One of the most important things about writing a decent story, of course, is finding compelling characters. There’s tons of information on the internet about how to write good characters, create interesting arcs, how to use characters to drive conflict, and so on. We’ll get into those some day–I’d like to do a series on characters eventually–but today, we’re going to step back and do something fun.
I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons a couple years ago, when I was invited to play in a weekly game. I had no idea how it worked, and I’d never played a pen and paper RPG before, but I loved it instantly. The thing that struck me most about the game is the way it encouraged creativity. In my first session, our group was being chased by a bunch of enemies we didn’t want to fight; our Dungeon Master (the person leading the game for the players) clearly wanted to set us up for a battle, but we weren’t hearing of it. We tried to hide in a cave while they passed us by–the DM countered by telling us it contained a monster of a higher level than us, hinting that the foes behind would be the easier fight. Instead, we lured our pursuers into the cave, blocked the entrance, and let the monsters take care of themselves. Problem solved.
This is what I enjoy so much about roleplaying games: they’re designed to be open ended, and the only limits are your imagination. Being a rather imaginative person, it’s a natural fit for me. As a storyteller, the draw is even more evident; even while you’re in an encounter and rolling dice to see if you hit and how much damage you dole out, you have the opportunity to flesh out the narrative. A miss turns into an unexpected parry by your enemy, who then dodges out of your way and thumbs his nose at you. An attack that just barely hits turns into a harrowing tension filled moment where both of you lock swords and stare each other down–while you slowly draw a dagger to thrust into their side.
You can see why this is fun for a writer. What does it have to do with characters?
In Dungeons and Dragons (I’m talking about 4th edition if anyone’s interested), you first choose the kind of character you want to play by selecting a class. This is what you do. Then you choose a race, which gives you some characteristics and determines how well you do your thing. Finally, you flesh out the character with specific attacks, weapons and items, feats (special abilities), and so on. It’s simple, and the publishers of the game (Wizards of the Coast) have lots of flavourful options for you to choose from.
But the most fun way to build a character is to start with a concept, and try to make it work mechanically. This is where you get some great ideas for characterization, which you can then bring into your writing. For example, DnD has a race called Warforged, which is basically a magic robot. Couple that with a class called Swordmage, which likes to use magic through their blade, and multiclass into Psion, which has various telekinetic powers. You end up with a character that’s part mechanical, uses a sword, and can move things around with their mind.
Like Darth Vader.
DnD gives you a great place to start by providing flavour and information on the classes, races and so on. And that’s just it: a start. This information can serve as a springboard to help create colourful and fun characters. Of course, all of it is copyrighted by WotC–and aggressively protected. So I wouldn’t go about creating a character with their sources and publishing it in your novel–but it helps get the creative juices flowing. I’ll often build character after character with no intention of using them in a game–I do it just because it’s fun, and it’s interesting to try odd combinations, then trying to explain them with a story. Like a dwarf who desecrates nature and is punished by the spirits of the forest by being locked into the form of a bear (Shaman class with a power called Beast Form). Or a monk who practices lucid dreaming, accidentally bringing into existence a manifestation of his “dream self,” which then breaks free in an effort to explore its own identity (a race called Kalashtar with the Psion class). Or an escaped gladiatorial slave who has developed a unique fighting style, using her long braided hair to ensnare her foes (arena fighter with the whip training feat).
You get the idea.
At any rate, if you’ve never tried roleplaying, I’d suggest you give it a go. DnD 4th edition uses a character builder which is completely online, and you have to subscribe to them in order to use it; they used to have a downloadable program (which is what I use) but I don’t know that it’s widely available.
There’s a website online called Myth Weavers, where you can play by posting in a forum. You can find me there occasionally, and they cater to all sorts of different games. Or visit the Dungeons and Dragons website to get more information about their games. Also check out another of my favourite games, World of Darkness–a sort of supernatural noir “storytelling system” that relies heavily on story and not so much on dice.
And have fun with it!