Monday, January 23, 2012

Writing/Gaming: Character 101 - Part 1: Overview & 'The Sandbox'

Good morning. On this particularly sleety and craptastic morning (the ground and the sky are the same color. I'm not sure if that counts as a Lovecraft moment or not), I want to start the new series on this blog, Character 101.

This series will be in up to 8 parts....(definitely 6, but there are two additional components we can bring in later). Now some of you have heard me talk about the first 6 steps when I taught this as a workshop 2 years ago - but a lot has changed since then, so update your notes. And unlike those previous workshops I'm not going to cover the whole list up front and reference it in every post. (So pay attention, and ask questions/leave comments if you get lost)

Character 101 is a series of posts aimed at ANYONE doing ANYTHING involving characters. This applies to novelists, short story writers, screenwriters, game designers, module creators...even somewhat to board and card game people, (though not all parts would apply there).

Much like my previous post about characters not being awful, this is more a walk-through on how to specifically do that - and although I don't present the components in order of magnitude, every piece is an equal facet in making the gemstone that is your character.

Granted, if you're only making some secondary characters or NPCs or background fluff, you don't need to do all these steps. Maybe apply one or two. But if you want your main characters: your protagonists, antagonists, chief NPCs, mentors, sidekicks, love interests, bullies, your fan favorite characters to stand out and get some attention (like eye-popping, 'Wow' attention), then this whole series will benefit you.

Now, let's go make your characters better.

Character 101 - Part 1 - The Sandbox

The Sandbox rule can be written out as follows:

A set of boundaries and a playground within those boundaries that is at times limiting or limited, causing the character to be tested.

If you had to highlight the key parts for this rule, look at the beginning and end of the sentence:

  • set of boundaries
  • a playground
  • at times limiting or limited
  • causing the character to be tested
No character should exist in a vacuum. They don't just float aimlessly in Void-space, nor should they. They need to have some sort of area where they exist. Sometimes, this is a whole world, or on a more localized sense, this could just be the place(s) where the action occurs. 

If we're writing the classic Oscar the Grouch novel, then we're likely talking the trash can on Sesame Street and the surrounding areas. If you want to craft a game about masterless samurai in feudal Japan, then you'll probably want a province, a town or two and the surrounding forests. 

Basically, the 'playground' I'm talking about here is the world of the character. Even if that means the whole world, don't freak out and think that you have to create this monstrous real-time updating construct and deal with every living thing and every event on it all the time - you don't. You only need to concern yourself with the world of the character.

If I'm the character, then right now, all you'd be writing about is me in my immediate surroundings (the office in the house), my immediate goals (to write this post then go do laundry) and maybe my plans for later in the day (go out and meet new clients). Notice that you don't have to consider...the fate of a Sierra Leone diamond mine or the traffic in Acapulco when you're working with me as a character. Yes those things exist, but they're not in the scope of THIS character, and therefore not part of what you need to add to the recipe. 

Over time, you'll discover that the playground for a particular character doesn't have to be so large in order to be "good". 

Note: As I've said elsewhere, you're really going to do yourself a disservice the more you hang on to notions of "good" "right" "best" or "is it okay if..." as all those thoughts are subjective and contextual. Kill that doubt and move forward. If you need help, ask.

So, to build the best world for your character, think about their routine. Think about where they live. Think about what they do. Your set up here is to be concrete initially. Facts and statements are ideal right now. Those basic Who/What/When/Where questions come in handy here (we leave off Why and How for the moment) 

Yes, you can easily get a legal pad and make a chart. 

Let's suppose I was going to make a character called....Timmy, so my chart starts like this:

Timmy the Character
  • Wakes up every morning at 8
  • Is currently a 'salad technician' at a restaurant
  • Is 18
  • Lives with his parents in a condo on 16th Street
No, I didn't prioritize those facts, I just listed the things that came to mind as I sat here. There really isn't a best order of magnitude, as this first column is just to list some of the pieces of Timmy's world.

So those are Timmy's facts, and in turn they are also boundaries. Timmy is 18, so he won't have the experiences of a 90 year old war veteran. He's male, so he won't know anything about the struggles of being a girl in middle school. He wakes up at 8, so he isn't going to have the same experiences as the crackhead who sleeps all day. Facts are good, and facts are boundaries. (Without these boundaries, Timmy is essentially an omnipotent, omnipresent, limitless deity).

Because Timmy is limited we've now planted the seeds for desire. Think of your own life here as well, you may be reading this at a job you no longer love, you may be reading this late at night because you're afraid what your spouse will say if you tell them you want to be a writer, you may be reading this thinking, "I could do a better job..." Whatever the reason you provide, there is a desire you can tether to the fact

Let's go back to Timmy and see if we can find some desires for him based on the facts we gave. (If you're making a chart, these desires are a second column)

Timmy the Character
  • Wakes up every morning at 8 >> Wants to sleep in longer
  • Is currently a 'salad technician' at a restaurant >>Wants to be a professional sculptor
  • Is 18 >> hates that people think he's a 'dumb kid'
  • Lives with his parents in a condo on 16th Street >> wants to move into his own apartment downtown, nearer to where he's seen college-age girls
Whenever you create limits on a character, you also plant the seed to exceed or overcome those limits. And yes, the character should want to overcome those limits (those conflicts are plot points) and the method the character goes about moving from his limitation toward his goal is essentially a plot unto itself. 

You could stop here with the chart, but you can also go one step further to see how each plot develops. (This would be a third column on your chart)

Timmy the Character
  • Wakes up every morning at 8 >> Wants to sleep in longer  >> Starts setting his alarm later and later, angering his mother
  • Is currently a 'salad technician' at a restaurant >>Wants to be a professional sculptor  >> Applies for a class in sculpting at night school
  • Is 18 >> hates that people think he's a 'dumb kid'  >> Spends all his free time reading college textbooks and trying to sound like a grad student.
  • Lives with his parents in a condo on 16th Street >> wants to move into his own apartment downtown, nearer to where he's seen college-age girls  >> Intentionally gets off at the wrong subway and bus stops so he can be around girls, hoping they notice him
We've built Timmy up pretty quickly, and given him a lot of different qualities and possibilities for our stories, games and wherever else we want to deploy him.

The key to that third column is that the plan the character undertakes to make the second column happen SHOULD NOT BE EASY. If it were easy, the character would have done it already, and they wouldn't be limited by it not-being-done. The challenge for the character is critical for the audience to emotionally invest in the character - we want to see him succeed (or not, if he's an antagonist), and we will only get to do that if we see the actions taking time and being done over the course of pages/chapters/sessions/etc. 

If a character's desire (also called a motivation) goes untested, then it isn't important enough for us to hear about. Having said that, let me also say that you don't need to detail EVERY motivation and develop them all before advancing your story. 

Remember Rule #1 of Writing - Writing is the act of making decisions. You decide what motivations to pursue, when, and to what degree. You decide how to express the desires and the plans and their consequences. 

The short formula for today's lesson:

1. The world of the character is the immediate facts and desires they experience/want
2. The desires are goals they've not yet realized and they will have to work (change their current state) to achieve them.
3. The plan they develop and engage to sate these desires is material for plot. 

Welcome to Character 101. 

In part 2 (due out later this week) we'll talk about character descriptions. 

Happy writing. 

(If you have questions or comments about today's lesson, leave some comments below. I would love to hear from you.)