Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Creating your own characters


If you enjoy the narrative element of wargaming, having a story behind a character or unit can genuinely enhance the games in which you use them. I’ve touched on this before when I talked about why I thought it was a good idea to create your own backstories, but with this post I’ll talk specifically about how I create characters in an attempt to be more helpful than polemical. Writing a character can be very in-depth if you’re so inclined (I often am) but for now, I’ll endeavour to keep things simple. Not I Am Sam simple; probably Forrest Gump simple. I don’t wanna go full retard here.

Don't be too hard on me, Kirk. Please. 

People are understandably cynical about anything that can be identified as ‘formulaic,’ but all the same, a lot of those formulas exist for a good reason. If you want to create a nuanced, lifelike characterisation for your army’s general/chapter master/head boss person thing, then the following advice will only be the start, but a good start nevertheless. On the most basic level, every character needs the following:

·         Concept
·         Defining quality
·         Defining flaw
·         Name

In any other medium, that list would also include a want/desire, but in a wargame, that character's want/desire will probably change depending on the scenario/campaign/situation.

Now, why is ‘name’ last? Because names often communicate a lot of what you want to say about a character without any actual descriptions, so it can be helpful to know what you want to say. It’s absolutely fine to have a name first if you’re slapped in the happies by inspiration, of course. The Important thing is that you end up with all four of these things, not just three.

Unfortunately, characters are often written without flaws. I used to make this mistake. If you’re trying to do justice to a character you love, there’s often a temptation to make him Amazingnor of the Uberpeople, but weirdly, the net result is that no-one will like him. Or her. Sorry, Amazingnor just didn’t sound like a lady. Maybe a butch lady. Amazingnora? Amazing Nora just sounds like Wonder Woman’s semi-glamorous assistant. HONK! Oops, there’s the tangent klaxon.

Getting back on track, here are some examples from my Empire army:

CONCEPT: Grizzled, no-frills Templar Grand Master
QUALITY: Relentless in pursuing his duty
FLAW: Will use any tactic, no matter how dirty, immoral or psychotic
NAME: Erhard von RĂ¼diger



CONCEPT: Dashing young captain
QUALITY: Cares about the men under his command
FLAW: Vanity
NAME: Oskar Brandt



CONCEPT: Grumpy old Warrior Priest
QUALITY: Experienced
FLAW: Cynical to the point of offensiveness
NAME: Brother Fabian



CONCEPT: Intimidating Battle Wizard
QUALITY: Self-reliance
FLAW: A barely-restrained temper coupled with the ability to kill someone with a twitch of her fingers.

These are all extremely basic character concepts, but it’s interesting what a difference it makes to emphasise their biggest flaw as much as their biggest strength; to my mind, it makes a more interesting characterisation than, for example, Marneus Calgar. Calgar does have a flaw, according to the Codex: pride. But his description goes, “he’s amazing, he’s amazing, he’s badass, he’s amazing, also he’s a bit proud, he’s amazing.” Now obviously he should be amazing, he’s an Astartes Chapter Master, but if you take something too far, it becomes bland in its excessiveness, and that flaw gets lost amongst the noise.

The Governator hears you think him nuance-free.
He is most displeased. 

So, once you have your concept, quality, flaw and name, what might you do next? Well, you might pen their actual story, for one thing. Note that none of the flaws/qualities mentioned above have any narrative element – they are simply characteristics. To put those things into a narrative context is, generally, to explain those traits. Why does Amelia have such a vicious temper? How does Brother Fabian’s cynicism affect the faith of the people around him?

Equally, a more detailed characterisation would include multiple qualities and multiple flaws. It would include their greatest achievements and their greatest failures. It would ask not just about their adult lives, but their childhoods as well. If you fancy a more fleshed-out characterisation, answering the following questions may help as well:

What do they want?
To what extent are they educated?
Where do their talents lie?
What are they really bad at?
What frightens them?
What secrets do they keep?

It goes without saying that there are loads more questions that could be asked, but if you can answer the ones already mentioned, you’ve definitely got a character. How unique or interesting they are doesn’t really matter for gaming purposes; they’re your character, and if you let them make some of the decisions in your games, the whole thing comes to life.

~Charlie 

4 comments:

  1. Great article and very similar to how I go about it - and a good starting point for creating characters in any piece of fiction prose, etc. I have done similar "fluffcraft" pieces that could also be seen as formulaic, in one I tried to avoid it but in the second I embraced it. As a foundation or starting point this is a great idea

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    1. Thanks Kieran! I quite agree; formulas often make great starting points, even if you intend to deviate from them later on.

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  2. This could definitely have been useful before I posted my battle report, although I'll be checking back regularly now as the stories of Oskar and "Rat Norris" go head to head in the future :D

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    1. Hahaha would that I'd thought of this post a little earlier! Oh well, as you say, there's more comedy to be had in them there hills.

      CONCEPT: Rat Norris
      QUALITY: An unequalled gift for self-preservation.
      FLAW: An unequalled gift for self-preservation.
      NAME: ??? [as I never managed to think of a name, and assume that Skrakit died at the wheel of his... er... doom. Wheel.]

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