Friday, December 12, 2008

Story Writing, Part 3: Little Computer People

This is the third part of my series on story writing. To put this blog post into context, readers may want to refer to my two previous posts.

Having created the plot and decided on the setting of our module, we writers started pitching ideas for the main NPCs. By this time, we all had an idea of what types of non-player characters we needed; e.g., town mayor, companion #1, villainous mastermind, etc. All we needed was to provide specifics on personality, background, and character classes.

At the bouncyRock website, the members of our team have a private forum for discussing all matters related to our project. We created a thread in this forum for anyone to post their character write-ups. Although we stated that more than one writer may post different write-ups for the same character, in actual practice, hardly anyone provided alternatives for characters that had already been suggested. If we had more than one candidate for each role, we could have chosen the one we liked best or maybe even merged some qualities together. Perhaps most people have difficulty creating intriguing characters. If so, this blog post may help to illuminate a few mysteries of character design.

Entire books have been written on developing fictional characters, but I won’t even begin to touch the surface of this topic. Instead, I’ll provide only a couple of tips on character design. Don’t be misled by this seemingly meager offering, however. When applied properly, these tips will add considerable depth to any character concept.

Two Tips

Here’s my advice to beginning writers on how to create characters:

1. Write a back story for each significant character with a focus on the emotional problems that the character faces, how and why these emotional problems came to be, and what it would take for the character to resolve them.

2. Put your characters in situations that force them to confront their emotional problems in a way that will advance the story.

Significant characters are NPCs whom the PC will probably interact with more than once to move the story along. A character whom the PC will meet only once (and possibly kill off in the same encounter) does not count as a significant character, even if that meeting advances the story. Other NPCs that are not vital for moving the story along also do not count as significant characters, even if the PC will probably interact with them several times. Most merchants are a common example of this type of NPC. Writing back stories for such characters is completely optional, although better use of one’s time may be found elsewhere.

Not all significant characters are equally important. The PC’s companions would rank high in significance, but NPCs involved in minor side quests may be at the bottom of the scale. The more important an NPC is, the more detailed that character’s back story should be.

Back Stories

A back story should be focused on the emotional problems that the character is currently facing. Problems that have an impact on how the character relates with others are especially interesting. The back story should explain how and why these problems came to be. Details such as the name and breed of the character’s pet dog when she was ten years old, if they don’t shape the characters present emotional problems, are trivial and may be left out.

The ability to write a convincing back story requires empathizing with the characters to be created. It’s probably easiest to do this with characters that are pleasant or likeable, but most people seem to find it difficult to empathize with psychopathic characters. Consequently, these characters appear two-dimensional at best and cartoonish at worst. For me, Xzar the wizard from the game Baldur’s Gate is one of the worst offenders. Xzar objected to every good deed that the PC party did for seemingly no other reason than that his alignment is evil. If that isn’t a cartoonish character, I don’t know what is.

When people hear about random acts of violence that someone else has committed, most of them explain these actions by saying that the perpetrator is insane. As an explanation, insanity is woefully inadequate. It makes about as much sense as saying that the reason why a ball bounced off the floor is that it’s made of rubber. That may be so, but that fact does not tell us what motive force had set the ball bouncing. Did someone throw it to the floor, or did an earthquake dislodge it from a high shelf, or did Godzilla lash it with its tail? Besides, not all rubber objects bounce. My son has a toy monkey that’s made of rubber, and it rolls, not bounces, when thrown to the floor. Similarly, not all people who are mentally ill kill people. While I don’t have any statistics to back me up, I believe that most people with mental illness are not a danger to people other than perhaps themselves. Writers worth their salt had better find a deeper explanation for why their villains are “bad.”

Think on why your fictional characters act the way they do. Is your serial killer’s inability to relate to other people a result of being raised as a ward of the state during his formative years? Were the older boys violent to the younger ones when adults were not around? Did the adult caretakers abuse their wards? Was there a particular type of girl that the serial killer yearned for but who was repulsed by him?

By the way, please note that I am not implying that a person raised in a particular manner will always grow up to be a menace to society. A person’s free will and perspective in life may in fact be more important in determining one’s outcome. I once read the true story of two brothers who were raised in the same poor and violent environment. One grew up to be an outstanding cop, and the other acquired a long list of criminal charges. One’s past is not an accurate predictor of one’s future, but it is usually a major influence on how a person changes over time.

I realize that it can be very disconcerting to get under a psychopath’s skin, even a fictional one. To see the world through a murderer’s eyes, to think what he thinks, to feel what he feels – what sane person would want to do that? Writers, that’s who. Anyone who wants to write believable scenes of senseless violence will have to be the perpetrator – momentarily, of course, and never in real life. Don’t act out those evil thoughts, please. Save them for your fiction.

Once you’ve described the emotional and psychological issues that your characters bear, add a sentence or two on what it would take for those characters to resolve those issues. It’s entirely possible and maybe preferable that those issues will never be resolved in your story, but it helps to hint at possible avenues for growth to help understand your characters better.

The Emotional Journey

People are not static. They change. They grow. Life hammers them with emotional pain the way a sculptor chisels on marble. If people can see their lives the way an art connoisseur appraises a marble sculpture, would they like what they see? Might they see that a few changes here and there would make their lives more pleasing to them?

People acquire and carry a lot of psychological issues as the years go by. Some learn to let go of those issues and come out better for it, but not everyone does. The ones that cling to their pain are the ones that are most hurt by it.

Like their real-life counterparts, fictional characters that readers or gamers can empathize with undergo an emotional journey of sorts. The problems that beset them as they live out your story should strike them where it hurts most – at the emotional or psychological issues described in their back stories.

The back stories that you write for your characters are not for them to launch into long expositions on why they grew up to become the persons that they are now. That is seriously boring stuff.

Criminal Mastermind: Wanna know why I became the way I am? It all started when I was a newborn child swaddled in a basket at the steps of an orphanage. Nobody loved me. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

Hero: Cry me a river. Wake me up when we’re about to fight.

Please don’t even think of writing conversations like that. Long conversations with hardly any point to them are not what make role playing games exciting. Back stories are there to provide the motive force that explains why your characters act the way they do. Much of the material that is in your back stories may not even be revealed in your fiction. Make sure that every portion of a character’s back story that makes its way into your main story is used to advance the plot. Everything else should be kept to yourself.

Let’s take an example from the Harry Potter series. (I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but those who haven’t read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are hereby warned that this paragraph has a few of them.) In the first four books, Professor Snape’s contempt for Harry Potter is obvious, but it wasn’t until the fifth book that his attitude was explained. When Harry took a magical peek into Snape’s past, he found out what a bully his father had been to the young Snape. This revelation isn’t just filler. When Snape caught Harry indulging in magical voyeurism, he was so enraged that he refused to help the boy resist the mental manipulation of Lord Voldemort. Until Order of the Phoenix was published, Professor Snape’s back story served only to shape his attitude toward Harry Potter. Since revealing it would not serve to advance the plot of the earlier books, this back story was kept a mystery. It was only later that J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, revealed this back story in a significant manner. If Snape had volunteered this portion of his past early on, the revelation would have been inconsequential to the plot of the earlier books. It may also have puzzled readers as to why Snape would reveal such an embarrassing story to young Harry.

Part of a character’s emotional journey involves confronting the issues that are causing him or her pain. Those issues may or may not be resolved in the course of your story, but they will have to be faced if doing so will advance the plot. Issues cause characters to behave in ways that may not be in their best interests. They may inspire some interesting sub quests or may even take the story along alternative branches.

Consider Gann, an NPC companion in Mask of the Betrayer. Gann had a major issue that stemmed from his hatred for his mother, a hag who abandoned him when he was a child. A number of psychological studies have shown that the quality of a mother’s bond with her child during the first two years of its life has far-reaching effects in the child’s ability to relate with other people later on. Gann’s issue seems to have engendered a number of personality quirks, including his callousness toward other people, his inability to feel attached to any place long enough to settle down, and his desire to wreak mischief in the dreams of farm girls everywhere. In the game, the PC has a chance to either feed Gann’s hatred or to slowly wean him away from it. Gann even has a chance to confront his mother. What the PC says determines the outcome of this encounter. How the PC deals with Gann affects what bonus feats the PC may attain and what branches of the story the PC takes. Gann clearly undergoes an emotional journey in MotB. Regardless of how players may have felt about this character, the way the writers handled Gann makes a very good case study on creating NPCs.


Jclef said...

Excellent lesson, Elysius - thank you so much! :D

Frank Perez said...

Glad you enjoyed it. :)