By Ramdlon:

I’ve managed to get back into actual gaming again, as in tabletop roleplaying, where I am not the DM. It’s a pastime which I’ve missed. I’m enjoying the campaigns I’m in fairly well, but mostly I’m glad to have gotten back to thinking up and inhabiting a character again. What I’m reminded of is how the process of making an RPG character both can and cannot help you as you consider how to create a character for a fictional work.

Players in campaigns I run tell me they like my characters and stories and scenarios. I know that creating a character for a new game can seem daunting when you’ve got the books in front of you, so here’s some of my wisdom on how to go about it.

Characters in fiction have motivations and goals

The difference between a primary character and a simple bit player in a fictional work is that the primary character has important goals and compelling motivations for working toward achieving those goals, whereas a less important character pops up to serve the plot, illustrate the setting, reinforce a theme, or just provide the main characters something to bounce off. Every adaptation of Lord of the Rings cuts out Tom Bombadil because he’s the latter, not (just) because he’s a digression from the way more interesting story. The chatty old lady at the Houses of Healing all the way near the end of the book who annoys the shit out of Aragorn is another example of somebody whose motivations and goals are beneath the reader’s notice. She’s there to provide some levity after all the deadly battle we just read about.

A story is about a protagonist who has a goal and struggles against an antagonistic force to achieve it. If you don’t clearly dilineate these things right from the get-go, there’s no compelling reason people should be following along with whatever you’re writing – and there’s no reason that you, the person playing this perfectly balanced stat block, should feel all that thrilled with bringing his or her story to a satisfying conclusion. It’s the same, whether you’re making a character for play around the table or for a novel or short story. Think about:

  • What this character wants and why she wants it.
  • Who or what prevents this character from getting what he wants.
  • What she will do if she gets what she wants.

This can be as simple as revenge or as complex as making the world a safer place for people without a voice. We’re operating in melodrama when we operate in the realm of fantasy or action fiction – a mode of fiction that is more concerned with plot (a thrilling yarn) than it necessarily is with a deeper expression of the pain of the human condition (though you can certainly manage both). I’ll go out on a limb and say that for a tabletop adventure, since so much of the narrative is going to focus on your tablemates and the DM’s whims – er… carefully crafted story – you probably want to focus most on making your character somebody living and breathing, with a motivation to keep on keepin’ on.

Heroes of the story are heroes for a reason

Why, honestly, are Cloud & Co. the best folks to fight Sephiroth? You and I know they have the sickest stats and the phattest materia, but the narrative doesn’t really acknowledge this: They can still get captured by Shinra and put in a gas chamber late, late in the game. As far as the narrative of the game is concerned, they’re a scrappy group of normals who don’t bother approaching any other armed groups and saying “Hey, want to help us stop the end of the god damn world?”

In King Arthur myths, Arthur is the worthy one who can pull the sword from the stone and command the allegiance of the Round Table, the order of knighthood with the very best and baddest jousting records (I guess). “Can pull hardy-to-pully sword” isn’t much of a justification, but it is a justification, and Malory et al. deliver it with some gravitas, so I’m inclined to say it works.

In D&D, your character is the one who can be a hero because he can cast 5th level spells, probably. That part is handled for you mechanically. It still will go a long way toward making a memorable character if you come up with an emotional reason your character should take the spotlight. Your story’s protagonist may have some absurd competence or special power, but if that’s all she has, there’s no real reason she should be on this particular adventure. Superman could be rescuing cats from trees on any planet. He rescues them on Earth because he believes in Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Take that away and he becomes some asshole in a cape.

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A note for DMs, too: Make sure you actually read, understand, and try to incorporate your players’ backstories. They provide the world’s easiest adventure hooks, and show your players that you care about them.

Your fictional character is not a perfectly balanced stat block

Here is where tabletop adventuring will fail you as you construct a character. Games like D&D or 13th AGE are set up to ensure that every character is more or less balanced from the standpoint of the game’s primary mode of play: Stomping fools in turn-based combat. Its rules presuppose a game world, and life is not a game where everybody waits their turn and all person’s physical attributes are balanced according to a mathematical equation. Consider that you are of the same species as Terry Crews and yet no amount of grinding will ever make you as strong a person as he is, and you’ll see what I’m driving at here.

While you can and should go for mechanical optimization at the table, in your story that will be silly and impossible to quantify. There is no D&D score for kindness or compassion, for creativity, for determination, for empathy, for diffusing an awkward situation with humor, for the fact cats instinctively seem to love you on sight when they shy away from other humans, for the fact that you are, contrary to all moral and ethical uprightness, a Cubs fan. And there is no upper cap of having a 20 Strength or Charisma score for people like Terry Crews.

Your fictional character doesn’t “level up” and can’t fit into a template

N.K. Jemisin, from whose pen all good things flow, wrote a perfect summation of why magic in fiction has become a lot of bullshit. You can read it here and you really, really should. Do note that she wrote it back in 2012, before she became queen of the Hugos. Do also note that it is still damn relevant today, and cuts to most of the things I wanted to say here regarding why a ruleset is a bad thing to organize a fictional character or world around. Heed her words:

Here’s what I think happened between Tolkien/Le Guin and now: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D has a lot to answer for re the modern fantasy audience (and I say this as a fan of D&D). I blame D&D for systematizing so many things that don’t need to be or shouldn’t be systematized: fantastic racism, real racism, gender essentialism – hell, let’s just say all the “isms” – career choice, morality. Yes, yes, D&D has gotten better over the years, and yes all these things happened in the genre (in spades) before D&D, but remember boys ‘n’ girls et al: systems are remarkably effective at reinforcing stupid thinking. This is because systems are self-reinforcing and have internal consistency even when they’re logically or ethically questionable. It’s the way the human brain works: when enough events occur in a pattern, we stop thinking and go into macro mode. Then suddenly we see nothing wrong with saying that of course orcs are evil, because they’re orcs. Or of course magic has to be logical, because how else are we going to simulate its effects numerically and in a fair way that encourages good team mechanics?

It is axiomatic that elves and dwarves hate each other in most fantasy works and there is rarely ever a good reason why. Tolkien illustrated that in his world there were concrete reasons, tied in with millennia of regional history. Serbs and Croats do not just hate each other because one is Orthodox and the other Catholic, and to say so is reductive and ignores centuries of complicated, messy history. You should never take the lazy way out of “well, just ‘cuz” when writing a character or a world.

I think that’s it. I may come back with an entry later about building a character I have planned for a book I hope to write as an example. In the meantime, I hope this clarifies a few things.