My favorite part of role-playing games is character creation. Yeah, the storytelling and the hacking-and-slashing is fun too, but there’s something about creating a person out of nothing. “Today, I think I’ll create a cowboy.” “Now, I’m going to make a mermaid.” It’s Godlike, isn’t it?
In role-playing games, depending on the particular game, character creation can be as simple as rolling some dice to randomly figure out how strong, smart, and skilled your character is. Or it can be as detailed as figuring out exactly what he’s been doing every year of his life up to the point that the game begins. Where all new role-playing characters are alike is that they’re all just numbers and notes on a piece of paper until the game — the story — begins. But that’s what I love about them. They’re so full of potential, of the promise of adventures and stories to come.
It’s the same with writing. I usually start with a character. Sometimes I start with a plot element or a concept, but even then I can’t get excited about it until I start to figure out who’s going to be affected by those things. The characters are the fascinating part and creating them is one of my favorite things to do.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to get sloppy with this part of storytelling, even if you like doing it. Like in the more simple role-playing games, it’s tempting to just throw some information together and think you have a character. Unless you spend some real time on it though, most of the time all you’ve got is a cliché: a Conan rip-off or (if you’re writing comics) the umpteenth version of Wolverine. I fall into this trap all the time. It’s easy to just imagine “brooding loner” and because you’ve seen that character done so many times, think you’ve got a character. You don’t realize that just because this brooding loner was written by you, it doesn’t make him better than the countless brooding loners who’ve come before. No one’s going to care about this guy unless you do something different with him. And that takes work.
Angela Booth has an interesting process for creating characters that I’d like to try. She looks over magazine ads and starts imagining what the people in them are like. She suggests doing the same thing with paintings, and it occurs to me that paintings (especially landscapes) are also good tools for developing settings.
She also links to a helpful tool for digging deeper into who your character is. Yeah, you know your brooding loner has long, black hair and a perpetual scowl, but do you know what kind of music he likes or what his most treasured memory is? ‘Cause you kinda should.