April 4, 2011

another d&d characterization post

Today, Kristen Lamb put up a post about character alignment and antagonists based on Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition… old school. [Note: the rest of this paragraph rambles a bit] For those of you that don’t know, fourth edition was released a few years ago. Second edition was released the year I was born. There is a lot of debate by hardcore D&D players on whether fourth edition still captures the essence of the game, and most people dismiss it. Whatever. I love it. I came into the game at 3.5, and while third edition has a lot more focus on the details, fourth edition is easier to pick up and play a quick game. I do miss a lot of what 3.5 had to offer, but as the rules change, the game changes, and the players have to change too.
I’ve been leading a party through a fourth edition draconic-based campaign. Right now the antagonist to the party is the band of chromatic (red, blue, green, black, and white) dragons and dragonborn between them and their destination, the ruined castle of Rustir. The next antagonist is the dragonborns’ leader, the Lady of Eialda, and above even her, the god of the chromatic dragons, Tiamat herself. How did they get into this predicament? On their way to answer the desperate call of the king, the party met an inept paladin who died at the claws of a white dragon. Turns out, that paladin was the prince of the kingdom, and his older brother led a campaign against the Lady of Eialda in order to restore peace to Toringad. By unknown reasons, the elder brother, Eindride, and his men never returned. The king offers the party their weight in gold if they can bring his son home. A worthy reward. Especially since the entire party of players I’m working with is unaligned (or in old D&D, chaotic neutral). Not a single one of them would step up and offer to go after the missing paladin out of the goodness of his heart. But for a share of 10,000 gold, I would go find the dumb paladin.
Yes. I own all of those books.
What Kristen says on her blog is right – we can become better novelists from learning the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons, even if you never form a party and fight through bands of monsters every Thursday night. I have written a few posts on how D&D helps characterization, story development, and the difficulties involved with writing a novel. If you read the story development post, you’ll probably see how I went from pantser to plotter.
I’m going to elaborate on what Kristen had to say about knowing your antagonist before you write a story. Had she not compared it to D&D, I probably wouldn’t have completely understood where she was coming from. She made the concept click.
Antagonists are important. They are the negative force that challenges the positive force of the protagonist. With my current campaign, my antagonists are pretty much already written for me. They’re dragons crafted by the D&D writers, and they had their alignment, stats, and abilities crafted before I ever considered building a draconic campaign. They can be faceless. The party stands up to them and slays them. They are unimportant. Except for the Lady of Eialda. She is of my own creation. She controls the dragons, but even she is a servant of Tiamat. She is the antagonist the players will get the most face-time with. I fleshed her out. I know her history. I know why she captured Eindride, the king’s son. I know why she serves Tiamat. Her present reasons and actions are legitimized by her past. In her eyes, she is the protagonist of her own story, and King Aksel of Toringad is her antagonist. The players are his pawns, his minions.
That’s an important thing to remember – the antagonist of your story doesn’t see themselves that way. They envision themselves as the protagonist. While working on my new steampunk idea, I have crafted the protagonists, but I spent several days wondering who the antagonist might be. It didn’t come to me until just this morning. I thought of the Lady of Eialda in my D&D campaign. She is the negative force of the story because she has a personal vendetta against the primary positive force, King Aksel. How could I create a character that had a personal investment in the protagonist so that their desire for the protagonist to fail was legitimized? That was my main problem with my other novel – which is in revision stasis. I had no legitimate reason for the antagonist to antagonize. She was a flat, evil character, evil for evil’s sake. I wanted to avoid that at all costs with my steampunk project.
I also just finished reading Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. One of the points that he makes that really struck a chord with me was the statement that characters have histories. They have pasts that shape their present. Kristen even points this out on her blog today:  
…in my years of being an editor and running critique groups, there is one character that makes an appearance in virtually every new writer’s manuscript… the Born Evil Bad Guy… [and] I tend to see the Born Noble Hero, and the Born Loyal Minions and the Born Wise Mentors. 
That immediately reminded me of what Orson Scott Card said about characters having histories. All too often, characters in a book came into being at the beginning of the book. They have no family, no history, no former relationships. They exist only in the here and now. The same thing happens in D&D. A lot of players create characters that exist only for the campaign at hand. In an effort to avoid that, I forced my players to come up with backstories for their characters. It enriches the game because I can bring in elements from their pasts. But what about in my fiction?
In my cryogenically frozen novel, the main character has little of a history. Any history she has is still alive in the present, so there are no surprises on her part. I crafted the secondary character to be more interesting than she was. Not sure why, but he has more secrets and more history than the Roman Empire. She is a flat, whiny damsel-in-distress with no motive or attitude or anything except a girl crush on the secondary character. Ugh. Shoot me now. The woes of a first novel. The same happened with the main antagonist. She popped into being for the sole purpose of handing out the impossible quest. No one knows why she chose these characters for her quest, and no one knows why she wants this particular quest item. I don't know why.... I think my tiny, naïve writer-mind said, “Oooh, it’s because it’s all a mystery…” for dramatic effect. Stupid me. I failed to do what I knew made stories more interesting.
So, again, I didn’t want to fall into the same traps with the steampunk project. I gave the main character a history, relationships, attitude, and motive, all present before the events of the story happen. I did the same with my secondary characters and even tertiary, once-appearing characters. Now, I’m crafting my antagonist, and I’m going to make sure that he has all of these things too. Because these characters, though they do not exist in the world at hand, they exist in the world of the story. They’re real people, and I think I finally understand what exactly that means.
Dungeons & Dragons and a little push from both Kristen and Orson have enlightened me to the thing I’ve been missing all along: knowing your characters. Really knowing your characters.
I highly recommend reading the rest of Kristen’s posts on antagonists as well as reading Elements of Fiction – Characters and Viewpoint.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post. My leg is thumping from the D&D geekiness of it all. Sigh.

    I require all my workshop participants to write DETAILED histories of all their main characters. It allows us to get that subconscious mojo that only pansting can generate, BUT then we harvest those backgrounds for the plot then overlay all of it over a preformed structure, The world of the pantser and the plotter converge.

    Great blog. Made my day!

    Kristen Lamb