When I was almost forty, I asked a young man half my age if he would take me through an experience I’d wanted to have for a long time, but one I needed a partner to enjoy. He agreed, but said I’d need to go shopping first. One Saturday morning, he took me to the most interesting store. I was the only woman there, but as my guide, my friend explained all the merchandise to me and helped me pick out what he called “a starter set.”
That afternoon, as my GM, he helped me use my new dice to roll up a character, and I played my very first RPG. GM, of course, is Game Master, and RPG is role-playing game. If I remember correctly, that first game was a cyber-punk setting, something á la William Gibson’s Neuromancer universe.
Over the next five years, I gamed in a lot of universes: cyber-punk, Cuthulian 1920s, science fiction, and my eventual favorite, what’s now called steam-punk. One of the reasons I came to love the RPG Space 1889 was that the characters were fast and dirty. I don’t mean that they lacked personal standards of either morality or cleanliness, but they were quick to roll up. To play, all I needed to determine was a primary career, a secondary career, and a handful of attributes. A few rolls of the dice, and I was done and ready to play.
Since life is a spiral, and we keep coming back to the same experiences, I’ve recently gone through a similar experience in regards to my fiction characters. Over the years, I’ve collected a fat notebook of “things to know about your characters.” I managed to distill the notebook down to one-page, typed, single-spaced of essential things to know.
The problem was that each book I write tends to have more characters. The one I’m currently working on has 25 speaking parts, of whom 11 are characters continuing from previous books in the series, and 14 are completely new. It dawned on me that if I did a complete character sketch for each character, I’d probably be ready to begin writing sometime in 2011. Then I remembered Space 1889, and how it was possible to start playing a game knowing only some bare facts, and develop the character as the game was played.
Using that logic, I scaled down to 10 key character points. If I know these 10 things about my character, I can start writing and allow the rest of the character development to come along as I write the book.
1. What is the character’s name? Does the name mean anything special in their family?
2. How old is the character? What year did she turn 6, 15, 18? The reason I picked those three specific ages is that they are often turning points. At 6, most children enter school. It makes a huge difference to who the character is if she turned 6 in Austria, at the beginning of World War II, or turned 6 in Kansas in 1985. Fifteen is the point where a lot of cultural norms are laid down. It’s the music we hear at 15, the clothes we wear, or our favorite junk food that, almost always, marks the "good old days." At 18, career and education choices are often made. Again, it would make a difference to how a black teen-age character was shaped depending of if he turned 18 in downtown Detroit in 1968, or in suburban Boston in 2004.
3. What is the person’s gender and racial background?
4. What’s the person level of education? What is her work? I define work as the thing that most fills her day. It doesn’t have to be paid work, though it likely is.
5. What is her sexual orientation? Is she in a relationship and how is that going?
6. Dominant impression? This comes from Debra Dixon’s Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. Two words—one adjective and one noun—that summarize the character. The noun is not the same thing as a profession, but it may indicate a role similar to a profession. For example, the character might run a corporation, but she’s also a woman who likes control. She likes to be in charge. So when I say her dominant impression is a “stern boss,” I’m referring to that need for control, not the fact that she occupies the CEO’s office.
7. What is the character’s tag line? This is a second idea from Debra Dixon. For E.T., the tag line was “phone home.” For Indiana Jones, it’s “Why does it always have to be snakes?” It’s one sentence that describes the character’s main motivation. Though we try to avoid cliches in writing, this is one place that cliches are useful. A tag line of “party hearty,” would immediately give you a different impression of a woman than if she had the tag line “nothing says loving like something from the oven.”
8. Flawed life view comes from Liz Lounsbury. How has the character got it wrong about life/and or relationships?
9. Donald Maass introduced me to the line she will not cross. What is the one thing the character would never do? At least, until this book, then she is going to do it and have to live with the consequences.
10. What jobs does this character have? Jobs are different from work above. It’s at least three good reasons that this character is in this book. Carolyn Wheat identified jobs as an essential thing to know about each character.
Every answer to the 10 first questions should have stress built into them. This is your first opportunity as a writer not to be nice to your characters. Rev em’ up, give em’ juice, and let the game begin.
Writing quote for the week:
My secret is to stress my heroine to the limit, until all turns out well in the end. Oh, she might have a bit of fun along the way, and she might think things are going well. But she's simply deluded.~Jan Christensen, mystery and romance writer