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.