If you're a gamer like me, the term “character creation” likely brings to mind images of screens with half-naked characters standing beside row upon row of customization options. But that, my kind reader, is not what I’ll be covering today. Well, maybe a small smattering of it, but its not the definitive point of this post. No, I'll be discussing my own personal approach to character creation for use in a fantasy-genre story.
If you follow me on Twitter (@RogueW01f84) then chances are you’ve seen no small amount of commissioned artwork for two characters that are very special to me- Locke and Vaean. Or maybe you’ve seen my hundreds of tweets tagged #amwriting (or it’s whiny counterpart, #amediting). Or, you know, there’s the info right here on this very Patreon. Put it all together and what do you get? I’m writing a book, and Locke and Vaean are my cherished main characters (or “MCs” as the cool authors refer to them). Several comrades in the writer-verse have asked me how I went about creating these characters, and I’ve come to the conclusion that my methods for character creation are a little unorthodox compared to most writers. I’m not going to tell you it’s THE way to do it. Hell, I don’t even know that I’m doing this whole writer-thing correctly! I’ve done (and continue to do) loads of research on a weekly basis, but, at the end of the day, I’m just following my heart. But my method is A way to do it, and if it works for me, maybe it’ll work for someone else out there too. With that said, this method will only help you if you play video games and/or tabletop RPG's.
“Wait, Dee… Are you about to tell us that you make your characters in games?”
Yep! That’s exactly what I’m about to tell you- or am telling you, as it were. But I’m not making a character in a game, plucking them out, and slapping them on paper in literary form. I believe that’s the recipe for making an Original Character, aka OC, to use the ever-popular internet acronym. I’m doing the opposite. Let me explain.
It all starts with an idea. If you’re a writer, you probably have some semblance of a story, world, or character concept in your head to start with. Either way, all roads will eventually lead you to fleshing out the characters that breathe life into the tale of your making. As for me, personally, my stories always start as character concepts that grow to novel-sized proportions, but that’s because I adore character-driven stories. But whether you’re looking to create a character from scratch or have an idea about who they are from the start, the following questions will still apply:
What race do you want your character to be?
What class are they?
What’s their hair and eye color?
What’s their story?
And the big one: what’s their name?
You know, all that happy stuff that takes most people 5 minutes to pull together, but takes me 2 hours. (Ahaaaaa...I wish that were a joke.) Usually, these questions alone are enough to get the creative juices flowing for me because questions beg for answers, and the answers create more questions. For example:
What race are they?
For me, this leads to, “How does this selection affect them as a person? Are they proud of it? Ashamed? Could they not give a single f%ck about it?” Allow you mind to dwell on the significance of this choice and your mental feet will natural follow that path. And just like that, you’re already starting to get into the character’s mind!
What class are they?
Why are they a rogue, a wizard, a warrior, a dinosaur that shoots laser beams out its eyes?! What happened in their life to set them down this path? Classes are akin to careers, so why did they choose this path in life? Or was it not a choice? Were they raised into it? Forced into it? Is it a calling?
What’s their hair and eye color?
It may seem silly to include a cosmetic question, but focusing on the character’s appearance helps form a clear picture in my mind’s eye. It allows me to see their facial expressions and reactions for myself, which is invaluable when writing descriptive text in your work in progress.
What’s their story?
The previous questions have all led to this point, and no doubt you’ve already started to flesh out these details. This is where everything comes together; good characters aren’t defined by their race, class, and looks alone, after all. Why does that dinosaur have super cool laser beam powers? That kind of technology didn’t exist when dinosaurs roamed the earth, so either someone went back in time or mankind did the thing that Jurassic Park told us not to do and brought dinosaurs to the present! Let your imagination go crazy with this! Write the story that moves you, because if it moves you, it’s going to move someone else too.
What’s their name?
Did I need to add this one? No, but I was feeling saucy. :P All characters need to have a name of sorts. You can't write a novel with “that person” as the main character. Or, you know what, maybe you can! If “that person” speaks to you, then you do you, my friend. I will say this though, names are hard- or they are for me, at least.
So let’s make a faux character together! I shall dub him Billy-Bob Sassypants, a human rogue/bandit with ashy hair and dark brown eyes. He’s a middle-aged dude that lost his family to an attack by trolls roughly 7 years ago. His wife and children meant everything to him, and without them to give his life meaning, Billy-Bob threw in with bandits. There was something about pillaging and drinking that helped numb the pain of the past, however temporarily that might be. (Wooo, edgy boi!)
Badda boom! The foundation has been made, and all of the questions have been answered.
Appearance? Middle-aged male with ashy hair and brown eyes.
Story? Lost his family to trolls and joined up with bandits because he felt he had nothing else to live for.
Name? Billy-Bob Sassypants. (Priceless.)
Let your mind run with the threads you have been given and flesh that out. Dig deeper into Mr. Sassypants’ past, dwell on the helplessness and sorrow of the present, and dream about what his future might be. Honestly, this started off as a silly little example, but I’d love to hear what you guys come up. Feel free to share in the comments below!
Get in touch with your nerdy side.
Again, we’re taking this on from a writer’s point of view, so let’s bring it back there for a second. A part of writing good characters is making them feel like real, believable people to your reader. How can you do this if you don’t understand them at a nearly molecular level? Let me rephrase that- I can’t do this without understanding them at a nearly molecular level. Maybe you don’t need to, and, if so, know that I have nothing but respect for you. That is awesome! But I need to know the silly little things. What’s their favorite color is and why? Do they like rain? What’s their favorite food? How do they react to the heat/cold? What kind of music do they like? Basic human (or elven, dwarven, [insert fantasy/sci-fi race here]) things.
Funny tangent quick. My mom’s (jokingly) told me that she regretted there was a “Y” in all three of my names because, as a kid, “Why” was my favorite question. It was cute at first but, apparently, it got a little old after the 12,000th time I asked it. And though I’ve since lost one of my Y’s with marriage, this trait has never ceased with age. I’m a perpetual student and researcher with a burning need to know WHY for most things. So, for me, asking small questions like the ones I just listed inevitably lead to me asking, “Why?” And that’s a habit a highly encourage you to adapt too, especially if you’re fleshing out your character at the microscopic level.
“Questions beget answers, which beget more questions.”
Questions beget answers, which beget more questions. That’s how I approach this next stage of character planning. Some authors will take their characters to the page and start typing out random interactions to see what makes them tick. But my crazy self needs more than that. I need to literally climb into their headspace. And how do I accomplish that?
It’s all been leading up to this- GAMES!
My favorite game for this, hands down, is Dungeons and Dragons. If you play with a friendly group that also embraces a spot of role play, you’re golden. It’s hard to override your instincts to play yourself or another archetype that falls within your comfort zone, but that’s not what this is about. I have to mentally coach myself at each point of dialogue, action, or whatever else, telling myself, “Okay, this is Billy-Bob Sassypants, not me. They’re surly and hate a chip on their shoulder. How would he approach this?” As the game goes on you’ll magically just start jiving with the character, and the need for mental coaching disappears as their reactions become instinct.
I’m very fortunate to have a D&D group that not only embraces this style of play but are also my closest and most treasured friends (my “framily”- and eff you spell-check, that’s a word now!). I understand this is, unfortunately, not always the case for everyone, and that makes me sad. :(
If Dungeons & Dragons (or other tabletop rpg) isn’t an option or isn’t your flavor, video games make a decent playground too. It’s a little harder because unless you’re willing to role play with other players, you’re relying entirely on yourself to fill in the blanks. I’ve done this with Skyrim and Final Fantasy XIV before, sans role play. You need to tackle this the same as outlined in the D&D segment- mental coaching. You’re not Cookie-Cutter Dragonborn in this play through; you’re Billy-Bob Sassypants, and you need to approach each quest the way they would. For example…
The quest giver wants you to find their precious family heirloom that they brought for a stroll into some cave and lost somehow? K. Do that. A video game won’t let you give the quest giver grief for being dumber than a sack of rocks, so you’re kind of forced to follow the breadcrumb trail. But Billy-Bob Sassypants would see the opportunity for personal gain here, wouldn’t he? This person is an idiot. Who takes a priceless item like that out of the house to begin with, let alone for a walk into some RANDOM CAVE?! (Whoa, getting into character, Dee. Tone it down a bit.) Billy-Bob will retrieve this item and return to the idio- I mean quest giver- and receive their reward. But it doesn’t stop there, oh no. He’s going to “stealth” in a corner of the house and wait for the quest giver to fall asleep so he can rob them blind. They’re just dumb enough to ignore the shady man in the corner for 13 hours, wake up the next day to see their house emptied, and never think he was to blame. Of course, that’s also partly influenced by the flawless Skyrim npc logic, but you’ve got to use every tool in your arsenal.
A final note.
Obviously, the characters from your story may not translate 100% perfectly into other worlds. I’m here to tell you that that’s okay. The purpose of this exercise is not to use the games to flesh out your short story or novel (but would work well for writing fanfiction) but to get to know your character and how their story affects the way they interact with the world around them. It’s okay if they have to be from the Sword Coast instead of Fantastical-Fantasy Land. It’s okay if they need to slum it up with a different deity for a bit. Just choose the best-fit options so your character can still behave the way they would in the world of your design.
And lastly, LONG LIVE BILLY-BOB SASSYPANTS! LONG MAY HE REIGN!