Character Development – Writing vs. Gaming

In a conversation with my writing mentor yesterday, I came to the realization that I use the same approach to character creation whether I am designing a character for a role playing adventure, or crafting the protagonist of my next story.* I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, a character is a character, regardless of where it will be used.

So, for me, what does creating a character involve?

 

Initial Idea

When I am creating characters, there is usually some aspect about the individual that I feel is important to the upcoming story. For D&D,** it is a mix of the character race and class, as defined in the Players Handbook, but also something that draws me to them, a personality quirk, or something of a juxtaposition between the “typical” rendering of a specific type of character – why yes, I am playing a lawful good thief, and I have the reasons why that all makes sense.

Similarly, when I am sitting down to write a story, I have an idea of the role my character is going to play in the story, and how I want them to impact their environment, and at the same time be changed by it. So, for a character to be impacted by, and able to affect LGBT legislation in her city, I need her to have some contact with that community, and to have a role in the government in some capacity. For me, these are the big ideas, the seed from which I begin to build my character.

 

Naming

For all the baby-naming sites and books available (and don’t get me wrong, I’ve got 3 separate baby name books on my shelf, and BehindTheName.com bookmarked on multiple machines), I find the resource I turn to most is my copy of the Character Naming Sourcebook.

I’ll approach searching for a name in one of two ways. Either, I am going for a certain “feel” for the name, and I’ll start browsing certain lists (which are language and/or culture centric). For important characters, I may have an idea of what I want a name to mean, and I’ll start at the reverse index at the back of the book, trying to find a name that sounds right that also carries some sort of secret meaning (either apropos to the character, or contrary to their nature).

 

Getting to know them

Over the years I have had access to many character development tools. The one I keep going back to for all kinds of characters is one I found for gaming. “The 100 Most Important Things To Know About Your Character (revised)” (Originally posted on GeoCities, the site is now defunct, but with the magic of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I present to you the last active version of the page where I originally found this resource.)

When I’m building a D&D character, I tend to fill out the whole 100 questions, for writing, sometimes I’ll fill out the basics section, then randomly pick 5 other questions per character (another great use for those percentile dice) to answer. For me, the key to this phase is to answer the questions as if I were the character sitting in an interview. If there is something I know about a character, but it is not something that they would tell to a nosy interviewer, I may note it in parentheses, but the reply to the question will be a snarky comment, a diversion away from the question, or even an outright lie. This tool lets me explore the character voice, before they even get to their story.

Thad

Thad – Elven Monk from 3rd edition D&D

Darah

Rendering of Darah (a tomboy main character from a WIP) as dressed for a royal banquet

 

Images

Sometimes I like to see what my characters look like. My favorite tool for that is Candybar Doll Maker– I fall back to version 3, though later versions have different options, most of the clothing is contemporary, so I make do with what’s available, and my imagination.

 

 

What I’m left with

When the time comes to start an adventure in an RPG, or a novel, I have a fairly complete picture of my character’s backstory. I know what happened to bring them to the point where the story starts, and I (usually) have some idea of how I expect them to develop as a character over the course of the story. I know the basic character arc I am shooting for, and while that may change, either due to unexpected elements brought into the game by the DM, or by story elements that arise during my discovery-writing a book, I have a complete character that I get to watch grow and adapt as the story develops.


*I uses these techniques primarily for novel-length works; for short stories the backstory isn’t as important to me, and I let the character evolve as I write the piece.

**More exactly, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons – anywhere from 2nd – 5th editions.

Thoughts on Diversity and D&D

Last month I attended/ worked at the Writing The Other Workshop/Retreat (more on this later -[yes,  I’ve said this before, and I promise it will eventually get it’s own review post]). One of the participants from the retreat pointed out to the group that the new basic rules for Dungeons and Dragons (released by Wizards of the Coast) has a paragraph that deals with gender identity and sexual orientation (two of the areas we discussed when talking about “other” at the workshop):

“You don’t need to to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.”

pg 33 http://media.wizards.com/downloads/dnd/DnDBasicRules.pdf

I was very pleased to see this, but in the days since it was posted, I’ve had some time to think about it – although the earlier versions of the D&D rules did not address gender identity or sexual orientation in this manner, that certainly didn’t stop my group from creating characters that may be identified at various places along the spectrum(s). A few examples from characters I created.

Biologically Neuter character Weylyn, identifies mostly as male, but can pull off a dress rather well. (Picture (c) Anne Melson, used with permission of creator)

Biologically Neuter character Weylyn, identifies mostly as male, but can pull off a dress rather well. (Picture (c) Anne Melson, used with permission of creator)

  • Weylyn – a marrash fighter – born heterosexual cismale, he was turned into a marrash early in the game. A marrash “resembles a winged gnoll, except that it has birdlike talons on it’s hands and feet, and double-jointed birdlike legs.” (pg. 145, Monster Manual II, 3rd ed) Marrash reproduce by spreading the disease that created them via poisoned arrows. My character was poisoned, and my DM decided to make it a character option. I ran with it. Since they procreate via virus, I figured Marrash were gender neutral, though Weylyn did fall in love with a crazy elf, and used polymorph potions to turn male to be with her.
  • Laszlo – a bi-sexual cismale tiefling – he was mostly just a sexual being, not looking for a commitment, but looking for a good time with those he was attracted to. When he died and was reincarnated, he and I were both disappointed he didn’t come back as female.
  • Thad – elf, born female (annoyingly, I can’t find the birth name her parents gave her, just the one she went by). She disguised herself as male and ran away from home due to the racial intolerance there. She ended up at a male-run monastery, and presented as male to fit in, and kept the identity beyond her training, because that is how she was comfortable – as a male monk. It wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I wonder if she identified as male and/or as trans*. Either of those could make sense in her back story, rather than just cross-dressing for the sake of being allowed to stay.
  • Aulette Falcon/Peregrine Barnes – This character was actually two bodies with one soul – one body each in the gaming world (Aulette – female bard, and no current romantic/sexual interest – but presents heterosexual in her flirting) and one in the “real world” – the world we occupy  (Peregrine – male temp worker, engaged to a woman). The idea is the soul splits between them – is in one body while the other sleeps- so 8 hours of sleep translates into 16 hours of waking time in the other body. This character is both male and female, and the orientation is up for debate, since society usually uses ones gender (in some regard) to define/ give name to sexual orientation.

 

  • Circe/Kirk (one of my sibling’s characters). Circe is the original personality; she went through a traumatic experience and developed a big brother personality of Kirk to protect her from things in the future. She is aware of Kirk, but Kirk is not aware of her – he believes he has been cursed, and his biological gender switched. In game terms, each new day a die was rolled to determine which personality was in control. When Kirk was present, the character was male, despite the apparently female body.

So, while I think it is cool that the newest D&D rule books are addressing more diversity than the different races available to play, I feel even more fortunate to the various DMs that allowed and encouraged us to play our characters in whatever manner we felt was the truest representation of the character – even if it meant figuring out house rules for the game mechanics.