Recently a question was asked about Navigating on Niven's Ringworld.

One of the answers was given as an 'In-Character' answer, complete with faux security warning at the top, and other in-universe touches. I don't exactly mind reading such things (Heck, I'm a writer on the SCP project), nor object to having fun, but my understanding was that the intent was that answers be serious and professional, leaving commentary and humor for the comments.

I paged thru the Help files, but don't see anything directly addressing this issue. I, personally find that it detracts from the site, and fear allowing it would shift the site from a resource on SciFi & Fantasy to a vehicle for people to engage in creative writing using questions as a jumping off point. Not a bad thing, but also not what the site is for.

Is there an established policy on this?

  • 2
    Not to my knowledge, but I agree - Let's not set a precedent.
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 16:21
  • Was the answer's content good, correct and based on canon? (I'm not familiar with Niven yet so can't judge) Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 17:32
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    @dvk -- Some was based on assumptions in the book, some was speculation. That's actually one issue I have with 'In Character' answers -- it's not referenced; 'Well, we know from Book X that' is a reference; this is written in-universe and without identifiable substantiation.
    – K-H-W
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 19:54
  • @KHW - I've added more references, and attempted to cut down on speculation. If I can't get this up to snuff, will consider deleting the answer or replacing it with a more conventional one, but this question is basically inviting speculation. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 2:03
  • @neilfein - Yeah, and that's part of the problem.. the question itself, tho popular, isn't really that good. It's not asking for specific, identified methods, but rather speculation on possible methods, which makes it less concrete than perhaps desirable. An idea answer would be 'Oh, sure, in X short story, Niven explains that...', but such an answer doesn't seem forthcoming. I don't disagree with the speculation, I just question if we want to make users read fictitious accounts to get their answers. It could be a lovely writing exercise, but doesn't fit my understanding of SE's goals.
    – K-H-W
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 2:23
  • That's why I tried to use the question to point out features of the Ringworld that potentially could be used in navigation, and what the problems were. But I can see how doing that in-universe would further the "speculative" element of it. Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 4:18
  • Its not that its a bad answer, it has all of the required detail. Its just that there is so much cruft to filter through to get the actual information needed.
    – user20155
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 3:55

3 Answers 3


I don't see any reason why we need a blanket policy for/against in-character answers. As far as bad answers go, we have two ways to deal with answers that are not up to snuff as far as the community:

  • Flag for moderation - this is for answers that are clearly not attempting to be useful, helpful answers. An attempt at a real answer doesn't seem like the kind of thing we should be punishing users for, just because of their chosen writing style.

  • Up/Downvotes - In general, I suspect most in-character answers are going to fall into the category of "on-topic, accurate, but not all that good" answers, which is what the voting system is there to handle. OTOH, if someone manages to write an in-universe answer that other users like, and conveys the information in a reasonable manner, I see no reason it shouldn't be allowed to stands on its own.

Using this specific answer as an example, it's a well-written, informative, and accurate answer, but my immediate reaction was "holy crap, way too many needless words, no way I'm reading this whole answer." I suspect any in-character answer is going to have a similar problem: the writer is going to spend a lot of the "real estate" in their answer just putting it into character, compared to the amount of useful information they're giving out. (I suspect there will be people who upvote it just because it's cute, which is their right, but the other answer is currently "winning" anyway, likely because it gives the same basic information in a much easier to digest form.)

Either way, if users find these kinds of answers useful and entertaining, they'll get upvoted. If users find them tedious, hard to read, or otherwise not useful, they'll get downvoted. I see no reason not to let that system keep working.

My only real objective concern with such answers is the difficulty in including references to back up your answer. It's very tricky to make references to specific novels, alternative information sources (blog posts, Q&A sessions, etc), or even many of the things that actually happened in the novels in the guise of a single character. How would you reliably work information into your answer that was only know to a few people, or that was presented as the internal monologue of a specific character, or that the author described happening in such a way that there were no witnesses? It's certainly possible (@neilfein dropped a reference to the Wikipedia entry on Ringworld into his answer) but too many of them will start to defeat the whole purpose of an in-universe answer.

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    "holy crap, way too many needless words, no way I'm reading this whole answer." - Exactly; when I ask a question, I'm looking for an answer, not a demonstration of someone's writing ability. Not that it's bad, but, to me, it's an imposition on the reader who just wants an answer to their question. I think it could be a lovely exercise for an aspiring writer, but just not something appropriate for SE. But with my SE experience being limited (mostly) to SciFi.SE, I thought I'd solicit more experienced opinions.
    – K-H-W
    Commented Feb 18, 2014 at 2:27
  • Agreed. Every word written to make the answer "in universe" is an extra word a reader has to read through to actually get the information they wanted.
    – user20155
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 4:53

I was quite puzzled by this answer, not being certain if it was copy-and-paste from an RPG rulebook, something from one of the Ringworld books (or a "Science of Ringworld" book), or something that was an invention of the person answering.

For context - I have a passing familiarity with the concept of the Ringworld universe, have read the first book, and may probably read some of the others at some point in the future, but don't feel any pressing urgency to do so right now. From this background I had no idea whatsoever how seriously (or not) to take the answer (coming from a 4k rep user I assumed it was legit, but that's not always guaranteed); if I was the person asking this question I think I'd have been quite confused by such an answer, and would have had to follow it up with further questions in the comments, just to try figure things out.

I see this as being a bad answer. It's not clear that the material in it is sourced from Niven's books, and it's not clear which parts of it are quoting those sources and which ones are discussing or extrapolating from them.

  • To fully appreciate the answer you need strong familiarity with the books, in which case the answer is useless to you because you don't need to ask the question in the first place (it seems reasonable to assume that you'd already know).

  • If you do need to ask the question you probably don't have the degree of familiarity required to appreciate the answer, in which case it's also useless to you because you've no way of knowing if the answer is actually valid.

  • It seems that the only people that the answer is actually useful to are those who appreciate it as an in-joke; those who know the books, who can spot the references, and who see the humour involved in answering in this way.

This may leave the OP in a position where they can't accept the answer. It seems reasonable to suppose that a good answer is one written with the intention of a possible accept. But yet the OP may not have sufficient familiarity with the source material to determine whether the answer is correct or not. And so the answer fails in it's intended purpose - answering the question.

That's a shame because - as soon as one does have knowledge of what's going on here - it is a cool way of answering. But by presupposing that a reader has this knowledge, when in fact they may not, it fails.

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    That's exactly what bothers me; SE isn't a creative writing exercise, it's a repository for questions and answers; to me, writing it this way makes it much hard to use, and deviates from the idea of substantive and substantiated answers.
    – K-H-W
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 19:56
  • @Jimmy - Answer author here. You raise some good points, and I've edited the answer to make it more understandable to those not familiar with the source material. (See revision 4 in the edit history.) Would welcome any further suggestions. Any thoughts on how I can dissuade fears that this is a lift from an RPG manual? Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 20:22

I think this depends on the answer.

  • If the answer is basically role-playing content generation ("I'm a slytherin, and I would never do anything bad"), then it's pure opinion and bad answer; independently of it being "in character".

  • If the answer is 100% canon based (in other words, if you strip "in character" stuff, the answer is good), and "in character" merely serves as presentation framing and NOT the bulk of the answer (less than 33% volume and in general not too distracting from the answer); then I feel it's perfectly fine.

    The only requirement I would posit is that the answer breaks the 4th wall and introduces content proof of what it's saying in the way that makes it clear that it's canon info and NOT imaginings of a fan.

Sample Bad answer (to a notional "are only Gryffindors brave" question):

Even Gryffindors admit that some Slytherins are very brave. I, as Slytherin, see brave house-mates every day".

Sample Marginal answer:

I even overheard the paragon of bravery, Gryffindor Harry Potter refer to Slytherin Severus Snape as brave to his son.

Sample Good answer:

I as Slytherin 1st year aspire to be as brave as the famous Severus Snape, especially after being on the Platform 9 3/4 and overhearing the famous Harry Potter stating "“you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”[1] to his son who is in the same year as me.

Which is only fitting, given that Headmaster Snape was instrumental in keeping the Order apraised of Voldemort's plans; and lived a dangerous double agent existence, just to protect Harry.

[1] Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, Epilogue, Nineteen Years Later

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    I see your point, but I guess I'm looking for more of a base SE conception; even if the answer contains valid data, is it right to put it in a form that forces the user to interpolate based on what they have read? My understanding was that SE was against that, for the same reason we don't want open-ended questions; if this is not a discussion forum (that's what chat is for), then it seems to me that neither should be an exercise in creative writing, forcing the reader to try to figure out what is fact and what is creative license.
    – K-H-W
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 19:58
  • The thing is your "sample good" answer, has so much extra cruft that it becomes difficult to sift the answer from the fan-fic. A 'best' answer would be along the lines of "Snape was considered brave [source]. Also, Pottermore states that..."
    – user20155
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 4:49
  • I am a Slytherin who might be considered not brave. I fear touching metal handrails and doorknobs, shower curtains, cockroaches, bent spoons and forks with uneven tines, corduroy, anything with the consistency of peeled grapes, the dark, traveling, math, sunsets, housework, WalMart, cats, losing a glove, my next door neighbor's 80s era Ford Fiesta, feet, Power Point, pastels, and phones ... but on page 4734 of Deathly Hallows, Harry tells his kids that I'm brave anyway, in my own way! ;) 1) This would not be a good answer, and 2) the fears listed here may or may not be actually real. :P Commented Mar 8, 2014 at 16:10

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