For the past few weeks on my blog I’ve been discussing taking a gamer’s approach to writing, and gamers spend a lot of time on character creation. Perhaps even too much time, because no one wants to be stuck with a character who can’t survive an adventure or isn’t fun to play. The gamer’s focus is on creating a character that is going to be the best at his or her role in the game. As writers, our focus is on creating characters that are going to be the best at their role in our story—a brave hero, a strong heroine, an evil villain. But in fiction brave heroes are a dime a dozen, so if you want to make him memorable, then he’ll need more detail. This is where character customization comes in. Adding skills and abilities to a character makes them more efficient in a game, and makes them more interesting in a story.
Skills, Feats and Merits: In most role playing games, characters start out with the same basic set of abilities, like they’ve been stamped from a cookie cutter. Players then use build points to purchase whatever they need to make their character’s lives easier. Wizards buy specialized spell casting abilities, rogues buy specific thieving abilities like pick-pocketing and forgery, and so on to make the character stronger. If you’re writing a paranormal or fantasy story, those are the sorts of things your character will probably want too, and deciding what these skills are adds deeper levels of detail to them. For example, it’s one thing to be a witch, but a witch who specializes in healing magic by using potions she crafts herself with herbs from her garden is something that a reader is more likely to remember. Contemporary characters can benefit from this sort of planning as well. If your hero is a businessman, think of specific areas of knowledge that he needs to run his business, and then consider how that knowledge can benefit him during the course of the plot. Is he a computer whiz? Brilliant at marketing? A legal genius? Having all of these can be important to him, but lacking them can be equally important, as seen in choosing flaws and negative traits.
Flaws and Negative Traits: When a player runs out of build points, she has the option of taking a limited amount of negatives in order to earn more points. These are things that can make a character’s life difficult, such as having poor vision, being clumsy or unlucky, or even cursed. In my book Blood, Smoke and Mirrors the heroine is tactless—which can result in some hilarious lines, but saying whatever snarky comment that comes to her mind gets her into trouble. As a reader, I love flawed heroes. If the hero has a traumatic past to overcome, I’m instantly sold on the story. Adding flaws and negatives to your characters not only makes them more interesting but provides the opportunity for challenges to overcome and lessons to learn in your storyline.
One problem that writers can run into is that while it’s easy to decide a character’s strengths, it’s more difficult to pick weaknesses. When creating characters, I try to follow the general guideline that for every gift you give them, take something away. We all know that readers can’t relate to perfect characters. If your heroine needs to be a powerful sorceress, then she should be bad at something else. Maybe she’s fabulous at magic, but scared to death of horses. A hero who has worked all his life for fortune and glory probably sacrificed something important on the way. Think of Tony Stark/Ironman—he’s got looks, brains, money…and some serious personal demons.
Finally, if you’re writing romance, choosing one character’s flaws can determine the other’s strengths. I have a romantic conflict chart that I use when plotting a new story, and one of the questions asks how the hero and heroine complete each other. The couple is always stronger together than they are apart.
Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, taking a few moments to think through a character’s skills, abilities, negatives and flaws can make her more memorable and may even help hammer out details in your plot. Next week at my blog I’ll be discussing a gamer’s approach to GMC, better known as Quest, Reward and Ninjas. In the meantime, happy writing, everyone!