Thursday, June 3, 2010

Storyteller: Customizing Your Characters for the Road Ahead: Expanded and Unrated Edition

BFF Diana is my unofficial proofreader, and when she read my post for Savvy Authors she said, “Dude, where are the swears?” Now, you all know that I am not afraid to drop the f-bomb, but I try to keep posts on other blogs G-rated. Thus, I bring you the expanded and unrated version of choosing character traits. Please to enjoy.

Gamers spend a lot of time on character creation. Perhaps even too much time, because no one wants to be stuck with a character who can’t survive an adventure or isn’t fun to play. I spent hours making characters in City of Heroes/City of Villains, and really it was the most entertaining part of the game. A gamer’s focus is on creating a character that is going to be the best at his or her role in the game (and possibly the awesomest looking as well). As writers, our focus is on creating characters that are going to be the best at their role in our story—a brave hero, a strong heroine, an evil villain (and probably the awesomest looking ones as well; when was the last time you encountered an average-looking hero, really?). But in fiction brave, handsome heroes are a dime a dozen, so if you want to make him memorable, then he’ll need more detail. This is where character customization comes in. Adding skills and abilities to a character makes them more efficient in a game, and makes them more interesting in a story.

Skills, Feats and Merits: In most role playing games, characters start out with the same basic set of abilities, like they’ve been stamped from a cookie cutter. Players then use build points to purchase whatever they need to make their character’s lives easier. Like what, you ask? Here are some examples from various RPGs I’ve played:
Silent spell casting, arcane library, true faith, lucky, destiny (as in the character has some all-important fate to play in the story), ambidextrous, allies, underworld influence, resources, haven, guardian angel, photographic memory, heightened senses
Essentially, the player buys whatever they think will make the character stronger. If you’re writing a paranormal or fantasy story, those are the sorts of things your character will probably want too, and deciding what these skills are adds a deeper level of detail to them. Say your heroine is a vampire private detective. Then she’ll need things like stealth to follow targets, investigation to solve mysteries, heightened senses to pick up clues, and so on. Non-woojy characters can benefit from this sort of planning as well. If your hero is a businessman, think of specific areas of knowledge that he needs to run his business, and then consider how that knowledge can benefit him during the course of the plot. Is he a computer whiz? Brilliant at marketing? A legal genius? Having all of these can be important to him, but lacking them can be equally important, as seen in choosing flaws and negative traits.

Flaws and Negative Traits: When a player runs out of build points, she has the option of taking a limited amount of negatives in order to earn more points. These are things that can make a character’s life a living hell, and some examples are:
Poor vision, clumsy, unlucky, cursed, unholy aura, shortsighted, tactless, monstrous, callous, enemies, destiny (because sometimes your fate is to die horribly), insane sire, hunted, permanent wound
In Blood, Smoke and Mirrors, Cat is tactless. Though she’d probably agree with a T-shirt that I own that claims “Tact is for people not witty enough to be sarcastic.” Cat is not afraid to tell anyone to fuck off, even when it’d be in her best interest not to do so. It makes her life harder than it needs to be. I once played a vampire with a permanent wound, and she woke up every night with three oozing wounds in her chest. First, it sucked because she started every game by being only a few hits away from dying. Second, waking up with icky wounds is kinda hard to explain to your snuggle buddy.

As a reader, I love flawed heroes. If the hero has a traumatic past to overcome, I’m instantly sold on the story. Adding flaws and negatives to your characters not only makes them more interesting but provides the opportunity for challenges to overcome and lessons to learn in your storyline. Even Cat learns a bit of tact by the end of the book.

Not everyone loves to torture their characters as much as I do. One problem that writers can run into is that while it’s easy to decide a character’s strengths, it’s more difficult to pick weaknesses. When creating characters, I try to follow the general guideline that for every gift you give them, take something away. If your heroine needs to be a powerful sorceress, then she should be bad at something else. Maybe she’s fabulous at magic, but scared to death of horses. A hero who has worked all his life for fortune and glory probably sacrificed something important on the way. Think of Tony Stark/Ironman—he’s got looks, brains, money…and some serious personal demons. He doesn’t have issues, he has multiple subscriptions, but that makes him entertaining. Most of the super heroes we’re familiar with have similar problems, and their flaws allow us to relate to them.

Finally, if you’re writing romance, choosing one character’s flaws can determine the other’s strengths. I have a romantic conflict chart that I use when plotting a new story, and one of the questions asks how the hero and heroine complete each other. It’s a question that I always struggle with, because romantic conflict is damn difficult. Anyone who says it’s easy to write a romance novel deserves a swift kick to the groin. Anyway…the couple should always be stronger together than they are apart, and it’s not a simple matter of “oh he’s strong and muscley, so he can protect her because she’s a delicate flower.” No, no. More like “she comes from a broken home and has relationship issues and he’s a dependable source of stability.”

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, taking a few moments to think through a character’s skills, abilities, negatives and flaws can make her more memorable and may even help hammer out details in your plot. Next week I’ll be discussing a gamer’s approach to GMC, better known as Quest, Reward and Ninjas. You know you love ninjas.


PaintWithWords said...
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PaintWithWords said...

Excellent post. This will be really helpful to those character builders out there. I'm not one of them (I can't create a character or story if my life depending on it. I just start writing and wait for them to tell me. I know I sound nuts, but I swear there are more like me!) anyway, one thing I've found is true, whether you create your characters or the "come to you" is that readers like realistic, thought more interesting than real-life, characters. This means both good traits as well as bad. Excellent post.