Author Toolbox: Character Creation- From RPGs to Writing

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.

A role-playing game character sheet, miniature, and diceGrowing 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 Concept

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.


Example:

Girl silhouette with birds behindGoal: 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.

Moving Forward

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.

Next time


Footnotes

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


Photo Credits

Main Image: Silhouette of Girl by Shoreline by Flash Brothers
RPG Game by E.M.A. Timar
Silhouette of Girl Watching Birds by Artem Mizyuk

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By | 2017-04-18T17:15:00+00:00 April 17th, 2017|Writing|30 Comments

About the Author:

Writer, Software Engineer, modern-day Renaissance woman and eternal student

30 Comments

  1. marie gilbert April 17, 2017 at 6:40 pm - Reply

    Wonderful post, Erika. Is Dungeons and Dragons where you got your love of creating online games?

    • Erika Timar April 18, 2017 at 12:26 pm - Reply

      Actually, I think my love of console and computer gaming came from growing up alongside the industry. I remember when the Nintendo came out. Everyone wanted one. It was years and years before I got one, but absence makes the obsession greater, or something like that. Once I had one, I found some great story-based games, and I have never looked back. When my husband was already making games and I had that Computer Science degree gathering dust, it seemed like the next logical step.

  2. JM Sullivan April 17, 2017 at 9:34 pm - Reply

    Wow! What great advice for building solid characters! I love that you learned this through RPGs. So many people discredit them and they really are a valuable storytelling experience. Thank you for sharing!

    • Erika Timar April 18, 2017 at 12:30 pm - Reply

      Thanks. I learned so much through my gaming. Long before I started researching the bizarre for writing, I avidly explored topics that I wouldn’t have to make my characters more authentic. In the past, real-world RPGs have gotten a lot of negative attention, but it is an amazing resource, especially for writers. (At least I think so.)

  3. M. C. Frye April 18, 2017 at 2:05 am - Reply

    I love this. It’s such a different approach to story-building from what is natural to me. Settings are almost always where I start, and the landscape, cityscape, moonscape, etc. become as tangible for me as my characters. I look forward to trying this technique soon!

    • Erika Timar April 18, 2017 at 12:32 pm - Reply

      I actually use my characters to explore my settings. They become the lens that I world build through. I would love to hear how you start from a setting and build a story from it.

      • M. C. Frye April 20, 2017 at 12:34 am - Reply

        I blogged about it a few months ago: http://mcfrye.com/where-do-my-stories-come-from-strange-places/ From that inspiration was born a research project about the tiny town’s past, and I also fleshed out the New England settings with the help of Google Earth and local historical websites. The eventual story morphed quite a bit from those first vague ideas about the people who would inhabit the settings, and the settings themselves have gained many details.

  4. Ronel Janse van Vuuren April 18, 2017 at 6:41 am - Reply

    Great way to create characters 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thought process.

  5. Cheryl Sterling April 18, 2017 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    Playing the game of “What if” is a great way of adding dimension to characters. I’ve tried several techniques in my character creation process. I’m not a fan of character interviews, but I do use Tarot cards, Numerology, the Myers-Briggs personality test and, of course, what the plot demands. Every story is different, which makes writing so interesting!
    Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    • Erika Timar April 19, 2017 at 9:29 pm - Reply

      I use numerology and personality tests later on in my development process. How do you use Tarot cards in development?

  6. Raimey Gallant April 18, 2017 at 3:11 pm - Reply

    Are you sure you’re not a novel-writing expert? You should pitch this to the Writing Excuses podcast (big deal writers’ podcast if you haven’t hear of it). I bet they would take you on the show. What a fantastic way to look at character development and design, love the parallels. It was a podcast similar to this a few years back from which they gained their female co-host, who talked about the parallels in puppetry and how an author manipulates a character. She was a guest and then all of a sudden, she was a host, if I’m remembering correctly. Anyway, I loved this post, and I think there is potential for you to be a guest writer in larger forums with it, and I’m kind of jealous I didn’t have your upbringing. Thanks for bringing this insight to the hop!

    • Erika Timar April 19, 2017 at 9:27 pm - Reply

      I will definitely check out the podcast. Thanks so much for sharing the idea to pitch it.

  7. K. Wolf April 18, 2017 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    I love this perspective on looking at character development!!! I’ve always wanted to get into tabletop RPGs, but never had enough friends to do it, so just video games for me. Seriously, love this in-depth process, I’ve gotta try it out!

    • Erika Timar April 19, 2017 at 9:39 pm - Reply

      There are a lot of ways to find groups if you are looking. The link under the first D&D is an ongoing campaign that is at least national (possibly international). About five years ago, I moved to Pathfinder, and there are Pathfinder Society games as well. Here is a link to their coordinators, if you want to contact the one for your region. There may be groups in your area playing. The upside with these campaigns and convention gaming is you don’t need a group. You go there sit with a bunch of strangers and play a game. Also if Meetup is active near you, there is a sizable role-playing community on it.

  8. Louise April 19, 2017 at 4:14 am - Reply

    Great post 🙂 I used to love tabletop RPG’s at university. The games society played them a lot, and they really do make you think about character creation. Everyone was just so good at it too, they should have become writers 🙂

    • Erika Timar April 19, 2017 at 9:44 pm - Reply

      Very true. It’s an act of creative passion for most who play. As a writer, your perspective on it changes a bit. You notice things like voice and nuances in personality. The best part is you can also procure character traits that you loved.

  9. Caroliena Cabada April 19, 2017 at 6:06 am - Reply

    Great post! Character creation is often something I struggle with (especially naming; I hate naming things and often end up just using the filler name I had made on the fly, which isn’t great), and this gave me a lot to think about.

    Also, I never knew that tournament role-playing games existed! That’s amazing!

    • Erika Timar April 19, 2017 at 9:47 pm - Reply

      For naming, I use baby name websites and do searches on meanings. Also sites like ChaoticShiny can help as a jumping off point. Just make sure that unless your character is choosing their own name the meaning doesn’t need to be perfect. It should be what their parent wanted them to be, not who they are.

  10. Kristina Stanley April 19, 2017 at 10:24 am - Reply

    I love the goal oriented part of this post. For every scene I write, I ask myself what it the goal of POV character and then who or what is working against that character to they fail at their goal. This helps me build the characters, but also helps me create conflict and tension in every scene.

    • Erika Timar April 19, 2017 at 9:52 pm - Reply

      Goal-driven creation really helps you focus on creating content that will stay in the story when editing. I develop a goal list for every scene, which includes the MC’s goal, what I need to reveal about my setting and my world (yay fantasy!), and what I need to reveal about the characters involved. Afterward, I make a note of what questions were resolved and what new questions have been posed. This way I can track loose threads.

  11. Mica Kole April 19, 2017 at 10:25 am - Reply

    “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.”

    Love this idea. When I start plotting my next book, I’ll take a look at using these ideas as seeds for my characters. Through editing I ended up doing a lot of this stuff backwards – would be better to start it off right instead!

    • Erika Timar April 19, 2017 at 9:54 pm - Reply

      Give the method a try, but remember that your creative process is probably different than mine. Take what works for you and throw out the rest. Though I will for all the pantsers out there, a little planning can go a long way. Just don’t get bogged down by it.

  12. Hoda April 19, 2017 at 12:31 pm - Reply

    Great advice on character development! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  13. Dianna Gunn April 19, 2017 at 2:23 pm - Reply

    Role playing is one of the best ways to learn about storytelling and character creation! Many of my own characters and even settings are loosely based on ones I created during role playing games with my parents.

    Thanks for sharing your process! Looking forward to the next one 🙂

    • Erika Timar April 19, 2017 at 9:57 pm - Reply

      So true! The stories you gain from role playing can be amazing seeds for new stories. I have a list of possible plots, and by playing with strangers (convention gaming) so often, I have a wealth of character concepts just sitting there waiting to be plucked.

  14. Erika Beebe April 19, 2017 at 2:53 pm - Reply

    Great post! I agree, in role playing and gaming you get into the character until you live it. I played a bit of it in high school too. I really like how you outline your process to defining and deciding on a character in a new story. I like the focus on a goal too.

    • Erika Timar April 19, 2017 at 10:00 pm - Reply

      Thanks. I try to accomplish that same level of “living in the character” while I am writing each and every character. I think if they are alive for you, they become alive for your readers.

  15. Drew April 19, 2017 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    Great post. I really like the goal-oriented approach to building new characters. I’ll need to keep this in mind.

  16. Leslie April 19, 2017 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    Hi! Great info. I’m not to knowledgeable about RPG, but I thought this was a great way to look at developing a character! 🙂
    My Post
    Leslie

  17. Dawn Byrne May 17, 2017 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    Great process. Thank you for this.

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