For a while, I attended a Lucha Libre school in East London. Lucha Libre is Mexican wrestling, for the uninitiated, and it is a combination of athletics and pantomime and improvisation and raw chutzpah that really got under my skin. I went there once for an article, but I found myself going back once a week for the best part of three months until I had to leave the country and move to Australia.
After we’d practiced our forward rolls and how to fall over properly without hurting yourself – a skill I never managed to master* – we’d learn specific moves, or showmanship, or something that let us play to the crowd.
I’ll never forget the first one, though. I and around forty other hopeful wrestlers, hot bodies steaming in the cold December air, sat down in the ring and listened to Greg Burridge talk. Greg Burridge looks like the sort of man you would instinctively hand your wallet and keys over to without him saying anything so to avoid a fight. Greg Burridge dresses up as a robot and throws people to the ground pretty much every weekend. Greg Burridge is somehow one of the best and most patient teachers I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
He started by clapping slowly above his head until we all joined in, and then said – “You see that? You see that clap? That clap is worth more than any chokeslam. That clap is bringing the crowd on your side.”
Greg gave a lecture on gimmicks: a wrestling term for your branding, your character. Because Lucha Libre isn’t usually broadcast with the same attention to detail as the big-name leagues like WWE or what-have-you, characters have to be ridiculously over-the-top. You’ve got ten seconds to bring people onto your side, if you’re a good guy, or to make them absolutely loathe you, if you’re a bad guy. You have to look and act the part as loudly, and as instantly, as you can.
He pulled up a guy out of the crowd, a man with muscles on his muscles. I forget his name. Greg said: “Some people have it natural. I met this guy in a nightclub, and I thought – fuck me, this guy’s going to be a wrestler. He’d never done it before, but, well, look at him. That’s a man you want to see fight.”
“Look at yourself,” he said, gesturing around the crowd, “and think to yourself: “Would I pay ten quid to watch ME fight?” Just some bloke, or some woman? No. No you fucking wouldn’t. If you’re not built like this guy, you need a gimmick.”
BOO THE WICKED MAGICIAN
It wasn’t an insult. It was the truth. I’d not pay money to watch me fight, or half of the other people I used to train with. We’re just people. Ordinary people. But dress one of them up as a Viking warrior, and the other as a mad voodoo doctor? Give them stupid backstories? Make us root for this poor time-stranded Viking, and boo the wicked magician? Now we’re talking.
Part of the reason I went to Lucha, aside from learning a new skill and gaining some much-needed fitness, was to expand my ability to improvise, to build characters, to entertain. And Greg’s advice got me thinking about characters and how we make them.
Lucha is a high-impact, super-camp spectacle, and the characters have to follow suit. Maybe your game isn’t painted in such broad strokes, but there’s something to be learned from that. When you sit down to the table, or turn up to the field in the case of LARP, you’re performing. You’re engaging with an audience made up of the GM and the other players, whether you want to or not. You need to engage. You need to bring them on your side, or make it fun to hate you, because this isn’t some soap opera they’re watching. This isn’t a movie screened in a darkened room with millions of dollars in production values. This is you and your mates – maybe not even your mates, maybe some people you’ve just met – just sitting around and talking, and it’s up to you to present your character in as an engaging a way as possible.
You can’t afford to be just another Paladin, or just another Mekhet, or just another Space Pilot. You don’t have time. Here’s the challenge, which I encourage you to take next time you start up with a new character: within the first ten seconds of you stepping into your character, everyone else needs to know who the fuck you are and what you’re about.
Think to yourself: would someone pay 10 quid to watch your character fight the supernatural? To run away from dragons? To uncover ancient mysteries and go mad in the process? To move through the night as a creature of darkness?
If the answer’s no, change it up. Make your character worth engaging with; make them exciting, make them plugged into the world.
In the world of roleplaying we’ve got a bit more room to manoeuvre than Lucha Libre does, but we can draw a lot of parallels with it. When you build a character, give them a strong gimmick. Give them a hook that other players, and the GM, can latch on to. Don’t be afraid to use stereotypes, or cheap tricks, or the roleplaying equivalent of stage eyeliner and shouting; get noticed. Make an impact. You can hash out the fine details in play.
* My signature move was the Neck Slam, in that I landed on my neck a lot