This may look like a post on Dungeons and Dragons, but in reality it’s an analysis of how to construct a character in a few carefully chosen sentences. It’s like a food blog structure, but for writing!
As some of you might know already, I’ve recently reclaimed my lost nerd youth by joining a DnD group with a halfling Cleric who’s a loyal follower of the Raven Queen. It’s a great group and we’re having a lot of fun, but there’s also six of us which means we can’t always meet up, which in turn leads to awful stretches of time between each session. To counter this, me and my bff have decided to host game nights regularly regardless if we play the main campaign or not, and last night it was his turn to DM a small adventure. I took this opportunity to revive my very first DnD character, the horribly underdeveloped and un-utilized half-elf bard Hyarion. I gave him a last name and a personality and an actual fucking character sheet Sharon and it was maybe the most fun I’ve ever had?
When I was younger I had a real problem writing or roleplaying characters with genuine flaws and weaknesses. I didn’t want to embarrass them, out of a pretty understandable fear that it would embarrass me in turn. As I’ve grown older and more secure in myself, I’ve come to realise that writing highly flawed characters is pretty much the most fun you can have, because it makes them interesting.
It’s even better if you can do it in as few words as possible. Take Hyarion, for instance, and what you can read from the four sentences of personality characteristics I wrote down on his character sheet.
Personality trait is, in my interpretation, what lies at the characters core and informs their view on the world. For Hyarion this is summarized in “dead on the inside, but aren’t we all?” which sounds funny but also says a lot about him. He’s lead a rough life where he’s learned to care about number one first, which in turn has turned him into a pretty callous, selfish, uncaring person. This in itself could be enough as a character trait, but by adding the second part of “aren’t we all” there’s an implication that he views this as normal behaviour – everyone is looking out for themselves, no one really cares and this isn’t inherently negative, it’s just the way the world works. It’s an ouroboros of a lack of empathy, which can only be broken if he spends enough time around someone that genuinely does care about other people and not only when it’s beneficial to themselves.
Ideals are important even for a shithead of a character like Hyarion. Like they sing in the great American musical Hamilton, if you stand for nothing what will you fall for? Even the most cynical, heartless character needs something to believe in or they have nothing to push them forward and nothing that can come back to bite them in the ass. In Hyarion’s case, his ideals are summed up as never kick down. He’s a thief and a grifter, but he’s the Robin Hood type of thief and grifter in that he’d never steal from the poor, partially because the poor doesn’t have anything good but also because he knows all too well what it’s like to have nothing. He’s spent more night sleeping in the gutter than he has wooing his way into plush beds with satin sheets. You don’t kick down, only up.
This also leaves room for some interpretation, like how he might have a soft spot for the truly vulnerable in society such as the elderly and even more so children, bringing him a dynamic of having moments when he does care about someone other than himself. If he never kicks down because he sees himself as belonging to the outcasts, the filth, the caked mud under the boot of society, then he would look after his imagined kin as long as it doesn’t inconvenience him in a major way. His half-elf nature also plays into this, as half-elves traditionally don’t feel like they belong anywhere and thus either prefer to be alone or float between many different groups of people. He has no allegiance to anyone but himself, so there’s nothing in the way of him helping when he feels the urge to do so.
Writing a character that is a stoic lone wolf or a scrappy street dog can result in a lack of bonds. Bonds can be perceived as contradictory to the core personality trait of “alone is strong” and in Hyarion’s case his flighty nature usually means he’s not around long enough to actually make any real friends.
I solved this by giving him a bond that essentially resulted in him digging his heels in even further on the whole alone-thing: they’re all dead. This plays into his backstory and on-and-off employment as a contracted bard. He’s been taking on odd jobs buffing adventurers for years and most of the time he’ll take the pay and go, but there was this one group that genuinely cared for each other and for the first time in his life he thought that maybe he was making real friends. And then, of course, right as he’s opening up to the possibility of turning his life around and setting down some roots they die horribly in a botched dungeon crawl, leaving him the sole survivor. This both gives him a bit of a fleshier backstory with specific events and allows me to play him as an irresponsible, immoral shithead that cares about no one but himself because look what happens when he does? This also establish that he has the potential of changing, because he almost did once in the past and if people stick around without dying in front of him, maybe he can do better? Potential for character growth is so important — if there’s no room to change you’re in risk of creating a boring character.
His major flaw as a character is that he “can’t stop lying”, which sounds fun but also hints at several layers of him as a person: he can’t be trusted, but he also doesn’t trust anyone in turn. He lies by reflex, not by necessity – the things he lies about doesn’t have to be important or even relevant because he is a liar to the core. He lies to get his way, or to calm down a scared, crying child or to get out of doing something he doesn’t want to do. He lies so much, he has no idea what’s true anymore and that extends beyond what he himself has said. This means he has to live in the present because the past is fickle and subjective and untrustworthy.
Living in the present fuels his whole deal as an alone-is-strong scrappy street dog that the other three character traits already play into — he’s a creature driven by instant gratification and bad decisions, because that’s what you get when there’s no future to plan for.
I’m no expert on character writing by far, but I’ve been doing this in comics for a good fifteen years or so now so I’d like to think I’ve picked up a thing or two! Hopefully this short breakdown of what is essentially the Flynn-Rider-dashing-rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold-stereotype has shed some light on character creation and how dynamic you can make it with relatively little effort!