Request to Join

I have a “secret” project in the works—perhaps foolishly, given all the other irons I have in the fire. Said project has numerous bits and pieces, but the one I’ve been struggling with is populating it with the right characters. I’m doing okay hammering out setting details (in part because some of them are recycled) and dealing with large-scale plot stuff. I have plans for some of the project’s general architecture. I’ve even spoken to an artist about doing some work on it.

Characters though…seriously. This is a rare problem for me. Ghosts of the Old City nearly populated itself. There have been consistency issues here and there, and I had to spend some time working out motivations at certain spots…but those problems had as much to do with structure and plot as with characterization. I can’t recall the last time I had writer’s block over characters.

Part of this is that I play role-playing games. Over the years, I have put together many, many characters. When I do them for games, the process is generally fast. In the midst of my struggles with Secret Project, I cranked out a fully-fleshed out character in the course of an afternoon…an afternoon in which I also played games with my kids and caught up on the dishes.  With the right motivation and a specific prompt, I’m fast.

With a specific prompt. Over on RPOL, new games have a “request to join” feature. The person running the game usually asks a set of questions that help give him or her a feel for both the character and the person playing it. Sometimes these RtJ prompts are detailed, sometimes they’re vague. Many game-runners request a writing sample; some require that it feature the applying character. My Secret Project isn’t a game I’m running, but…a prompt seemed like a good solution. Here’s the one I developed. These are questions that help me get a fix on my characters, tweaked for this particular project. I include a brief explanation of what the question does for me.

Names are important. I hardly ever do them first, though. Usually, they come in the middle of the process, late enough to pick a name that fits what I’ve got and early enough to help anchor the rest.

Something short, seldom even a complete sentence. Maedoc’s, for example, would be something like “bad-luck gentleman medium.” Zahra’s would be “adventurous fiddler-thief.”

What does the character do on a daily basis?
Usually, this amounts to a job description co-mingled with an overview of the character’s day. It gets me thinking about family and professional relationships. Those are important even for adventurous fantasy types. I don’t write characters without “day jobs”—even if the character’s a mercenary or professional spy, their days are not always worth being “on camera.” This question helps me think about what they’re doing during that time…and how plot conflicts can disrupt it in interesting ways.

How does the character prefer to solve problems?
Again, this helps me think about conflicts in future stories. Sometimes, the character will be able to do things the way she wants. Other times, her preferred method of conflict resolution won’t work, and I’ll get to see how she deals with backup plans or improvising.

Who does the character rely on?
Adventuring heroes too often exist in a vacuum. Sometimes it’s appropriate for a character to be a self-reliant loner. Usually, though, I like to have them tied into their social and physical environment. This question can help set the stakes for conflict. It also helps me fill in the world around the character—particularly important when I’m starting a new project.

History: Describe three incidents that set the character on his or her current course.
Fully-fleshed out life stories are overkill. They can also be constricting if you get into too much detail too early in the story process. Picking a handful of important moments is suggestive of the rest of the character’s history. Those moments also help reinforce some of the ideas deployed in answering the other questions. Again, the idea is to solidify the character enough to start writing the story proper. 

Physical descriptions are important. They don’t have to be photographic in their level of detail, but they do need to include the character’s prominent features. I particularly like to think about the character’s voice and way of moving. Those details help me pin down the character’s style. I find that more important than finding exactly the right word for “green” to describe a character’s eyes.

For a game, this is where I’d actually think about numbers. For Secret Project, this is just a short list of the special things the character can do. It’s a particularly flexible section, too, because I have no qualms tweaking characters’ skills to make the plot work. Once the plot gets going, I can worry about making these consistent.

Taken together, these questions are helping me through this round of writer’s block…which is good, because drafting material for the project is my assignment for the July edition of #CampNaNoWriMo.


People/ Gamers

“There are people who game, and gamers who people.”
          —a certain stupid college first year

As a college freshman, I was in an odd spot. I’d spent the last two years at a school on the other side of the Atlantic. Home was 1500 miles away from Macalester, but that was 3000 miles closer than I had been a few months earlier. I’d already been through the whole “leave home and reinvent yourself” thing. I had a beard. People mistook me for a senior and constantly asked me for directions I didn’t know how to give them. The way my courses shook out in my first semester made things even easier; most of the academic ground I had to cover was familiar.

Despite all this head start (or perhaps because of it), I fell into an odd spot socially. I engaged in the usual whirl of activities freshman try on at a selective liberal arts college: I was active in the International Organization, the Mac Weekly, band…I was still playing basketball and just becoming obsessed with ultimate frisbee. It didn’t feel like trying things on, though, because I’d already been through trying things on. I was pretty convinced that I just had a wide variety of interests and was such a damn hotshot that I could pursue all of them. That put me in the middle of a very messy social Venn diagram, one in which I had slight overlap with half a dozen different social circles.

The most awkward one for me, though, was with the college’s population of “gamers.” This was 1998. Console games didn’t really have anything to do with being a gamer yet. None of them connected to the still fairly-rough-cut internet. Being a gamer meant playing role-playing games, maybe computer games and the occasional board game. (Catan, anyone?) Mac’s gamers pretty much owned a particularly long set of tables in the dining hall. I’d eat there occasionally. I met my first serious girlfriend at that table.

Still, though, it didn’t really fit for me. The gamers were weird. It was enormously hypocritical of me to think that, given the ways that I’d cultivated my own weirdness. They were socially off-kilter and their humor went to odd places. I felt kind of like I should fit. I ran a Spelljammer game on band trips. I’d run the RPG group at my high school in Wales. I had brought a few of my gaming books to college with me to take up precious space in my dorm room. Tellingly, those books stayed in a dark corner. I pitched but never started a D&D game for the people on my floor—other dabblers in gaming.

That quote above—mine, obviously—became an excuse both to feel better about myself and to keep my distance from some great people. The gamers were bad at being people, I was saying, because they were too gamery. It was too central to their identity. Their awkwardness was going to stick to them because they just didn’t do enough other things. (Truth: I was too nervous and/or condescending to ask them about their other interests. A decade later, they’ve all proven to have many.) I, on the other hand, could game as much as I wanted because I was a person who occasionally gamed. I did so many other cool things that gaming oughtn’t hold me back.

We all know that even smart people are stupid, right? I’ve said a lot of idiotically pretentious things over the years, but that “gamers who people” thing might make my top ten. Certainly the “things said outside a graduate seminar” top ten.

So much has changed in the last fifteen years. Games have invaded everything. The geeks were right. Famous funny people have publicly—proudly—admitted being geeks. You walk into the toy section at Target, you see board games marked “as featured on Tabletop”—a show, on the internet, co-created by Wil Farking Wheaton. I am so late to the party on this.

There’s no doubt that my coming to peace with my gamer-ness has been assisted by all the social and technological change. It’s also been a consequence of my slow outgrowing of high school ideas of what’s cool. Those ideas are stupidly persistent. In grad school, though, I ran into other challenges. As a writer and reader, I’ve always maintained that the best of “genre fiction” can stand alongside the books I had to read as an English major. That insistence somehow didn’t extend to intellectual credibility. A gamer who treasures Adorno’s Minima Moralia? Seriously? How can you put THAC0 and Adorno in the same head? The upshot was that as much as I might ‘fess up to being a gamer (and even played a session with my fellow grad students), those gaming books still tended to stay on a shelf in the spare room.

Don't hate me for owning 4e!

We have many shelves, but this one is the most “me.” Except for LIFE.

About a year ago, they made it out onto the “real” shelving in rooms people actually use. In the new place, they’re in the same unit as my academic books and (“serious”) literature. They’re still on the bottom shelf, because they’re mostly pretty damn heavy and will threaten the quality Swedish particleboard if they’re put any higher. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove any more. That’s one of the flip sides of the last, heavy post: letting go is hard, but it lightens you up. Gamers are people, people are gamers. Whatever. I’m okay being both now. People are people, and even the most awkward of us deserve better than restrictive labels…even when cultural changes have made it comfortable for us to re/claim them.