Posts Tagged Characters

RPGs and Story Telling: Dump Stats

In this space last week, I talked about using random character sheets to explore different approached to character creation. Let’s pull some of those character sheets back out and look at an important aspect. This doesn’t come up in every role playing game, but any system with more than four stats is going to make the player pick which skills they’re good in…

…and then pick their dump stat.

dumpstatThis is probably my favorite part of putting a new character together. In most systems, every character is great at something (though in Call of Cthulhu, you get to be merely competent in one or two skills). This will usually dictate what skills a character can pick up, and how they’ll find their way out of a situation. For a character good at swinging the epic Mordenkrad Hammer (Brutal 1), for example, every problem is going to look like a nail to smash.

But when actually role-playing a character, player decisions are often informed not only by what a character is good at, but by what they’re bad at.

RPGs force this issue. Writers are on their honor to remember it. When building characters for stories, I’ve had this problem. It’s easy to think about a character’s competencies, it’s less obvious to think about a character’s incompetencies. While a character being good at things might get them out of a problem, being bad at things will get them into problems. And that’s the heart of drama.

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RPGs and Story Telling: Character Sheets

I’ll admit, I have a bit of a problem when it comes to the Bundle of Holding. For those who don’t follow it, you should. The site takes the notion of the Humble Bundle, pay-what-you-want pricing for a collection of games with proceeds going to charity, but instead of computer games the site goes for pen-and-paper RPGs. The most recent bundle is my eighth, and even though I don’t know when (or even if) I’ll get around to giving them all a try, I enjoy having them.

Fact is, I’ve always enjoyed owning RPGs, even if I don’t sit down and play the actual games nearly as often as my collection suggests. As a kid I would buy Toon books from Steve Jackson. I was a high school student playing Mage in the heyday of White Wolf. For awhile I collected some of the GURPS books. As an adult, I’m finally getting into Dungeons and Dragons (4E) and Call of Cthulhu.

BoH FilesPDF has given a new life to pen-and-paper RPGs, allowing for cheaper pricing and easier distribution. It’s fantastic, and it has resulted in the file directory at right. I was going to keep expanding folders, but they wouldn’t all fit on the screen at the same time. Maybe I do have a problem.

Anyway, I enjoy RPGs as much for the playing as for the opportunities they present the story teller. So this is part one of a new, short series about RPGs and story telling. It’s not about how better to play or run RPGs, because I can’t give that sort of advice. It’s also not about how to turn your RPG session into a short story. The answer to that is: don’t.

It’s about how I approach RPGs as a story teller.

The first place I turn in any new RPG (or scroll, as I tend to do PDFs) is to the end. First because I’m always curious how good of an index they have. Second because I want to see what the character sheets look like. These can range from complicated multi-page layouts like Dungeons and Dragons to simpler notions of asking what is your name, what is your quest, and what is your favorite color.

Each is a different way to approach how to create a character, tailored to the kind of story-telling that the game shoots for. You can get a very quick feel for the style of an RPG by looking at those blank sheets at the end.

Every now and then I like to approach characters in my stories and novels this way. Pull out a character sheet and look at the methods of creation. Whether it’s considering each of their skills at a micro level in Call of Cthulhu or considering the connections between characters required by Fate Core. These are things that I always try to think about with characters, but by pulling up an unfamiliar system, I’m forced to consider them from a different angle.

Which I find a powerful tool. Finding a different way to approach a characters sometimes ends up being an interesting thought experiment. Sometimes it results in me finding a plot line hidden in the characters that I wouldn’t otherwise see. Oh, I don’t do it every time. Only when I feel like I need to goose my creativity.

The best part about this method? You don’t need to become a Bundle of Holding junkie like me (though you should). RPG makers want you to play their games, which means most of them allow for wide distribution of the character sheets even if the rest of the book is protected under copyright. RPG Sheets is a massive online database of these sheets, including old editions of oft-updated systems, games you’ve never heard of, and games that perhaps should never have been made. They don’t necessarily include character creation instructions, but they’re a good starting point to get the brain going.

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Naming Names

It’s odd to think that anyone was ever born with the name Bertha.  Or Mabel.  These are names that only apply to people later in their lives, women who step forth one day fully realized.  Yet if you were to look at the Social Security Administration’s list of the most popular baby names for given years, both were among the 50 most popular names for baby girls in the years 1911 and 1912.  By today both names have fallen out of even the top 1000, meaning you’re far more likely to find a Mabel celebrating her first century than a Mabel cooing in a nursery.  According to the list of the most popular names in 2010, those babies are far more likely to be named Khloe (#42) or either Zoe or Zoey (#31 and #47 respectively).  Even Mary, a name that was the #1 most popular name for a baby girl from the earliest SSA records in 1879 through 1946 and again from 1953-1961, has now fallen out of the top 100.

The most common name for baby girls now?  Isabella.  A name that wasn’t even in the top 1000 as recently as 1989.  For boys it’s Jacob, a Biblical first name that’s always been in the top 400, but has risen in popularity around the same time as Isabella.  Odd, that.  Edward is down in the 130s for the curious.

Among the top 10 most popular baby boy names in 2010, Jayden and Aiden.  Jayden wasn’t in the top 1000 until 1994, Aiden not until 1995.  Which means you may find nurseries or kindergartens with Jaydens and Aidens in them, but probably not a lot of high school or college graduating classes.

Names are odd fads to consider.  They grow in popularity, they decline in popularity.  Sometimes, as with the example of Mary’s recent decline, it’s because of overuse.  Sometimes, as with the decline of Adolph starting in the late 1930s, it’s a geopolitical thing.  Sometimes it’s even meteorological, as the name Katrina has gone from the 200s to the 800s very quickly.  New names can come from foreign languages, such as the adaptation of Aiden from Irish.  They can even be invented whole cloth in movies.  The first name Madison for girls did not exist on the SSA listings until the movie Splash came out in 1984.

Why am I talking about names?  Because Scrivener for Windows finally moves from Beta to Full today.  What’s the connection?  Because I have entirely too much fun playing with the Name Generator in Scrivener.  Tell it a nationality for a first name, a nationality for the last name, and suddenly you know what to call your Maori/Armenian main character when he first comes on page.  It even has lists of ancient names from bygone cultures.

The one flaw I saw in the whole of it was a lack of basic American first names.  Oh yes, there is an American option in the first name drop down, but it’s largely populated with the modern trendy names.  Fortunately there’s a nice way to import more names into the database, so rather than complaining about things I decided to do something myself.  That’s why I started putting together files based on the most popular US first names based on the same SSA lists I quoted above.  The files start in 1880 and are a snapshot of the 500 most popular boys and girls names every 10 years right up through 2010.  All the files are available in the Scrivener tab at the top of the page (or this link, for the scrolling adverse).  There are also lists based on the major families in Colonial Virginia, and the first and last names of every general on both sides of the Civil War.  Those were more for my own purposes, but I figured why do the work if I wasn’t going to share it.

I’m really thrilled to now have the SSA listings in the Scrivener Name Generator, as they’ve been my go-to lists for names for as long as I’ve been writing.  A note on usage, however.  Remember that the names are the most popular names for children born in a given year, not the general population living in a given year.  So when generating names, consider when the character was born.  What this means is that the 40 year-old titan of industry in your 2050s near future science fiction is, for better or worse, more likely to be named Jayden, Aiden, or Mason than John or Mark.  Last names, you’re currently on your own.  There’s plenty of fantastic lists included in Scrivener.  I’ll likely put together a few more files in the near future, but more likely focusing still on first names.  Make sure you’re following me on Twitter and Google+, as I’m more likely to announce new files there, or just keep an eye on the Scrivener page above.

So use.  Enjoy.  Share.  I’ve based the databases I’ve put online completely on open source material, so I feel it should be perpetuated forward in the same form.

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Cast of Characters

David MitchellSee the gentleman to the right?  His name is David Mitchell.  He’s a British actor and comedian who I’ve become familiar with due to his participation in that most British of television phenomenons, the prime time panel show.  Particularly through his involvement as a regulars on QI and a team captain on Would I Lie to you.  What can I say, I’m a fan of British comedy, and there’s a lot of these shows that’ll never get broadcast in the US for one reason or another hiding on Youtube.

So why do I have a picture of David Mitchell on my blog about writing, and why am I babbling about BBC panel shows?  Well, the latter is just because I’m a fan of them and this is my blog after all.  The first question is more to the point of this post.  I have a picture of David Mitchell because I realized he’s a character in Nickajack, the novel I’m currently outlining.  Oh, not the actual David Mitchell.  That would just be silly.  But rather the persona that he adopts during the panel shows, the version of himself that he puts out there for the UK and the world to see.  His mannerisms, his defensiveness, his delivery, his occasional dismissiveness.  Little bits and pieces of that are going to end up floating around the brain of an 1870s mechanical construct named, simply, No. 3.

Casting my characters is a trick that I picked up when working on a spec television pilot.  It’s probably a natural extension of writing for the screen, but is less obvious in writing for the page.  Casting characters allowed me to see them in more depth.  Allowed me to impart mannerisms better than just having the characters as raw constructs in my head.  Since I’ve started using this trick, I’ve seen and heard of other writers doing the same, often to very positive effect in the writing process.

And it’s fantastically cheap and easy to do.  As a writer for the page, rather than for the screen, there’s no worry about the budget for actors, no need to worry about availability and scheduling, no need to worry about an actor turning down a role because they simply feel it’s crap.  Or that they don’t want to do that kind of story.  Or that they’re dead.  Or that you’re casting the 30-year old version of a now 78-year old actor (I’ve done this).  It’s the kind of casting call that any Hollywood studio would kill to do.

You can also conduct horrible experiments, chopping stars up and gluing the pieces back together.  Something that would get you quite properly arrested in real life, but will create that much more dynamism in a character.  Take the demeanor of one actor, the delivery of another, the cadence of a third, mix them up, add a little of your own flavor, and it’ll come out on the far end unrecognizable as being inspired by a single real-world source.

This is not without peril.  When writing the pilot, I initially miscast the main character in my head.  And just as a poorly cast lead can drag down a movie, this bit of “miscasting” seriously dragged down the narrative of the story.  It took backing out of the written draft, recasting the character entirely, and starting nearly from scratch before he became an actual character and not just lines of dialogue floating around the pages.  It didn’t matter that the newly “cast” actor would never work television, he had the right presence to inform and build the character.

So play around with your characters.  Think about who you want them to be.  This can be especially helpful for a character who just won’t quite come together.  Think of who you imagine playing them, then write around that idea.  It’s not going to work for every character in every story, but it has gotten me out of several jams with characters who I otherwise wasn’t quite feeling.

David Mitchell photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  Attribution: Pinkboy at en.wikipedia

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The Problem with Zombies

Even in their first major movie appearance, it was about the people, not the zombies.The problem with zombies is that they always want to eat your brains.

Wait.  No.  That’s not what I was going to talk about at all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about zombies lately.  Likely this is due to some Twitter conversations I’ve gotten into mixed with the second season of Walking Dead spiced with just a dash of feeling rather like the walking dead myself due to my annual late fall head blah.  That’s why, over in Unleaded yesterday, I talked about just what makes Zombies popular right now.  And why here I want to talk about the biggest problem that exists with zombies.

It has nothing to do with them being an unstoppable horde, that there’s always ten more to replace the one you just killed.  It has nothing to do with the nasty skin issues that come with being a reanimated corpse.  It doesn’t even have to do with the issues that arise when one continues to eat after biological functions have shut down your digestive tract.  Though that’s somewhat nasty to consider.  No, zombies boil down to one problem:

They’re boring.

Yup.  I said it.  Zombies are boring.  That’s not to say they aren’t scary.  That’s not to say they can’t appear in an entertaining bit of fiction.  But take an individual zombie and try to force anything interesting out of it and you just can’t.  By definition they have no personality.  They have no quirks.  They have nothing that differentiates them from the crowd, save for the occasional loved-one-turned-zombie that shows up in the stories.  But even then, they’re not interesting for who they are, they’re interesting for who they were.

Great title I saw on a fake kids’ book: That’s Not Your Mommy Anymore.

Alright, so if you’re willing to follow me this far down my rabbit hole the question comes up: then why do we find zombie stories entertaining.  The answer is that, while zombies are boring, people are not.  And people put into a situation that we can hardly imagine are even more interesting.  That’s why zombie stories can’t be about the walking dead, they have to be about the still living.  Oh sure, there’s the occasional attempt to change the paradigm around.  Any number of short stories written from a zombie perspective.  There’s even the movie Fido, which is more about a zombie than most movies.  But most readers, most viewers, even if they’re seeking out zombie fiction don’t actually want fiction about zombies, they want fiction about people dealing with zombies.

Boring zombies, really interesting zombie survivors.Enter the Walking Dead.  Enter a show named after zombies, is really the first television show primarily about zombies, especially the first show to have its zombies be zombies (if I’m still in this mood next week I’ll talk about the Borg and Reavers), but at the same time it can tell more compelling and better crafted stories in episodes that feature almost none of the titular walking dead.  Because it’s not telling stories about zombies, it’s telling stories about the tensions that arise when a group of people who would have nothing to do with each other are forced together by horrendous situations and told to survive.  It’s about who would go how far.

It’s really a variation of a life raft story, a deserted island story, any of a number of genres that look to create unlikely groupings of people.

And where does that leave zombies?  It puts them in interesting company.  They are the ocean, or the island.  They are not a character, they are a setting.  And as with any good setting, they will dictate how people react, they will even directly affect how the characters behave, but the setting is never the beginning, end, and everything of a story.  Even Lost was ultimately about the people, even as the island’s prominence grew.  At the end, the characters all have to be distinct, and be reacting to the setting in a way that fits.

And there it is, in a nutshell.  Settings are not characters.  Oh, sure, you’ll see reviews about a novel that talk about the location as a character, but that’s just shorthand for a robustness in world building.  In the end characters are characters, settings are settings, and while the two influence each other, dictate to each other, there is a wall drawn between them.

So go forth with your zombie worlds.  Just remember that, as much fun as the zombies might be to write, they are not your characters.  So don’t neglect the living.  That’s who interests people.  We are the living, make the stories about us.

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A Writer Reviews: What Remains vs The Naked Now

If I am to criticize a show for what I feel it is doing wrong, I suppose it is only fair that I applaud when it corrects course.  And so I am here to applaud last night’s episode of Terra Nova, which did something I’ve never seen a show do before: use amnesia to further characters.  But first, because I’m a fan of when things go wrong, I’m going to look at a show that went horribly wrong with a similar plot device.

I’m going to look at Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Specifically a first season episode called The Naked Now.  This is an infamously bad episode, nestled firmly in that rocky first half of a first season that included vaguely African civilizations used to recreate the Ponn Farr duel from the original series, and Wesley Crusher at his most annoying.  The Naked Now was the first episode after the pilot, and if you don’t recognize the name, most fans of the show will recognize it from one scene.  It’s the episode where Data is “fully functional.”

There is oh so much that can be criticized about that episode.  If I were writing a full review of it, I’d scarcely know where to start.  But if I’m talking Terra Nova, I’m talking characters, so I’m going to stick to that.  This was a new show, fresh of an ambitious pilot meant to relaunch a franchise to television.  In doing so, it chose to pull a familiar plot line from the original series, The Naked Time, and I can’t fault it for doing so in order to create continuity.  What I can fault it for was the decision to take the second episode of a new series, when viewers don’t yet know the characters, and choose to make them all act out of character.  As the sort of contagious drunkenness moves through the crew one by one, they lose their inhibitions and become entirely different people than they will be for the rest of the series.

This is not characterization.  This is the exact opposite.  It’s something that requires a well established baseline so we, the viewers, can sit down and say “aha, Picard wouldn’t act like that!  He must be infected!”  But we don’t know these things.  The show wasted what was its first chance to establish characters for the crew, many of whom got only brief introductions in the pilot.  Instead, we’re left with a confusing mish-mash and a disturbing mental image of android/human sexual relations.

When I saw the trailers for last night’s Terra Nova episode, I worried the show was going in a similar direction.  These ads promised a virus that was wiping out the memories of the settlers, one-by-one.  While it’s not a highly contagious virus simulating drunkenness, amnesia is still a plot device that causes a character to act against type and against previous characterization.  It is also, to be blunt, a weak plot device often better deployed in sitcoms as they run out of steam and are desperate for stories.

Color me surprised, therefore, when the show found a unique twist on amnesia by having characters not forget who they are.  Instead the virus only allows them to remember who they were, rolling their brains back roughly twenty years.  This allowed the show a way to fill in the characters of Commander Taylor, Elisabeth, and Malcolm Wallace, introduced last week.  Through the retrograde memory the viewers got a chance to see their pasts in a way that didn’t require flashing back to the rather expensive dystopian future shown in the pilot.  Jim also got a chance to interact with Malcolm, and briefly the new girlfriend and boyfriend of his son and daughter.  The character played against some of the archetypal problems highlighted previous, and actually became a character in the process.  Specifically, it feels like he’s turning into Jack Carter from Eureka, but that’s a far better choice than the Jim Shannon from the first three hours of Terra Nova.

Characters, then.  They need to exist.  And I mean that more than “you must have characters,” I mean that in the sense that characters need to feel like real people.  Like you could meet them on the street.  This is what Terra Nova finally felt like it was doing last night.  If characters are going to act inconsistently for plot purposes, there needs to be an established baseline of what consistent is.  That was the trap of The Naked Now, and that was the trap that What Remains came nowhere near.  This is important in serialized television, it’s important in novels, it’s important in short stories.  I’m hoping Terra Nova is on the right path now with actually characterizing their characters.

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A Writers Reviews: Terra Nova

I typically use this feature to talk about movies, but I wanted to do something different today and look at one of the new television shows I’ve caught this season.  I want to talk about Terra Nova.

First, I’ve been enjoying this show.  It’s hard not to.  The opening scenes in the Blade Runner meets Soylent Green future were fantastically bleak.  The dinosaur effects are the best effects I’ve seen in a television series.  Yes, they’ve gotten some crap for the effect quality, but that’s making a comparison between huge budget movies, and big budget television series.  It’s differences of scale.

But that’s not what I want to talk about, because special effects don’t really have much to do with the writing craft.  I want to talk about the one thing I feel is missing from Terra Nova.  The one thing that could make the show better.

The show needs characters.

Oh certainly there are humans there on the screen.  They walk around, they talk to each other, they drive the plot.  But the show doesn’t have characters.  It has archetypes.  And that’s a problem I’ve seen in short stories and novels, it’s a problem I’ve seen in my writing.  And it’s a tough problem.

Look.  Archetypes are great.  They exist for a reason.  But much like their close relatives, clichés, they have their places, their uses, but must be properly handled.  Let’s look at the family at the heart of Terra Nova, since it’s marketed as a family drama that just happens to include dinosaurs.  It has Jim, the dad who’ll do anything for his kids.  Elisabeth, the mom who just wants the family to be a family.  Josh, the protective older brother.  Maddy, the brainiac sister.  And Zoe, the youngest daughter who I can’t even adequately describe as anything other than “the youngest daughter.”  Which is a shame because her mere existence is the catalyst for the entire series.

That’s it.  I can’t give any better description of the family members after three hours of television. Yes, there’s still 10 hours left to the season, but characterization isn’t something that should wait.  It isn’t something that should take a back seat to plot.  It’s something that should be integrated into the plot.  Character development spurs plots, plots dictate growth.  The two should not exist separated from each other, one should not take its turn and the other wait.

Let’s look at this week’s episode (second or third episode, depending on how you count).  Tiny pterodactyls attack the compound.  Elisabeth meets an old flame in the compound, Jim discovers the flame is who put her in for inclusion with the project.  The kids have to shelter together during an attack.  This is all plot, and this is great.  Some of it is single episode plot, some of it feels like it could be the start of a longer drama within the show.  But through it all, the people on the screen staunchly refuse to be characters.

There’s no conflict within Elisabeth about the discovery of her old flame, about the implication that he brought her back in time in hopes that her husband wouldn’t or couldn’t also come.  Jim reacts, but only within his “must protect family” archetype.   Josh takes on the protective role when it’s forced upon him during the attack, but there’s been no conflict between him and his sisters that would make this an actual growth moment.

The one brief exception of archetypes not becoming characters came in the form of the compound’s leader, Commander Taylor.  His archetype is the gruff military alpha male (a part Stephen Lang is well suited for), but he’s given a moment against archetype when it turns out he’s also been acting as surrogate father for a teenage girl whose parents disappeared.  That’s a good bit of actual characterization, having a character play against the archetype that’s been set up for him.

I was talking to someone about the show and mentioned that it was a shame that the show’s biggest asset, it’s cinematic style, will probably be its downfall when it came time to make a cancel-or-renew decision.  And it’s great that the show is more cinematic than the typical television fare, but that I’m seeing that as the main asset of the show is somewhat damning.  The show is going to quickly need characters, because I’m already getting frustrated by archetypes.  And that’s something that I’m going to look for more and more in my stories, ensuring that I’m not just casting archetypes in place of characters because it’s quicker and easier that way.

Archetypes are a starting point for characters, just like clichés can be a starting point for plots.  But they don’t stand on their own.  They need to be tweaked, modified, and crafted until they’ve gone from being two dimensional to three.

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Cruise Characters

I’m still trying to come up with a good plot for a cruise ship.  Something horror related without going with a haunted house or a sea monster pastiche.  For the time being, though, there were more than a few characters I discovered while on board.  What follows are first my observations then my own creative license taking over.

Washy Washy:  Located outside the main buffet on the ship there were always two hyper cheerful people whose goals were twofold: get people to smile and spray their hands with bubble gum smelling sanitizer before they walked in and started touching everything.  There was one in particular who took extra gusto in his job, smiling everywhere except his eyes.  This was the same greeter they chose to see us off the boat because people absolutely loved him.

The Assistant Assistant Cruise Directors:  There were at least two of these who I met.  One was a gangly American, the other was a stocky Canadian.  Both were in their early twenties and clearly on low rungs within the cruise staff organization.  These two directed people to the gangways going ashore, and helped the Assistant Cruise Director run the bingo game, nightly at port and twice a day at sea.  The ACD himself was only a few years older, and I just felt that for the first time in his professional career he has underlings after being the AACD himself for so long.  I can smell the makings of a petty dictator a mile away, and when the actual Cruise Director wasn’t there, I’m sure the ACD had no problem reminding people who was in charge.

The Shopping Consultant:  This was someone with a job to do.  That job, however, involves helping the stores at each port of call to separate travelers from as much of their money as possible.  For that reason, he’s hawking the Diamonds, talking up the rarity of Tanzanite, and generally is the closest thing to a used car salesman that existed on the ship.  What I’d be curious to find out, though, is whether he was a nice guy who was just doing a job he happens to be good at, or whether he’s someone who actually enjoys his job perhaps a little too much.

The Youth Counselors:  Being neither a child nor a parent, I had little interaction with the youth counselors.  The only reason I ran into them at all is that they had the reservation right after mine at the Teppanyaki table.  They were all uniformly early 20s, uniformly attractive, and uniformly American.  The latter was an abnormality on the ship, this was the largest group of any kind I encountered who all had United States on their name badges.  Also one of the only groups who only had first names on their badges (with the exception of the Latino member whose name tag read, and this is no joke, “Tex-Mex”).  Four guys, four girls, all young and attractive, working and living together.  Strikes me as the perfect combination for pairing off.  They were all sun dresses and khakis for their reservation, but don’t let that fool you that there aren’t some shenanigans going on with this group.  Side note: when I observed the youth counselors to my wife, she swore I said “grief counselors” and was shocked that, even with the older-skewing demographic on board, that eight grief counselors were necessary.

The youth counselors seem the easiest targets for a horror plot, but just because twenty-somethings-in-peril is such a well established sub-genre of horror.  There was even the one requisite ethnic member of the group.

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