If you’re looking for ways to develop more distinctive personalities for characters, soap operas can be an excellent guide! They are inherently character-driven and intensely character-focused. They also serve as useful role models for extended casts that stand the test of time and develop epic histories of their own.
Below are Sami Brady and Lucas Roberts from Days of Our Lives. They're great examples of many features we'll cover here. Sami is a legacy character who was born on the show, Lucas showed up when they were both teenagers, and they're both members of 2 core families. They started out as co-conspirators: Sami wanted her sister Carrie's boyfriend, Austin, and Lucas wanted Carrie, so Sami and Lucas joined forces to break up the supercouple. They have excellent chemistry together and watching their shenanigans was always entertaining. However you felt about them, they took risks and made things happen. Both have strong personalities and seem to have everything, but were driven by envy in their early days. Eventually, they became a supercouple in their own right, and their relationship has run the gamut over the decades (that's right, decades; they've been portraying these characters since 1993). They also went from villains to protagonists. With characters this long-lived and distinct, soap operas are worth our attention; even if they're not your cup of tea, you can make use of their best qualities.
Every soap opera character has a few strong, stable, distinctive aspects that serve to distinguish them from everyone else, no matter how many other characters are around. This is true for major and minor characters, although minor characters tend to have less extreme traits. No matter what happens or how many years pass, these basic details are unlikely to change much or will continue to affect them after they do go through changes.
For instance, villains will be haunted by their reputation and probably fall back into their old ways, even if they try to reform. In soaps, the audience stays interested not because they expect great personality shifts but because they want to see how established characters react to new scenarios. Fans enjoy anticipating how troublemakers will throw monkey wrenches into scenes or how protagonists will prevail despite all obstacles. This is because you can count on the character to be who they are in every situation. Instead of being boring, this creates consistency in stories that change from week to week.
Sound familiar? It should. Soaps and tabletop games share many of the same needs.
With this in mind, it seems like most soap characters have the following package of details from the moment they arrive:
what they do (profession)
a unique appearance and style (favored colors, cuts of clothing, and bearing)
a modus operandi for dealing with others (confrontation, stealth, lying, etc.)
a secret in their history
a hidden goal (which is probably related to their secret past)
something mysterious about them (something in their expression, words, and/or bearing)
Making sure that characters in your games have these elements can bring them to life, make them memorable, and help you anticipate some developments. After all, if you can depend on the innkeeper to be nosy, you can be sure they’ll try to weasel details out of the player characters when they return from an adventure. In the end, soaps remind us that it’s okay for characters to be The Young and the Restless; stories stay interesting because people want different things and will take different routes to achieve their goals.
There’s a long-running soap opera called The Bold and the Beautiful for a reason: soaps are inherently interested in extraordinary characters. These people are instantly fascinating and influential, regardless of where they are or what they do. They lead unusual lives in elegant settings and have opportunities everyday people don’t. And yes, they’re probably physically stunning, too, objects of lust and awe. Maybe they’re born gorgeous and it doesn’t matter what they wear (but they probably wear flattering attire nearly everywhere, anyway). Maybe they aren’t stunning but they're always perfectly styled and engaging to look at. Either way, you want to watch and admire them.
In short, they’re fantasies made flesh. They satisfy our basic desire to forget the humdrum restrictions of our normal lives and indulge in what we find alluring. Soap operas played the game of wish fulfillment before tabletop roleplaying games existed and continue to do so. This may be part of why they’re considered guilty pleasures. It may seem unfair or overly indulgent to revel in our sexy fantasy worlds and characters, particularly as ordinary, everyday folks. But taking time for fantasies that hurt no one else is part of how humans unwind; there’s no reason to feel guilty about wanting to see more than daily life affords us.
There’s something to be said for including a wider range of body types, colors, and genders in our fantasies. For most of soap opera history, sexy has meant thin, white, and traditionally feminine or masculine, the same as we’ve seen in gaming art for many years. I have no intention of digging into the controversies over these norms here. Suffice to say that there’s a lot more to visual appeal than these narrow confines, and it can be even more entertaining - and more welcoming to new fans - to broaden the scope of what we show in our stories.
So don’t hold back from letting the beautiful ones take center stage in your games - and don’t be afraid to highlight other traits and expand the view of what's appealing, either.
If you’re looking for a way to add romance to your game, soap operas can show you how it’s done. Characters might not get along at first but learn to like each other as they go through problems together. They could know each other from childhood but begin to see one another in a new light once they’re older. An old crush could reignite, whether or not the object of affection has any idea. A new attraction could spark from a chance meeting with someone in the area that the character hasn’t gotten to know before. Characters could fall in love at first sight, only to have everything go wrong when they try to be together. They might fall into a pattern of breaking up and getting back together that becomes a defining feature of the campaign. A character might end up with an old enemy who’s trying to walk the straight and narrow and knows them better than anyone else.
The point is that life doesn’t stop because people fall in love, even on soap operas - but love and lust affect what characters do and say in other circumstances. Having a romantic dimension can give players some social ties to pursue when they’re not embroiled in dangerous adventures. It can also be a way for them to build a life for the character outside of combat. For DMs, romances can give NPCs a more realistic feel and provide plenty of plot hooks that draw in the PCs (see my romance in gaming section for more). Desire - and other feelings that go along with it - can become motivations for villains or any other characters.
To keep romances engaging, consider the following:
Are feelings known to all parties?
Are there rivals for someone’s affection?
Which obstacles get in the way of a couple being together?
What temptations arise for long-standing couples?
Which duties or schemes threaten to pull couples apart?
Which circumstances push people together?
Soap operas have been known for a few powerful configurations that can work in many games: love triangles, secret couples, villainous couples, and supercouples. Whenever love triangles arise, trouble can’t be far behind. Secret affairs have a special thrill that doesn’t have to be lost in tabletop games. If anything, players can strategize and use their characters’ skills to try to avoid being caught. Giving them a brief scene to try to get to the one they love can give a PC some personal spotlight time and can help advance the sense that they have a private life. It doesn’t have to take long to make an impact.
Villainous couples can be a fun deviation from the norm that also gives the DM more to work with. If you’re used to seeing lone antagonists in a game, finding out the new bad guy in town has a romantic partner can be baffling for the whole party. Who would pair up with such a person? Are they really there of their own free will? Having an equally bad partner on the field means double the trouble for the PCs. A villain’s lover is likely to move against the PCs, too, but could have a very different modus operandi and resources. If a villainous couple enjoys other support - like belonging to an organization and holding public office - then bringing them down could take more than an open battle. It could mean having to attack their reputation and dismantling their backing first. This can offer a different kind of tactical thinking and build the setting, along with the characters.
Lastly, we should consider the supercouple, because not every romantic pairing has this designation. A supercouple is known for dramatic storylines, enduring chemistry, and always returning to one another. Even when they spend time apart (and most seem to break up somewhere along the line), they can’t get clear of each other. They became the focus of many soaps in the 1990s because the fans loved them, and everybody had their favorites. Their interactions were always pregnant with more meaning than the lines they spoke, and you rooted for them to be together. They have a legendary sort of status on soap operas, and can have the same in tabletop games.
The term “power couple” explains this further: both lovers are powerful, fascinating, good looking, and independent in their own right. At the same time, they support each other and fill in each other’s weaknesses. Together, their best traits are magnified; they make a scene better by being together in it. They’re everything people want to have. NPC supercouples can (and arguably should) leave a great impression on players, who may start to root for them. If PC romances work out for a while in your games, the characters could find that others see them as a power couple. This could mean they receive extra admiration - and envy.
Envy and jealousy are common feelings and motivations in soap operas, and can be powerful. A character who seems to have it all can still feel overlooked, less than, or without the one thing they want most. Seeing other characters enjoy what they would like to have leads to bitterness. If they’re often compared unfavorably to someone else, like a sibling, they can develop deep resentment against a wide swath of characters. If that other person is also better received socially, it’s bound to sting even worse. Eventually, they’ll start to speak or act against those they envy - to make them pay, take them down a peg, and seize what’s theirs.
Jealousy, on the other hand, is the fear that someone is going to take what’s yours or someone you value is going to leave you behind. Either way, it’s not about what you have; it’s about what you stand to lose. I’m not talking about momentary feelings of possessiveness that can be rationalized or soothed away. No, soap operas are concerned with ongoing jealousy that eats away at a person’s heart. Indulging in jealousy usually leads characters to paranoia, spying, and efforts to hold onto what they value. It can even become an addictive habit as a jealous character feels compelled to ignore their partner’s boundaries and enjoys asserting their hold, but never feels secure. The more desperate they feel, the more likely they are to hold on too tightly, making it more likely that a lover will want to leave. The longer-lived and more intense jealousy is, the more toxic a relationship becomes.
Soap operas often reveal a sense of victimhood and entitlement lurking in these characters. Simply put, they feel left behind, locked out, or threatened unfairly. They might have tried to earn what they desire but failed, and don’t want to accept responsibility for their failure. They might believe that they deserve whoever or whatever they want because of their merits, so being denied is a direct blow to their self-esteem. Whatever the case, they probably feel like the underdog and look for ways to hurt whoever they hate without getting caught. This can them methodical and calculating enemies. On the flip side, they might also explode in a jealous rage and lash out without thinking.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, all of this is excellent fodder for antagonists in roleplaying games. Player characters are likely cool, powerful, and resourceful people, which makes them targets for envious glances. Their families and friends could also become jealous of the time they spend away on adventures. These feelings can lead to schemes the PCs don’t expect, for reasons they might not understand. Finding out who their haters and obsessive fans are might be bad, but finding out how far these people are willing to go will probably be worse.
Players can also use this inside view for their characters. Playing an envious or jealous character can be intriguing for those who have never done so before. Choosing something that your character wants but won’t easily get is a challenge, especially when they have access to magic. They might try to use their powers to trick or force others into giving them what they desire, which probably won’t end well (and might bring up alignment concerns, if you use a morality system). They might see others enjoying what they crave and loathe them for it. Or your character could react badly whenever someone seems to threaten what they value. Either way, if you’re tired of the same old thing but would like to try out some new character flaws, you can’t go wrong with these classics.
It’s important to note that an envious/jealous character in a tabletop RPG should direct their resentment toward NPCs, not the other player characters. All too often, groups suffer from arguments and break up because PCs turn on each other, and soap operas show us why. Sabotage and stealing are ugly things to be forced to deal with; they’re invasive, belittling, and divisive. They reveal that the perpetrator has no respect for the victim, which is poison to a party. Everyone needs to be able to trust someone, even in evil campaigns. At the very least, players should be able to trust one another.
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