I'm finishing up my essays here on the five aspects of Exploration. This one is about "Character." The provisional glossary defines it as "A fictional person or entity which may perform actions in the imaginary situation."
So let's break that down a bit. First, let's begin with "fictional." The Character is the insubstantial person (or entity) in the game. He is the imagined personality, the dream given realization but not form. This means that the Character is a wholly separate object from the Player. Some games like to entwine these two. They have phrases like, "your character knows only what you (the player) knows." Other games demand that they be kept separate, hence the infamous division between "player knowledge" and "character knowledge."
From a design perspective, it is important to note that the fictitious Character and the real Player are separate beings. What the character does and what the player does can, and often will, be two different things. Phrases like, "the players go on an adventure" in a game book bug me a bit. The players don't go anywhere. They portray characters that go on an adventure, and vicariously through them experience that adventure. It is not the same thing.
Next in the definition we have "person or entity." This definition here is broad because a character doesn't have to be a person. In the RPG Cats the characters are cats! Also, I could imagine an RPG where the characters are aspects of a person's psychology- say the Id, Ego, and Superego for instance. The key is that the character is the player's interface with the exploration going on during play. He, she, or it is a tool that the player uses explore whatever interests him during play.
Which brings us to the last part of the definition, "which may perform actions in the imaginary situation." Characters, of whatever type, perform actions. They are dynamic. They must do something. A character that is inert is not a character at all, he is no more interesting than a piece of furniture for all intents and purposes. When designing, make sure that the characters, especially the player-characters, can do things in the imagined world that are fun, interesting, and provoking. Give the players tools to portray their characters and put them in situations that challenge the players to explore your game's potential. That is what a Character really does- facilitates the exploration of your wonderful creation. Keep that in mind at all times and your game will improve.
I may revisit this aspect of Exploration again in the future. There is much to talk about here. Immersion, flags, bangs, and so on are keys to creating dynamic and fun characters. However, this will serve as a brief definition of Character and provide a future context for my essays. :)