October 29, 2010

making real characters

Is everyone ready for NaNoWriMo?

I am.

Some of you like to plan it all out, outline each chapter and scene, and then there are those of you that like to fly by the seat of your pants. I take a little bit of pants-flying mixed with a semblance of a third of an outline. It doesn’t matter how you do it really. All you need is an idea and characters.

You obviously have an idea, or you wouldn’t be going into NaNoWriMo, but are your characters ready?

I’m going to steal from Dungeons & Dragons for a minute…

In D&D, you have the basic set up of the Dungeon Master acting like God, and the small number of players fearing and worshiping him, because really, who wants to die because they pissed off God? Don’t anger the DM. That’s the number one rule of D&D. If you do, you get black dragons, tornadoes, and other bad stuff that will certainly kill your character.
from page 19 of the Draconomicon
Some people think you can’t juxtapose D&D to writing a story, but I disagree. With writing, you, the author, are God. You created this world (even if it’s not a fantasy) and you are in control of it. The PCs (Playable Characters) in D&D are like your main characters in a story. They are the ones that fight zombies, usurp evil kings, and unearth a legendary sword that will bring about the doom of mankind. You set up the problems they’ll face on their journey, and you provide the means for their victories. Sometimes they fail. It happens.

I try to apply the mechanics of D&D to my writing. I have a very vivid imagination (as I’m sure most writers do), so I can easily imagine myself as God in novel-world, however egotistical that sounds. I watch what the characters do, and if it gets too easy, I throw obstacles in their way. But the characters are more than pieces on a chess board.

Here’s where character building in D&D comes in handy. In D&D when you build a character, you have to choose a race and class (each one does something different). When you’ve done that, you then choose your character’s abilities. That’s all by the book and necessary for gameplay. In novel writing, this is pretty much the same. You choose the sex, nationality, name, and overall function of a character. You know what the character is supposed to do in regard to plot. You could stop here, but then that’s where characters get boring, in both writing stories and D&D.

The most detrimental thing in D&D is the actual gameplay, the battles and the skill encounters. Without the gameplay, you don’t have D&D. In terms of writing, the most important thing is the plot, because without that, you don’t have a story (unless of course you’re doing some sort of experimental literary mess… but we don’t talk about that here).

The thing that makes D&D so much fun for me, what keeps me playing month after month, is the role-playing. No, not larping. That's a different kind of fun altogether. We don’t go around waving swords and maces and battling short people dressed as evil dwarves. It’s all done in my living room, around a coffee table and mounds of empty Coke Zero cans and Fudge Round wrappers.

from page 38 of the Dungeon Master's Guide

In D&D, characters have to have a reason to adventure. Characters in a novel need a reason to make their way through the plot. Both need motives. For instance, my PC in our D&D campaign is a Warden and her entire purpose for adventuring is to keep the balance between civilization and nature, and ultimately, she wants to be in tune with the primal energy of the world. Pretty epic stuff. Characters in novels don’t necessarily have to be so epic. They can, but not everything has to be about saving the world. My main character in my NaNoWriMo project just wants to be accepted by his classmates, and he wants closure in the death of his older brother. He does want something, though.

Characters, in both D&D and novels, are more than their purpose in a story. They are living beings that have motives, desires, fears, and dreams. They may be fictional in our world, but in a novel, or in a D&D campaign, they are real. They have histories that define them. They have families or communities that taught them morals and life lessons before the real story even begins. They have friends that shape their actions in the present. They have enemies that block their progress and force them to change. They have an ultimate goal that they want to achieve, sometimes personal, sometimes worldly.

When you can think of your characters as real people, more than just an extension of yourself, that’s when you’ll have characters that leap off the page. Characters that feel strongly about something, that have troubled pasts or a flawed vision of right and wrong, those are the characters we remember, because they change in spite of all that. They find closure in the death of their brother. They save the world despite all the doubt. They become one with the primal energy of their ancestors. They realize that what they thought they wanted, they didn’t really need.

The characters and the way – not how – they meander their way through the string of plotlines you forced them into, that’s what makes the story real.

1 comment:

  1. Nice analogy - even though I have never played D&D, everything does apply to real people and to characters in a novel. Sometimes my characters don't do what I thought they were going to do and sometimes the surprise even me. :)