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Character Creation

Today I’d like to talk about creating a character. Sometimes a story doesn’t start with a plot. It starts with a character, and the plot is built around them. Other times you have a plot, and you need just the right character to fill it out. It sounds easy, and sometimes it can be. Sometimes the right character just sort of… falls into your lap. But for the most part, it’s more complicated than that.

To help frame this discussion, I’m going to be talking about a game. Specifically, I’m going to be talking about a game I’m making with a group of friends. First, let me explain what the project is, and why I started it. Bear with me, as this might get a little long, but I promise it’s relevant. I’ve been an avid player of tabletop Roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons or Monster of the Week for years. I used to play with a group of friends during school breaks as a child, and we still play together fifteen years later.

Ultimately, we decided we wanted to try our hand at making our own system. Each of the ones we had played had strong points and weak points, and we felt we could tailor something that would be closer to what we wanted. So we gave it a shot.

The system was meant to allow total flexibility with character creation and storytelling. There were no classes, and, since we were the only ones playing the game, we came up with spells and attacks as we went along. Not only that, but the freedom to sort of make things up as we went along (by either adding or removing certain rules and the like) made for a fantastic framework in which to tell a story.

Unfortunately, some of the pieces of the system were very… well… difficult to work with or around. Ultimately, we played the system for something like 8 years, throwing band-aids at problems we found. It worked, if barely, and was quite a lot of fun.

Still, we weren’t quite satisfied. We decided to try our hand at something else. Something more structured and with a stronger underlying framework. So that’s exactly what we did.

I won’t talk too much about any specifics of gameplay or mechanics, because its easy to get caught up in the weeds of the “crunch” as it’s called. Besides, this is a page about writing. So going forward, when discussing this project I’ll be focusing primarily on how the story evolved, and how that story and the lore surrounding it was translated into gameplay mechanics. In this case, like I said above, I’ll be focusing specifically on characters.

Frankly, that’s something I don’t think is talked about enough when it comes to storytelling. I’ve found that thinking about how aspects of a story would function in more detail is incredibly important to telling that story.

Of course, you don’t need to do this with everything, but in my experience, by having certain “anchors” that are the core of “how things work”, my writing flows much more cleanly, and I have to deal with much less writers block.

In any case, on to the story in general.

To summarize a bit (or really, a whole lot): A few hundred years in the future, humanity spreads across the solar system and to neighboring stars. During this time, they encounter an extremely powerful alien species called the Heteroclites. This alien species is from another universe and begins to quickly subdue and annihilate humans they come into contact with. Humanity tries to fight back, but find that they are almost completely defenseless against the Heteroclites. Only certain people with the ability to manipulate the energy in the universe, called Psionics, pose much of a threat to the Heteroclites.

Eventually, the humans are once again confined to Earth and the outlying planets. Faced with the threat of imminent extinction, Humanity’s leadership decides to take a gamble. They detonate the sun to extract enough energy to open a wormhole to the other side of the galaxy.

Fortunately, it works, and 30 years later humans find themselves living amongst three other species in relative peace. Diplomatic and trade relationships have been established, and things are as stable as they can be.

So that’s the background of things. When players want to start a game in the universe, this is where their story can “start” so to speak. To make an analogy to more “traditional” writing, what I outlined above is the prologue, and any adventures or quests the players go on while guided by the Game Master constitutes the “story”. So far so good.

With that said, lets take a short jump to what happens to play a game. For those of you unfamiliar with a Tabletop Role-Playing Game, one of the first things you do is create a character. This character represents “you” in the game world but doesn’t necessarily have to share any characteristics with you as a person. It can be someone completely different that has different beliefs and values just as easily as it can be “you” in the future.

When you create a character, traditionally what you do is select a “class”. This is quite interesting, because, at the heart of things, you’re selecting an “archetype” for your character. This is exactly the same as when, as an author, I create a character for a novel or a short story. The first thing I do is decide the character’s core characteristics, and these core characteristics are their “archetype”.

But how is it exactly that you get from something that’s more of a concept and nail it down? It’s pretty easy to think of what people in this fictional future might do. For example, you might say there are soldiers, scientists, doctors, merchants, and so on. Both, when I’m writing a novel ,and when I’m working with my friends to make a game, this is where the problems begin.

From the point of view of an author, I need to actually figure out what the most important traits of these characters are. In other words, I need to translate the way I feel when I hear that someone is a “soldier” or a “scientist” or a “doctor” into an actual description. This is deceptively difficult. Because certainly when you imagine a soldier, for example, you know exactly what you’re talking about. But everyone has different conceptions, so, without a proper description or explanation, you’re going to run into trouble very quickly.

So, what do I imagine when I think of a “soldier”? Well, the very heart of it is that I imagine somebody that knows how to fight. Someone that has been trained to use a weapon (or weapons), usually by an organization of some sort (whether military or otherwise). That’s a good starting point, but I can think of some more things.

For the most part, I think of a soldier as “one of many”. There are elites and exceptional individuals, of course, but a soldier is part of a group. They’re in an army, a squad, or something along those lines, and all these people have received similar or identical training. When I think of a soldier, I usually think of someone who is disciplined and driven and willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Maybe they use a specific type of equipment (such as a uniform, or a standardized weapon).

So now we have a few of things to build off of. With these ideas as the core of our “soldier”, we can build a character. Everyone has a reason for doing things, so what is our character’s reason for being a soldier? Everyone also has an opinion on the group they’re a part of, so what is our soldier’s opinion of their place in the universe?

Once we have these, even though we’ve yet to decide on a firm personality or even a past for our character, we can already mostly imagine who they are. This is important because once I have a feel for our character and a solid foundation to build on, I find it much easier to think about them in more concrete terms.

From here, I can decide that my character, for example, joined the army because their family had done so for generations. I can decide that they are proud of their position and want to climb the ranks. Just by doing this and tying it to what I explained as the “core” of a soldier, a reader already has a firm grasp on a character even if they haven’t done anything yet. This character hasn’t taken any actions. Hasn’t spoken any words. But we already feel like we know them.

Another important thing is that once you know what your character is, you can decide what they aren’t. Sometimes the most interesting parts of a character are how they differ from their archetype. Of course, it’s important not to deviate too much, because then you lose some of the ease of understanding. For example, not every soldier is disciplined, so perhaps our character is headstrong and argumentative. This is different from what I said above, but it still ticks enough boxes that my imagination makes the adjustment naturally. This character is still obviously a soldier.

This is sort of where I wanted to get at with this discussion. Creating a character in a game is much the same as creating a character for a novel. The process is identical in a game. The difference is that, in a game, the “core” aspects of a character have been decided for you, as they are what the creators of that game have established as important.

I find that when I start a novel, I like to have an idea of what types of people are in the world. What defines them? Who are they? What do they know? How do they interact with the world around them? This helps me immensely, because it means that creating a character gets turned into a step by step process exactly like in a game. Not only do I think this is simpler, but I also believe it leads to deeper and more complex characters, because it forces you to think about their motivations (even if in a simple fashion).

Ultimately, by having a character be defined by core aspects and then building from there, I can more easily grasp how that character would react to different things that happen to and around them, which means they’re much more “alive”.

This is what I wanted to talk to about today, for the most part. I’ll be expanding more on topics like this in the future, probably also through the lens of the game I’m making. I really do think that I’ve become a better author, as I’ve tried to grasp how different parts of our game need to fit together to make sense, and I’m hoping I can pass some of what I’ve learned on. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed!

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