In tournament role-playing games, the vast majority of my experiences were playing with strangers. However, I loved the opportunity to play with friends or family. Collaboratively creating characters with intertwined stories is one of the things I think I miss the most when writing. When writing your own story, you miss out on the thrill of adapting to someone else’s narrative, incorporating ideas beyond your own, and expanding your story and imagination to places it would never have gone alone. Of course, even the best teams don’t always sync up, and all the planning in the world can come to a screeching halt when theory meets practice.
Two friends and I spent nearly a month and a half building vibrant characters with a shared past. Our characters were all going to be from the same small village. A village whose sole inhabitants were of a feral race who could become more animalistic boosting their strength or mobility. Biron, a druid with a hatred of the arcane, was a taciturn, grumpy cynic. Daben, a warrior, was protective and suspicious bordering on xenophobic.
My character, Shen, had to balance out this happy-go-lucky group, so she was affable and optimistic. Almost a younger sister, she had escaped the woeful pasts many fantasy characters seem doomed to suffer. Of course, she had a secret that only her family, Daben, and Biron knew. She and her mother were not the same race as the rest of the village. Their race could shift forms, becoming like any of the other races, becoming identical to any individual as well. In the world setting, this race was discriminated against, viewed as thieves and conmen. However, Daben and Biron had been her shield, and Shen had lived happily in the village.
Things can vastly change between concept and realization.
Their adventures began when the head druid of the village asked Biron to travel to a town where research was being conducted on a pervasive magical effect corrupting the wilderness. Daben and Shen joined to guard their friend. The first encounter in the game happened while traveling to the town. They had set camp and were cooking dinner when they heard some people approaching stealthily. Biron and Shen receded into the shadows to see who approached as Daben sat at the fire cooking.
An older man walked to the pot, took a sniff, and pulled out some powders adding it to the stew. Daben greeted him friendlily and offered him a spot by the fire. My character wondered if the man had just poisoned dinner. A family emerged from the woods behind the old man and Byron stepped out and joined Daben in welcoming them. Not a surly word came from either Biron or Daben. They were downright social. For a moment, I froze (frankly, wondering what the heck had happened to the month of backstory and personalities we had developed), and Shen’s entire persona changed.
In her first encounter, she had immediately become suspicious. I realized by her hiding her own secret, she would always look to find the secret each person she encountered was keeping. She had been sheltered but knew from Biron’s tragic experiences the world was not reflected in her home. Shen was fearful of what the real world would be like, the one her mother warned about as she stressed that Shen keep their race a secret. Shen was a very different person the moment she stopped being a concept and started being a realized character.
It can be difficult throwing away your carefully laid plans, but sometimes your subconscious is smarter than your conscious efforts. Shatter your plans if they are lessening or inhibiting your story. In the destruction, true beauty can be wrought.
Beginning with Personality
This destructive creation is usually what happens when I try to plan a character from personality whether it is for a game or for a story. I think I know who they are or how they will behave but the instant things start happening the bookish mouse turns out to be a snarky feminist. In gaming, I generally steer clear of starting with a personality simply because it tends to fall apart.
It was only through extremes that I started a character concept with personality and had it remain after play began. When I first started making characters I took what I knew (myself) and then exaggerated it. I would use one aspect of my personality good or bad and make it the dominating feature of the character. I had characters based on my naivety, my selfishness, my friendliness. These characters stretched the bounds of believability, completely imbalanced because they focused solely on exploring one facet of a personality. But they were highly memorable, and I won table after table. Eventually, I learned to tone back enough to keep them extreme but real enough to resonate.
I rarely use these extreme personalities in writing. But, they can lead to intriguing characters and storylines I hadn’t originally conceived. Developing one is like creating a single-dimensional villain, except that a trait other than cruelty is inflated to overwhelm everything else. When I create an extreme personality character, I work through how this trait would influence the way the world interacts with the character. These extreme personality characters end up vastly different by the end of development, especially given their one-dimensional start.
Personality is at once the most obvious things the reader sees and the most nebulous to develop.
In writing, I have found another method where characters developed from personality survive the transition to realization. I focus on the flaw of the character. and create a story around it. Since that flaw is central to the narrative, the character’s personality stays constant. (Well at least that aspect of their personality.) For a main character’s personality, development generally focuses on the misbelief or flaw that will change during the course of the story. Once I choose the flaw, I try to work through what other aspects of her personality are critical. Then I determine the goal of the character and develop some details in their backstory. Lisa Cron’s Story Genius has some amazing insight into developing stories based on a character flaw or misbelief.
For a non-main character, the personality development could also start from a like, dislike, or exceptional trait. Once I have the personality decided, I consider what the goal of the character needs to be and how that character will interact with my main character. After that, I try to determine what kind of background would have lead to the personality I envisioned.
Personality: Insecurity manifesting by compliance.
Let’s start with a girl who is so concerned about acceptance she conforms to the people she is around. She lacks a personal identity and changes anything about who she is to fit in.
How do we make this interesting? It could be interesting to have someone with a strong identity to bounce the character off of. Maybe she could learn from this person as well. Perhaps the strong identity is a pariah. The main character could wonder why the pariah holds true to doing things her own way when acceptance makes life easier. (Well, there is the main character’s misbelief.)
What would be the main character’s goal? She wants approval and to be liked. A popularity contest of some kind at the center of the story seems cliché.
Perhaps it should focus on a passion of hers, something that has been accepted by most at this point in her life. Maybe a talent? Like art?
Art is something she could do alone, making it a release from the pressures of being the person the crowd wants her to be. She could want to have her work exhibited at a local gallery that is featuring teen artists. But her art changes drastically from piece to piece as she tries to appease those around her. Her art has no voice because she doesn’t have one. Art also could make it easy to bring in the strong identity. The pariah could be part of the art community.
Is there another option besides art? Maybe a passion for animal rescue? The animals don’t ask her to change. If it’s dogs, she could see a similarity in their desire to please, and everyone loves a puppy. Maybe she wants to raise money for a rescue and thinks that her “friends” will all help. She could get partnered with the pariah to work on the project. She realizes she doesn’t want to conform to what the pariah likes.
Let’s try one more. Working with day care age kids as her part time job? Maybe we move to a summer camp for the story and she is given more control over the kids. In the regimented day care setting, her tendency to want to please even the kids doesn’t lead to any problems. However, the increased responsibility at the summer camp causes this flaw to shine.
I think I like the art one the best, after all.
How did she get this way? Someone left. A parent. Her older sister, who wasn’t very old, planted the idea in her head that it is better to conform. The sister blamed her for their father leaving, saying if she had been less contrary he would have stayed. This comment started her on the path of conforming to people’s expectations. As she grew she saw continued to see conforming made things easier.
So here is the nugget I will use: An insecure girl learned from her father’s abandonment that people stick around when you are who they want you to be. Through her art she pleases the people in her life. When her goal changes to showing at a local gallery, the proprietor wants her to have a collection expressing her voice. She struggles as she realizes she has no voice of her own.
I have the key element of her personality, what she aspires for, and a critical moment in her backstory. Step 1- check
So this was the final post in generating a base concept. Now it is time to take a small nugget and flesh it out, adding complexity and depth. The next post will deal with categorizing your character and expanding beyond the typical.