I am working on a project for my main blog, which (among other things) incorporates tabletop gaming with family and friends as a recurring topic. A friend started a group for the purpose of trying out the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons Next, the newest version of D&D currently in the playtesting stage.
I made a character for our adventures, but we never got to flesh out his story. My friend asked some questions and I thought about what I wanted to incorporate, which got me thinking about developing characters in our writing.
The worst thing one can say about characters in a given piece of fiction is that they are cardboard cutouts, one dimensional and overdone examples of something everyone has seen before. We want to write about real people, because the real people who read our work want someone they can relate to or at least find believable.
The mustache-twirling villain out to destroy the city because “I’m eeevil” is a great example of the cardboard character. He has a temperamental cat that hisses at everyone, and he wears a long black trench coat and top hat. No doubt he shakes his fist at the hero and screams “Curses! Foiled again! I’ll get you next time!” simply because that’s what villains do.
That’s what we want to avoid. Similar to that, the hero with the rock-hard jaw and butt chin who fights for truth, justice, and the American way, for no reason other than because he’s perfect… lame.
This is why heroes like Spider-Man and Batman work. They’re flawed, and their flaws push them to do better. They’re haunted, and no matter how much they do in the present, the ghosts of the past are still whispering, urging them on in the face of overwhelming opposition.
When writing a character, I want to take time to get in their head. What inspires them? What do they fear? What past failure is driving them toward future success?
My friend asked me for backstory on this D&D Next character I created as a joke. He asked for family connections – who does Lamoncha still talk to, and who does he avoid? He brought up goals: What is Lamoncha trying to do with his life, and how does he plan to do it?
I wanted to take it a bit off course, and feed some backstory to my friend to work into the campaign. Taking some time to think about these questions led to an easy 500 words explaining Lamoncha’s place in the world. If I was writing his story, maybe none of this matters to the plot. But it matters to understanding how Lamoncha reacts to the world around him, and that makes the responses and actions I write within the story more real, more true to life, something the reader can either relate to or at least believe based on what they know of the character.
Take time to figure out the character before trying to write them. On top of many helpful exercises one might find, I would add those questions:
1) What connections does the character maintain to his past? What connections did he/she sever and why?
2) What aspirations does the character have, and what actions does he/she take or plan to achieve them?
3) What fears motivate the character? What inspires or compels them on the path they’ve chosen?
4) Who does the character look up to, and why? How do they strive to emulate this role model?
Answer that, and the character takes on some depth, some body, some realism in the context of the story.
Here’s Lamoncha’s backstory, if you’re interested:
Lamoncha comes from a very strict clan of wood elves, something like how we might view the Amish today. They eschew mechanics and most technology, preferring the druidic connection to nature. Most of what they “build” is through the use of sung wood, where treeherds commune with the living plants through meditation and chanting, persuading the trees to grow and take on the necessary shapes.
Life is precious to the clan, and so any effort that requires destroying life to advance a society or a technology is viewed as anathema. For example, the elves view with anger and hatred the environmental impact of mining (so necessary to the working of metals) and the creep of urban civilizations into nature’s domain.
They also lived a very communal life, where just about everyone in the clan is considered family. Lamoncha actually doesn’t have a clear family tree sorted out in his head, due to the unique (and perhaps inappropriate) convoluted relationships of the clan members. As a result, while he is happy to be away from his home, he’s also unsure of how to adapt and relate to people in ‘normal’ societies, which contributes to his status as a loner.
He had a childhood friend Aerathiel who fled the clan as soon as she reached her 15th vernal equinox – the date the wood elves use to track age. She was forever in trouble for “outlandish” ideas and interest in things forbidden. She had a natural aptitude for magic and an interest in how magic and gearwork could be combined. When he left, he went to the nearest gnomes he could find in the hopes of tracking down “Rathie.”
Due to his frustration with his clan, Lamoncha has an outward hatred for druidic communities and orders. In addition, he figures they’re fairly connected, and he doesn’t want word of his whereabouts going back to his clan. He’d heard of some in the clan who were tasked with keeping the secrets of sung wood from getting into the outside world, for fear that opportunistic races might take advantage of it to force what they desire from plantlife. There are druids in the clan called the Coda, whose task it is to silence the song of any who might misuse the power they learned within the clan. Lamoncha wants nothing to do with them and fears they might hunt him if they knew where he was.
Finally, among the gnomes, there was one in particular to whom Lamoncha owes the greatest debt: Daneel Grixwin, the gearbinder Lamoncha served as apprentice. Daneel stood before the council of elders and made the original argument that Lamoncha should be taught, based not on trustworthiness but on an impassioned defense of the universal value of knowledge. Despite being over twice his height, Lamoncha looks up to Daneel as an individual possessed of great wisdom and insight.