Welcome back to my series on plot building. I have written about plotting out your story via index cards as well as how to frame a plot in Part 1 of this series. Whether you’re a Plotter or Pantser, there’s a lot of goodness in that method.
Today I want to focus on more of what I do before the index cards come out. Today I’m talking about building characters: good, bad, and neutral.
Buckle up fellow writers and gaming nerds, it’s character creation time!
My first article covered my index card method for developing scenes. Following its success, I discussed framing your plot. Now we’re diving into the heart of a good story: characters. And since I have been rolling with my hommies at The Stronghold D&D lately, I’m going to help my fellow nerds out and throw in some tips for role-playing game (RPG) character creation. (Also, you can catch our group live Sundays at 1pm Central on Twitch or catch older episodes on their YouTube channel.)
Firstly, what makes a high quality character? Not a “good” character, that is something else. But a character people love, even when they hate to love them. Without diving into too many irrelevancies, once upon a long time ago, as a starving college kid, I valeted for a professional wrestler and had to come up with a persona/character for being ringside. I was completely lost for how to start so the showrunner told me something very simple: “You can be a face (good), you can be a heel (bad), for the love for god, don’t be fucking boring!” And yes, the same applies to writing or RPG character development. A high quality character is distinct, compelling, and complex with an understandable motivation, even when it’s negative. Let’s break these down a bit though.
Distinct: Your characters should be discernable from one another. If you did a police lineup, you should be able to point at them and say “Ah, green eyes the color of old money, that’s Gentleman Jonny Marcone from The Dresden Files” or “A long braid and bow? Definitely Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games!” or “Red-gold hair and ripped? That’s Valerie Hall from the Pantheon series.” Their “voice” or how they speak on the page should be distinct as well. Nothing is worse for a reader than reading three pages of dialogue that all sound the same.
Compelling: Your reader should love the character, even when they hate them. They should root for your character even when they know the character’s actions are bad, morally. This is driven but the complexity of the character and the character’s motivation.
Complexity: Your characters need depth. They need a backstory that drives them. No adult (or teen if you write YA) magically appears on this earth (ok, maybe if you write high fantasy they do), every person lives a life before the story begins. How does that impact them?
Motivation: The thing that will sink a character or drive them to be your readers’ favorite, even when they are evil, is motivation. The motivation must be clear and understandable, even if you don’t reveal it until the end, and it must spark at least some empathy in your readers. Going back to Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games as a protagonist: she is arguably a sociopath, caring for very few people, and even admits that most people only tolerate her because of her fame. But despite this, the reader can empathize with her love for her sister. Killmonger, from Marvel’s Black Panther, is a perfect example of a villain motivation: he is violent, cruel, and willing to kill but you find yourself saying “yes, but he’s got a damn good point (I just don’t love how he’s going about it).” Finally, Frank Underwood from House of Cards makes a good anti-hero motivation: ruthless and tenacious, he crushed anyone he decided was an enemy. While he’s absolutely ruthless, you agree with the outcomes as his enemies are even worse than he is.
A good character is distinct and compelling which comes from having complexity and a good motivation. So how do you, as an author or D&D player, write characters that have those four aspects? Three steps, of course! Determine the character’s purpose in the story, build their background, and add the details. Simple!
This is not a fast or simple process. Done right, it is developed in layers, altered time and again as you develop other characters in your story and ensure the ensemble works.
D&D Note: Ok, it’s easier for you because other than ensuring party balance, you don’t really have to make a background work with other players.
The first question you have to ask yourself when developing a character is what is that character’s purpose in this story? Are they the protagonist, antagonist, side character, or a background character? Do they fit one of the fourteen character archetypes? How do they advance the plot? The answers to these questions will drive the next two steps. If you don’t know a character’s purpose in your story then stop developing them, they’re the character equivalent of a side-bae: kinda fun to play around with, but not getting you anywhere.
Arguably, you should spend the majority of your time ensuring your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) are the most fleshed out. If you have identified this character as a side character, but fitting into an archetype, you may want to note it so you can add additional depth later to keep them from being flat. That said, I like an archetype character as a side character, especially when they have a well-developed backstory. A well executed archetype character can provide a foil for your main character’s quirks or flaws. The best example I have is Michael Carpenter in The Dresden Files. He fills the role of The Father/Sage and provides the series’ protagonist, Harry Dresden, with wisdom and a moral compass. Despite being an archetype, his well developed backstory ensures he is not a cliché. His background is so well developed, in fact, that he is the protagonist in several of Jim Butcher’s short stories.
D&D Note: For RPGs your biggest concern will be party class balance. That said, if everyone decides their character is the Brooding Silent One, your sessions will get boring fast.
The character’s purpose is your entry point into developing your character. The character’s background is where you will start adding complexity because the background will set the foundation of their motivations. Every action your character takes should have a reason behind it, even the small behaviors.
Do you show your antagonist kicking puppies as a way to demonstrate how evil they are? Great! Now tell me what in their childhood caused them to hate dogs. No one kicks a puppy for no reason!
Is your heroine stunningly, but effortlessly beautiful? Yes? Neato! Now, tell me what about her teenaged years made her self-conscious about wearing makeup.
Let’s pull at an example from my own works (I’d use Killmonger from Black Panther but I don’t want to get sued!):
At the beginning of Pantheon, I describe Valerie Hall as overweight, shy with men, and happy to settle into the “cheerful fat girl” persona, even when it has negative impacts on her military career. This personality description allows me as an author to show her growth to a strong willed, fiery tempered, and passionate but loyal woman by the end. It serves to make the character compelling by her complexity but her motivations come from her background and her catalyst event.
How does a compelling protagonist start off as a character who is, by all accounts, rather dumpy and boring? Because the circumstances that drive her to that starting point also drive her motivation. She starts her story driven by grief: the loss of her fiancé drove her into depression and depressive eating, she finds that it’s easier to live as “the cheerful fat girl” who is unassuming and harmless. It’s easy. It’s safe. And it means she is motivated to stay in that safety. When you meet her, on the worst day of her life, she must make a choice to leave the supposed safety of her own life for greatness. For the average reader, the idea that they could for a moment see themselves as that character and leave their life of boring mediocrity for greatness, is compelling and believable. Your reader will be hooked.
D&D Note: You don’t need to hook your reader, but you do need to hook yourself. Find a background you could enjoy playing.
At the end of this article, I will leave an exhaustive list of questions to ask yourself about your character, but here are the ones you must be able to answer:
Devil is in the Details
The final aspect of character creation is the details. You know who this person is now, to their core. You know not only what motivates them but why. You know their quirks and foibles. But what does this person look like and more importantly, how do you convey that in a way that stands out to readers?
I like to pick out their visual traits first and usually use a Pinterest board to give me ideas. I start by picking a model or actor that is close to how I picture my character: hair, eyes, facial shape, and general build. Next, I layer in the small details that align with the background. My stressy-depressy main character from Pantheon ate her feelings, so I initially described her as overweight. My CIA side character is bland, boring, and blends into his background. I also like to pick at the smaller details, making them hyper specific, while leaving some of the bigger details to the imagination of my readers.
When it comes to details, you want to strike the balance between too much and too little. The main details like the person’s overall look (hair, eye, and skin color) should be basic while elements that tell their story stand out in detail. Does your character handle weapons frequently? Don’t go for the cliché of telling me they smell like “cordite and gun oil,” describe the little callus at the first knuckle of the thumb on their dominant hand that built up from recoil. Is your character a soft person in a group of hardened military types? Great, tell me about the soft pink cashmere sweater they wear that practically begs a callused hand to run over it, savoring one soft element in life. See how one single detail can bring life to a character? I don’t need to tell you much else, you mind will start filling in the rest of the details.
If I am not pressed for time, I try to gauge what their personal aesthetic. A note about the “aesthetic” section: this is an odd one to explain. To me, each of my characters has an aesthetic, a vibe, if you will. I use this section to fill in sensory information reflective of each character. While I never directly write this vibe, that would be weird, I use the sensory information to add subtle layers of depth to scenes. Certain characters have certain description tags that are either consistent throughout or they change over the course of the plot to indicate the character is undergoing a personal change. No more on that… I’d hate to spoil something accidentally.
The last detail I will speak to is the most difficult for me to teach because it will exist only in your head: your character’s “voice.” Some authors can build a character in vivid detail only to lose their readers when everyone speaks the same. Some hit too hard on a regional accent. And some overuse certain phrases. (See: every romance author ever who uses the phrase “she/he exhaled the breath they didn’t know they were holding.”)
I believe a successfully written character speaks in a manner that gives the reader a hint at their background but doesn’t punch them in the face with dialect. I try to keep things consistent with the character’s age and profession, then sprinkle in a few phrases that are unique to that individual.
Here are my two examples:
Valerie Hall: mid-20s, early in her career and junior in rank to nearly all her co-workers. When she speaks to her co-workers, she is scrupulously polite and maintains all the customs and courtesies of a military officer. When she speaks to her handler, Mandy, another 20-something, she is much less formal and drops in colloquialisms. Additionally, early in the book, she calls her father “Daddy” at a time of high stress and emotion. She refers to him as “Dad” for the remainder of the book because, in those encounters, she is much calmer.
Marco Martinez: early-40s, the most senior character in the group’s military structure. When he speaks, his tone and words imply that he is phrasing his statement politely, but nothing is a request, it is an order. However, when he speaks to Mandy, they bounce between English and Spanish as family members of a bi-lingual household do, which should imply to my readers that the pair are closer than a simple boss/subordinate relationship.
D&D Note: depending on how into your RP you want to get, you can either try voice acting or end up with a character that sounds shockingly like you. If you can do voices, awesome! If not, eh, stick to your own voice.
I am a firm believer that characters drive stories. A compelling story can otherwise be lost to flat, boring characters. If you want characters that drive the plot, they must be distinct, compelling, and complex with an understandable motivation, even when it’s negative. Authors achieve this by knowing their character’s purpose, developing a background that shows the foundation of a character’s motivation, and layering on details that build a character that stands out in the minds of the reader.
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