Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Building Character: How Random Questions Round Out an OC

So before we kick this shindig off, let me make one thing very clear: if you write in any respect, you are a real writer, and this article is for you.

I don't care if you're published, unpublished, a tabletop gamer, an online roleplayer, or creating characters for something someday. I don't care if you write original works, fanfiction, or whatever the hell else. You put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper and create something new where there wasn't something before, I consider you a writer, and anyone who tells you otherwise can come and fight me.

With that said.

Character creation is, for me, one of the most fun and also the most daunting elements of creating a story. And I say this from multiple angles. I'm currently retooling some characters for an upcoming published series, creating completely new ones for other works, and rolling up a Tiefling cleric for my friend Emily's 5ed game.

I'm a hybrid planner/pantser when it comes to writing: the end is in sight and I know what needs to happen to make the ending make sense, but I allow breathing room for the characters to decide they have other ideas. That said, I need to know my cast before I start, or at least enough to have their basic motivations down.

Creating an entire new fictional human (or whatever species they are) is difficult. For real humans, you're looking at some pretty infinite scope when it comes to motivation, feeling, changing feelings, and the like. Certain personality traits may develop over years and decades, and change when confronted with certain events.

I don't believe that you need to know your characters inside and out to write them. I believe only that you need to come in with enough that, if you were hit with a sudden question, you could extrapolate from what you have.

Emily has a fun way of helping build our D&D characters: she'll jump at us (online, not in reality) with a completely arbitrary question. We have to answer right away, even if that means making something up. It could be what the character's favorite smell is, a food they refuse to eat, their favorite time of day, etc.

The point is not to know this fact; the point is to open a gateway to questions, which encourage you to think creatively and find the way to big answers. As an example, a discussion she and I had about my aforementioned Tiefling cleric, Fight-the-Good-Fight-in-Faith, where I was led to create spur-of-the-moment responses:


Emily: So what's Faith's favorite smell?

Me: Um. Burning leaves in autumn.

Emily: Why that specifically? Is there a memory attached to it?

Me: She and her dad would make little backyard campfires in autumn and pretend they were on adventures.

Emily: Aw, that's adorable! Why didn't they use wood, though? Were they too poor?

Me: Mom said they had to only use wood for important fires, so Faith and her dad would use leaves and stuff.

Emily: Sounds like Mom was the strict one?

Me: Not strict so much as having common sense and just knowing what was needed to keep things in order. Dad was the "fun one" and Mom was the "disciplinarian," but there was no meanness or anything.


See? Now I had a clear view of Faith's parents, whose outline before had been "They're nice and also still alive," as well as a context for how she was raised. And those are two things that can be used as jumping-off points for a lot of bigger questions about motivation and history.

I see a lot of lists online of "30 Questions About Your OC," and they're super-good. I have several saved down and use them as a jumping-off point. But they're most useful as a starting point, with each question leading to a "Yes, and" dialogue.

For example, let's take a question like "What's a food your character refuses to eat?" Let's say the answer is avocado (because I don't like avocado). Why do they refuse to eat it? This could go off in a lot of directions:

* "They just don't like it." Are they a picky eater in general? Is there anything else they refuse to eat because they just don't like it? What do they tend toward food-wise if they are a picky eater? Does this limit the places they go to eat or shop for food? What would that mean regarding the people they run into on a regular basis?

* "It's a texture thing." Are they especially sensitive to food textures? What about others, like fabric? Is there anything else they avoid because of texture sensitivity?

* "Their parents made them eat it a lot." Were their parents pushy or well-meaning about food? Did they try to push any of their other preferences on your character? Did they ever tell their parents they were burned out on it, or was that kind of communication not a thing between them? Are their other pieces of parental influence they've shunned in a similar way?

* "They're allergic." How allergic: a bad sensitivity or full-on hospitalization? How did they find out? How do they deal with being sick? Are there any other allergies or illnesses they deal with?

Bear in mind the point is not to give or receive the third degree. It's to inspire your brain to tick over, draw comparisons, and create. And, oddly, it's a much easier and more natural path to an answer than just going "Tell me about your character's parents."

I'll admit I've stolen (borrowed?) Emily's method for a lot of character creation work I'm doing now. And it works extremely well in tandem with more familiar styles of planning. After all, we're all made up of the sum of our experiences. So why should our characters be any different?

Incidentally, I'm really looking forward to telling you guys about her campaign when it rolls out. Stay tuned.

Buy Me a Coffee at