WARNING! TOPIC CONTAINS SUBJECT MATTER YOU MIGHT FIND UNCOMFORTABLE!
Please read with caution. Nothing graphic, nothing specific, but I wanted to give fair warning…
RPers love torturing characters. Especially in their back story. Part of the reasoning is it adds depth. Usually forum RP characters start out pretty flat, but then we discover more about their past, and the resulting personality quirks and voice, as we work with them. Part of the reasoning is because, let’s be honest, most forum RPs are character-driven rather than plot (with a few exceptions), and without SOMETHING in their history, you’re left with very little to offer your fellow RPers to work with. While there are usually some characters defined by happy moments (especially if you are the annoyingly cheerful member of the group), almost all of them have an aspect or two that is dark and unwanted. The problem is there is a line of how much trauma in the back story is just right, and how much is too much. People first starting in forum RP sometimes struggle with finding the balance, especially since it often varies wildly depending on the character and the current situation in the RP.
The first thing to do is examine your forum’s rules. Yeah, those. The page you normally ignore because it’s usually pretty standard: be nice to your fellow RPers, don’t godmod/powerplay/various other bad habits I’ll discuss at some point… But usually listed in there are a few other “don’t’s”, and they can vary pretty wildly. Some simplify their guidelines by giving you a very specific rating (usually the Movie Ratings version, but occasionally they use the Fiction Rating, such as K, K+, T, and M that those who’ve used FanFiction.net since they implimented it are well familiar with). Others give a rule sheet. Mine (as in, the one I predominantly use) does both, especially on things like what foul language is and is not allowed. Some things to look out for are: what are their rules about violence, both character-character and character-NPC (non-player-character)? What are their rules about anything of a sexual nature? Can you allude to certain acts as long as you don’t describe them, or is it a complete taboo? Is it the same with SI (self-inflected violence, a.k.a. depression/cutting/suicide) as it is with normal violence? My forum had issues with the last one being glamorized before I joined apparently, and now there are very strict rules about it. These rules are important for shaping your character’s back story because if your site doesn’t allow SI but you want your character to either be highly depressed or have the history of depression… you are in deep trouble. It is better and much easier to stick to the guidelines from the beginning than to fix your character later.
Now, whatever trauma you decide is necessary for your character (and it has to be necessary), you need to consider what baggage that entails it. You can’t just say that your character was, for example, in the foster care system and that’s that, and use that as an excuse to keep them from leaving the boarding school on holidays. What all troubles come from spending prolonged time in foster care? Numerous sources have provided details that are important to when you RP a character from that background: a sense of constantly searching for an anchor–often linked to acting out, increased chances of being abused/molested (which could be a repeat for your character if they were removed from their parents’ care, think of how that would mess with their heads), heightened sense of paranoia about their personal safety, usually poor grades due to constantly changing schools, if they don’t have an “attitude problem” they could be the polar opposite and be completely introverted. Some even have panic attacks if their environment changes on them. Trauma has side effects, consequences that come with deciding to lump that into your character’s psyche. It’s important to consider all ramifications to play the character well. One of mine slept under the bed for a while until she was certain no one was going to attack her in her sleep. Another has nightmares every night and, rather than stay in bed, goes up on to the roof. Yet another no longer uses personal pronouns if she can help it, a way of mentally protecting herself (if she’s doesn’t acknowledge it’s her they are talking to, they can’t hurt her).
Obviously, if you pick one trauma, you sometimes end up adding more and more on top of them. Not bad in some RPs, where the characters are supposed to be constantly dealing with their demons, but for most it’s a pain to keep track of, much less to constantly keep in mind when you are responding to stimulus. I’ve had moments where I want to throw things, because while I don’t want more drama, I know that a character wouldn’t take another’s statement well at all. You really have to feel out where the other characters are, and then see where your character belongs. Talking to your fellow RPers about what kind of RP you want and then discussing what kind of characters are needed can prove that what direction you were thinking was too heavy for the RP. Some RPs need a little of everything, but all in balance.
An excellent example of all this is the X-Men RP I’m in (and to also avoid using d20 characters in case I recycle them later). It’s set about six months now after the end of the third movie. We have, currently, six highly traumatized individuals, six low ones (as in barely anything bad in their back story), and the rest are in between somewhere. With a total cast of about twenty-six characters, that isn’t a bad balance, especially for something that is very heavy on character development rather than plot. Part of my job as a player was, each time I introduced a new character, to gauge where we were and what we needed.
My first character that was more of an adoption was Rogue. I had to make a bunch of contradictory sources talk to each other to make her back story make any kind of sense. The previous player had a style radically different from mine, Anna Paquin in the movies played a Rogue that was near the polar opposite of her usual self, and then due to the similarity between movie!Rogue and Evolution!Rogue in a few scenes, people had merged them together in descriptions… Plus, the only real back stories we have of the original, comicbook!Rogue are all similar enough I knew I needed to share that with the other versions in some way. As a result, she’s one of those high-six I mentioned. I’m going to have to allude to lots of childhood abuse once the plot lets me remove her memory blocks. It was the only way to explain a few of Paquin’s dialogue-absent responses to stimuli, plus blend all the various bits and pieces together in a way that made sense as to why her power was so out of control. She’s also considered one of the core characters for the RP, and a lot of the plot is centered around her in some way.
The second character was Carol Danvers. She’s one of the low-six, due to the fact that between Rogue being Rogue and another plot point shaping up to transform our seventh-low into our sixth-high (poor Kitty), we had enough drama going on. I wanted a little silly, plus I intended to knock her off eventually anyway via absorption by Rogue (comic canon for the win), so I thought it would be a nice, temporary lightening to have her flirt with Hank. She has very little trauma in her back story, aside from the token discrimination due to her genetic status and a stint as an ugly duckling as a teenager. Now, we are no longer killing her; the silly-flirting between her and the oblivious Hank has become one of the few light points in the RP.
Third was Wanda, who fell into the middle. Again, we needed a little relief from all the drama, serious-business going on, but in order for us to have a saptastic-couple, I needed to get her and John in the same place at the same time. A little trauma in the form of mandatory detention in a facility for forcibly-Cured mutants was the only solution due to released information about what happens to John after the third film ends. The latest characters, Laura and Charles, are near opposites. Laura is a high-six, due to the fact her back story came pre-written in the comics/cartoon she originated from. I did what I could to lighten it (took away the crazy lady who kept chopping her arms off, for starters), but too much and she wouldn’t have been recognizable (bad in this kind of RP). Charles is going to be another middle character, his heavy guilt over his survival when he intended to die balanced out that he’s back, then lifted almost into a low-trauma by his perfect timing.
It’s all about what’s needed at the time, balancing it with what the other characters are doing/have done, and in the case of RPs based off of other stories (comics, movies, books, etc.), using the material provided by the source, as well as considering the consequences of each trauma inflicted. Rogue’s traumas get to the point that she would rather have more people living in her head, driving her closer to insanity and death thanks to her metabolism-via-her-mutation being in overdrive, than to risk being hurt. Wanda is never going to recover from her time in the facility, she’s always going to be a little unbalanced. And Laura… Laura sometimes forgets she isn’t a weapon.
One last quick note. There isn’t anything “glamorous” about what happened to these characters and the emotions they now feel. Some of them are in constant pain or on the edge of it. They are haunted and it will never leave them be until they are in the grave. All of them (…aside from Carol…) need help, sometimes pretty badly, but don’t know how to ask for it.