Character & Theme Journal Post #3

This time I wanted to talk about Theme and Characters, and how I did all of the work for both of them entirely backwards.

  Characters are really what make a story work, an interesting plot and setting are elevated by interesting characters.  It’s not impossible to have a good story without strong characters, but it is a lot more difficult.  The only ones that really come to mind for me are some of H.G. Wells’ shorts, where the situation is more intriguing than the people (Time Machine in particular, though it’s been a long time since I read it).  This might seem counterintuitive to the initial pitch that I made in Journal 1, about making the setting be the story.  Firstly, things change when you’re working on a project so a little bit of drift is to be expected; secondly, the idea was to make the worldbuilding feel less intrusive by having the main protagonist be interested in studying the world as a kind of David Attenborough style naturalist.  The best nature documentaries, though, go out of their way to construct a narrative out of the events that are being filmed (Will the cheetah mother be able to provide for her new cubs?  While the mountain goat escape the snow leopard? etc.), even if experiencing the world is the point we still want a story to hold our interest.  We like a narrative, to the point that we tend to impose them even when they don’t exist.

A narrative needs characters, whether they’re mostly background decoration like the party guests in Time Machine listening to the time traveler’s tale, or the singular point of interest like the desperate mother cheetah, they need to be there and they need to be doing something (asking questions of a time traveler that the reader wants asked; trying to survive in the African wilderness).  So, I had two questions that needed answering: 1) Who should the characters be? and, 2) What should they be doing?

The second question was easier, I wanted them to be hunting a dragon, and I wanted the hunt to take them on a rambly journey through the Vanoree wilderness in order for me to flaunt prose and be a dork about made up flora, fauna and minerals (and real ones too).  The first question was significantly more difficult, because it contains the implicit question of “Why are they doing it,” and that question ties deeply into the concept of Theme, or;

What are you trying to say?

As a writer I’m a hobbyist, I entertained the idea of trying to publish stories professionally but it’s just not for me.  I enjoy writing because I find it enjoyable, but I also like improving at things so I spend a fair bit of time trying to learn from other people.  One of the most important lessons I picked up from Neil Gaiman’s Master Class (which is well worth the cost of entry) and that was simply that if you’re going to tell a story you need something to say.

Pretty much everyone has something to say, it’s just a matter of figuring out what it is and how to say it.  The starting point is usually the most difficult for me.  In this case, I started crafting characters that I thought were interesting, wrote them in a NaNoWriMo attempt that failed, wrote them in the Beta run of this serial, but didn’t like them.  Recrafted them half a dozen more times.

The thing about characters is that without the themes and the world established it’s difficult (at least for me) to pin them down.  Characters exist in service to the narrative, unlike the real world (and nature documentaries) where the narrative is extrapolated after the fact by our pattern-loving brains.  The opportunity exists to craft the specific experience from the outset (it’s not necessary, obviously, but I’m more of an Architect/Planner than a Gardener/Pantser).  So, at this point I had about a hundred different good ideas and scraps of things from the last half a decade of writing projects, but nothing really cohesive.

Having hit a brick wall, I shifted focus and started teaching myself the basics of visual art and character design without a particular focus on work being done in video games.  I spent about two months learning the basics of shape language and color balance, and how to actually draw a person reasonably well (courtesy of Drawfee).  Trying to work out how the characters would look based on what I knew about the world I was building, and working in established visual conventions as though I were going to be illustrating them, helped a lot in building up who they would be.  The way that someone dresses, carries themselves, and equips themselves for their day tells you a lot about them, and so in making decisions about those visual attributes I also had to make decisions about the characters.

I ended up arriving at my Theme backwards, in this way, with the characters first.  Characters who were seeking something, who wanted to see and to know.  I realized that what I wanted to do was tell a story about belonging.  I had wanted to use an ensemble cast from the beginning, and a group was a perfect fit for thinking about belonging as an idea.  The final hurdles were the characters themselves, what were they capable of and what did they want, and why couldn’t they have it (which is usually where you want to start with characters; but as I said I did it all backwards).  For their capabilities I turned once again to video games, specifically old mascot titles from the 8 and 16 bit era.  I tried to think of simple things with deep applicability that fit within the framework of Three Realms’ magic system, tweaking where needed, and aiming for the kind of immediate recognition and association that “Mario Jumps” has. 

(I’ll talk more about the setting’s Magic system in the next journal entry.)

With basic abilities and character identity blurbs ready I pitched them to some friends, and with their feedback made a few more passes to smooth things out.  At the very last minute it hit on me that all five of the main cast weren’t dissimilar from my own self in one way or another.  Bringing yourself into your writing is one of the best ways to ensure that what you’re saying is genuine, so I seized on the thought and pushed each one of the five as hard as I could in a specific direction of my own experiences (exaggerating for fantasy and interest); and now they’re ready to be turned lose.

I’ve been doing some preliminary writing exercises, getting ready to start the serial up again in July, but I’m still more focused on finishing my Masters degree for the time being.  That said, I am very excited to get back into it with this crew.  Below you’ll find the rubric that I used, “Character Sheets” can be a dangerous time sink if you’re writing for a deadline, but they’re also helpful for keeping things straight in your head.  Eventually I’ll probably transfer all of the information on mine into Campfire (for some reason, I just can’t write directly in the program, I think it’s all the little boxes, it’s just very busy).

The next entry will be a self indulgent exploration of the magic system of the setting, and should be up by the end of the March.  If there’s a particular subject you’d like to hear my thoughts on, or you just want to share your own experiences with the writing process please leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @realm_wright

Jack’s Character Sheet Template

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