Unlike many writers, I was not a natural reader. Honestly, I only read for school assignments. Perhaps, it was jealousy over the thrall books seemed to have over my brothers, whose attention was supposed to be focused on me. (Yes, I was the youngest and only girl.) I even managed to misplace five copies of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe even though I rarely lost anything. However, the love of a good story reached me through another medium. I heard epic tales of adventure weaved together by groups of my brothers’ friends as they sat around a table.
Growing up in the 80’s with four older brothers addicted to fantasy literature, it is no surprise Dungeons & Dragons was a centerpiece of my household. Although my parents shoved it aside likening it to comics, cartoons, and other things meant for children, it was a special experience for my brothers and for me.
In role playing games, you are given a world, a general plot line, and sometimes a character. You interpret and work with these boundaries to create something interesting. You build a story, despite these restrictions, and you collaborate with a group of people to do it. Role playing is simply adlib storytelling.
Role playing is simply adlib storytelling.
When I was a sophomore in high school I joined in tournament role-playing games, competing at tables to be the best “role player”. Typically, the winner was one of two people: the one who killed the most or the one who portrayed the most interesting character. I didn’t care for killing stuff, I’m a pacifist at heart, so the only way I could win was to create interesting characters and vividly portray them. I learned this lesson well and won about one in every four tables I played.
Most of the steps and lessons for creating a memorable character for role-playing games (RPGs) are the same in writing. You want the character to catch the attention of your audience, be in some ways bigger than life, but still be relatable and believable. You must develop your character enough to know how they will react in a situation as well as why they react that way. To do that you create a background to ground them, building in flaws and events that shaped them. Unlike in RPGs, when writing you can focus your development because you control the world and the scenarios your character encounters.
Although I am not an expert in creating a novel (yet), I have created characters that are compelling for over twenty years. Through a series of posts, I will break down my character generation method for RPGs and how that translates into creating characters for written works.
Creating a Character
In writing this piece I realized the first step of my process is a bit nebulous, perhaps because I focus on character-driven stories and essentially this first step is creating the story itself.
Quick Note: I will refer to primary, secondary, and tertiary characters. Primary characters are both the main characters and the supporting cast that play a substantive role in the story, like the antagonist or love interest. Secondary characters are recurring individuals who influence the story and the primary characters. Tertiary characters are background, existing to provide a real-world feel and depth.
Step 1: The base concept
When I’m creating characters, it always starts with a conceptual nugget. This nugget could be the character’s personality, backstory, or a goal I need them to accomplish. I’ve found that my primary character development often starts with the personality or backstory. While my secondary or tertiary usually come from a goal-oriented concept. When I finish the base concept, I end up with a hazy impression of a person, usually consisting of a single aspect of their personality, what they do (job or primary interest), and the aspect of their backstory that got them involved in the story.
Goal-oriented character development is the most straight forward jumping off point. If I have a plot in mind already, this is the starting point for my primary characters. Almost unilaterally, this is where development begins for my secondary and tertiary characters. When developing the base concept this way, I have a specific goal I need to accomplish with the character, like a character who will showcase the culture of my werewolves or one who will be a lovable nuisance to my main character.
I start to ask questions about what I need from the character to accomplish the goal. I don’t automatically use the quick answers, instead hunting for less obvious ones. Usually the answers fall into the personality and backstory starting points. Once I have a few possibilities, I go a step further and ask what kind of character would make the goal shine.
When creating a character to fulfill a goal it is crucial that you maintain one clear goal. If you don’t the process will quickly derail as you add complexity and the character becomes muddled. If that happens refer back to the goal and determine what aspects of the development moved you away from it, remove those, and keep building.
To help show the process I will provide examples of each concept creation. It is almost a flow of consciousness because that is how the base concept forms.
Goal: A character to explain how magic works to the reader.
I need an expert in magic. Will this character be my main character or a secondary character?
If the expert is my main character, there will need to be a novice character in the story as well, to give me the freedom to explain without information dumping or “As you know Bob” moments.1
By making the expert a secondary character, my main character can be the novice. This will make my main character more similar to the audience and therefore more relatable. However, this is a common theme used in numerous books. It is possibly overused in Young Adult fantasy, so going with the first could be more interesting. Let’s try the first- my main character is the expert.
So, my character has been using magic her entire life. (Heh, look at that it’s a girl.) How did she learn it? Was it natural talent? Was it taught by family? Is there a school for magic?
I like the family-taught idea. A family of witches in present day with a long history. They can do real, physics-breaking, magic. Is their magic use public knowledge? Well before I go too far let’s see about the other ways she could have learned it.
The magic school concept has been done, and I am not feeling a school setting. I think I want magic to be a more personal aspect of the character instead of a societal feature. So, magic in my world will be rare.
If she learned it by natural talent, there was probably a lot of trial and error. Most likely this means the risks of the magic weren’t too high because she’s alive and well at the start of the story. Or maybe not, maybe her magic went awry, and now she is in a juvenile detention facility for harming someone. I don’t want a prison story… However, I like the concept of high stakes magic going wrong and her paying a price before the story starts. Maybe she is a little jaded and magic shy. Perhaps the dynamic is her meeting someone who is coming into their own magic and is going down the same dangerous path she went.
I think this will be my base concept: Girl with a natural talent for magic who tried to learn it on her own. She ended up in juvey because of her magic and recently has returned to a normal high school life. Her experiences during her incarceration and the prejudices since she got out have left her jaded.
I have a bit of her personality, a pivotal event in her backstory, and what she does. Step 1- check.
Next I ensure it relates to my goal: My main character has the knowledge to explain magic to the audience. With close 3rd POV, I can use her mental processes to pull some of the weight of explaining. However, if she is magic shy I need something to force her to use magic so she can explain it. By having a newcomer going down the same path, I can have my main character intervene, but she won’t be able to dissuade him. She will need to teach what she knows so he doesn’t hurt someone like she did in the past.
This base concept fulfills the goal, avoids tropes, and provides a method to have exposition without “As you know Bob” moments. A pretty strong start.
How about you try creating a character using the same goal? I would love to read what you come up with for your base concept in the comments.
In the next post, I will go through the other two starting points for a character creation, personality and backstory, and provide examples for each.
1. An “As you know Bob” moment is when two characters who know the details of something discuss it so the writer can explain it to the reader. It is a clumsy method of exposition that writers should avoid. Find out more about “As you know Bob” moments and suggestion to prevent them in Amy Hyndman‘s article Reasons for Rejection: As you know Bob Dialogue. ↩