interest from players in that they don’t provide much incentive to play them. And then you get to the flaws which instead work as a kind of roleplaying debt players can take on to buy additional perks. These are pretty much the worst.

When you get to like, published works of fiction though- you sometimes get characters who seemingly have no strengths whatsoever- they are composed entirely of flaws. Maybe they are virtuous (or correct) and that is pretty much the only thing they have going for them. Or you know, they’re the main character and thus have the privilege of the story being essentially “about” them.

And when I thought of that- actually, that last point there- it occurred to me to think of “strengths” in a new light.

If you have played with a diehard “power gamer,” you may be familiar with the idea of their character sheet basically dictating their actions. Do they have a barbarian with rage & high strength? Well, expect them to solve all of their problems that way.

You might deride them for being “basic” but then again, they might be succeeding in a way which you are failing- particularly if you’re the type who writes stuff down on your character sheet you then never use.

That “new light” I saw for strengths was a reality that all strengths (perks, traits, advantages, etc) and that includes virtues- are flaws. If your identity is what defines you, and no one is promised any “strengths” (meaning things that carry pretty much 100% benefit with no drawbacks), then perhaps there is a perspective in which those strengths are the drawbacks themselves.

Consider the “everything is a nail” argument about using a hammer to solve all your problems. The barbarian above solves all problems with strength & rage. There’s a purity to it- and there’s also plenty of potential to subvert expectations by taking a different way out. That flaw- perk, benefit, or otherwise- is part-and-parcel with an aspect of the character’s identity, and the dimensionality of the character has less to do with a quantity of flaws, but more the direction in which that arrow points.

I would propose (potentially) referring to character strengths, traits, weakness, and so forth, not as the former, but as vectors. A character vector suggests a direction and a magnitude from the origin, from “zero.” Having more character vectors certainly means having a higher quantity, but much of the appeal of the character depends upon how they are transformed by those vectors (or how the vectors themselves are transformed).

At the end of this blog post, I don’t have a much better idea of a quantity for the Minimum Viable Identity, but I’m certain it has something to do with a product of vectors .. possibly a matrix of some type. Virtues (or “strengths”) are not what they seem- given that virtues & values often change with the season- and rather than quibbling (something I’m guilty of) about the necessary quantity or quality of them a character has- instead look at how the character moves with them, or moves them.

Ultimately measuring character in distance traveled, or direction taken.