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Role-Playing Games and Character Profiles


A character sketch of my warrior/wizard/shapeshifting dragonlord, Tzarm

When I was twelve, I told a lie.

My family moved from podunk Foyil, Oklahoma, to the big city (Wichita, Kansas). I went into seventh grade with no friends, no acquaintances, and really no idea what to expect. I moved from a school with a total attendance (K-12) of about 200 students, to a middle school (7th and 8th) of twice that. It was intimidating.

I caught one lucky break, because this new school was large enough to have a dedicated Honors program, so I could block out the masses crowding the halls and just focus on the twenty kids or so I’d be taking most of my classes with. Out of those twenty, I made a couple friends quickly, and we started comparing interests.

We all liked video games, and books, and fantasy novels especially. I pointed out that I’d played some Dungeons and Dragons, and these friends were fascinated! None of them had ever played, so they asked me more about the game, about the rules, about the experience, about my characters, and I was anxious to fill them in.

Unfortunately, my whole experience of the game at that point consisted of one session — one evening with the family, three years earlier. My then-ten-year-old sister had found the skeletons and rats too gross, and my then-eight-year-old sister hadn’t had the patience to follow the story or really participate, so we’d never tried again. That wasn’t an experience that would impress these guys and secure my place as a cool character, though. So, instead, I made one up.

I told them about my shape-changing dragonlord character and his pet cockatrice, about his half-elf/half-angel girlfriend/sidekick, and then started spinning stories about all the adventures they’d been on. I had a little source material, having glanced through my dad’s Monster Manual a couple times after that one game, but mostly I was making it all up. I did a decent job, and they kept asking me for more stories, until anyone in the group could have spent an hour repeating the exploits of Dragonlord Tzarm.

It was such a popular topic, that my best friend Mike finally decided he had to try it for himself. So he saved up his allowance for several weeks, and bought a used copy of the Player’s Handbook. Then he started reading through it, figuring out how to design characters and how to play the game. He discovered pretty quickly that nothing I’d said made any real sense at all.

Designing Believable Characters

That’s an embarrassing story, but it’s also an excellent glimpse into the storytelling process. Even then, I was developing the skills I’d need to be a great writer, and when Mike called me out in front of everyone, I learned one of the most important rules: make sure your character works.

In Dungeons and Dragons, that means an adherence to some pretty rigorous numerical tables. The framework of the game allows really generous customization, but it also requires some critical elements to make the game make sense at all. Those requirements create consistency, both in the performance of that one character, and across multiple characters, multiple players, multiple stories. It creates a cohesive and rational experience out of a bunch of people doing things their own way.

Maybe you don’t care at all about role-playing games. Maybe you rolled your eyes and growled “Nerd!” when I mentioned Dungeons and Dragons. It doesn’t matter. As a storyteller, that last paragraph should have your mouth watering. The job of the storyteller is to create characters that adhere to certain rules, that behave consistently and believably, that create a cohesive and rational experience out of of a bunch of people doing things their own way.

If you make it all up willy-nilly, guessing on the fly how your protagonist might respond to this or that, you’re going to end up in the same situation I did. If your character doesn’t follow the rules, at some point you’re going to say something wrong, something so impossible even your permissive readers won’t accept it, and they’re going to call you out for it.

So how do you avoid that? Learn the game before you start talking about it. Learn the rules. If you’re writing high fantasy, the D&D Player’s Handbook isn’t too far off, but whatever genre you’re working in, the best resources you’re going to find are other, successful books in that genre. Find out how their characters behave, why their characters behave that way, and what’s consistent across them all. Learn the rules, learn what a character can be and what a character must be, and then you’re not going to make a fool out of yourself.

Prewriting, and the CRS

Of course, once you know the rules, you’ve still got to find some way to follow them. Dungeons and Dragons (like most pen-and-paper role-playing games) makes that easy with a standard form called the Character Record Sheet. When you first create a character, you figure out his vital statistics — things like name and race and lineage, but also numerical scores that represent his physical strength and toughness, his academic training and mental acumen.

Then you cross-reference all of those numbers against pages and pages of charts to figure out how hard it is for him to bash down doors or survive the effects of lethal poisons. By the time you’re done, a single page front and back is able to describe everything your character is, and everything your character is capable of within the game world. It’s amazing.

And, in case you haven’t already guessed it, that’s a process I’d recommend for every writer. If you’re familiar with D&D and you’re writing high fantasy, chances are good you’re already doing this. I know I’ve got CRSes for Daven and Claighan and even King Jason, tucked away in Creative Writing notebooks of days gone by. But even outside of fantasy, the tactic holds. If you’re writing a mainstream murder mystery you’re probably not interested in tracking the number of spells your character can memorize per day — that’s where learning the rules comes in — but whatever your genre, there are key character traits and abilities that would be worth knowing, and worth writing down.

I had a U. S. History teacher in high school who got a multi-book deal and retired from teaching mid-semester, but before she went she shared her character profile chart with me, and it was fascinating. Every character she ever named in a novel would have one of these charts, and she’d fill in a family tree, with important details about immediate kin. She had a field for favorite band, favorite type of music, favorite drink (non-alcoholic), favorite drink (alcoholic), favorite brand of cigarettes, favorite food (alone), favorite food (on a date), favorite food (impressing business clients). She needed to know what celebrity the character looked most like, and the circumstances under which the character first met his or her most recent significant other. The blank chart ran to six pages, and if you added space to fill in all the multi-line answers required, it could easily top ten.

Friend Your Characters

To my great disappointment, I no longer have that chart, but modern technology has introduced a pretty handy parallel. For a while now, I’ve been telling people to create faux Facebook profiles for their characters (or, before that, MySpace). That’s become the Character Record Sheet of the real world — it’s how we identify our key parameters so that strangers can evaluate us and generate a reasonable expectation of our reactions in a given situation.

Beyond the custom profile, MySpace and Facebook have added new tools to the writer’s chest with these silly memes that spring up all the time. Look through that paragraph up above, and think of all the things your Facebook friends have asked you to copy-and-paste — list ten things you love that are orange, or post a profile pic of you with your first pet, or excerpt a paragraph from the book nearest you (no cheating).

All those silly challenges give hints about who you are — that’s why people like them — and your readers would feel the same fascination if you could work those details into your characters, too. So pay attention. Next time a profile pic trend starts creeping down your news feed, take note of it. Maybe it’s not worth adding to your Facebook profile, but ask yourself if it’s something worth adding to your standard character profiles.

That’s the sort of thing that makes amazing characters. Maybe it won’t come up in your story what high school she went to, or what sort of nonsense he’s a Fan of, but those details inform you, the writer, as you portray this character’s actions page after page, scene after scene. If you take the time to work it out, to really friend all your characters (and see who each of them friends in turn), you’ll be ready to make a perfectly believable character from start to finish. You’ll astonish yourself with how real they become.

6 Responses to “Role-Playing Games and Character Profiles”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    How ridiculously clever! Have you done this for any of your characters? That would be fascinating to see.

  2. Facebook requires an email address to create a profile. Will they let you make multiple usernames under one address? Otherwise, how do you get around it? Create a handful of fake accounts on gmail?

  3. Aaron Pogue says:

    Hmm. You’re taking my suggestion more literally than I intended…but I like it.

    I routinely create single-use GMail accounts, so if Facebook would settle for it, that would be perfectly reasonable. I know several major shows have gotten in the habit of creating faux social networking profiles for their characters and carrying on the story that way (Dwight Shrute’s blog springs immediately to mind). I’ve always thought that would be a fascinating exercise for a writer.

    That said, I really had something far more humble in mind: open up the Profile section of your own Facebook page, and make a list of all the items, then fill out a Google Doc with that information for your character. That I’ve done.

    Making it live…that sounds like a lot more fun.

  4. Making it live DOES sound more fun. That’s why I was wanting to do it. :)(Of course I also find entertainment through gathering pictures of people who look like my characters…)

    There’s a real Twitter account from a character in a book I’m reading and the author updates it off and on. It’s entertaining for those who have read the book – and for the author, I’m sure.

  5. Carlos Velez says:

    That could be one of your exercises…create a facebook profile and link to it in the comments.

    Hell, you could have writer’s groups made up of your characters. The lead from your story comments on a picture of the lead from Courtney’s story. Weird. You guys are weird. Wait, that was my idea.

  6. Megan says:

    I was recently listening to Janet Evonavich’s book on writing and she talks about doing this. Beside being a great way to make sure your characters are multi-dimensional, she advises it for prevent screw-ups. If you have that they hate lemons in the profile you’ll never forget and have them drinking lemonade…

    I’ve also seen the suggestion of doing an “interview” with your character, but I really like the Facebook idea… clever!