Get into their Heads (part 1)

Well, you’ve decided, have you?  You are finally going to sit down and get that pesky voice out of your head, onto the paper?  Let me tell you, it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Oh, sure, you can write all day long.  Words will just pour out of your fingers, and that story will mysteriously materialize without your having to work at it.

Or are you one of those that has to know every step of the way?  Either way is fine.  I have no quibbles with either method.  But, I can say if you don’t know your character, those words will be just that – words.  They may or may not mean anything.  But, they sure won’t be telling the story you want them to.

How do you fix that?

Oh, that’s the easy part… to say.  May not be so easy to do.

How well do you really know your character?  Just their appearance?  That will get you to about page three.  Maybe.  You know where they live, where they work, and what they dress like.  Yeah.  That’s even better.  That gets your reader to about page two.

“Joe walked down the street in his jeans, button down shirt and sneakers.  His well-cut, brown hair blew lightly in the breeze, and his hazel eyes traced the pavement ahead of where his feet fell.  He was heading home from his boring job at Swashbucklers to the little bungalow he called home.”

Yeah.  About that interesting.

But, think about it.  Even the folks you know the least about, you know at least something more than that.  What they express, or some of their personal “tics”.  Adding in that layer can carry you another paragraph or two, maybe.

So, what fills in the story?  What makes it worth reading?  That’s where knowing your characters well kicks in.

Because I am a gamer I’m going to work through this like a gamer.  There I admit it.  I like role-play.  For me, it’s fun to create someone out of whole cloth, and then figure out what makes them unique.

The first thing any role play requires you to do is to set up the basics.  Name, race, gender.  Then, you move into the physical – how big, so you can figure out if there are any “modifiers” for how strong.  If your character is a dwarf, or child they sure won’t be as strong as say… a giant, or a mature in-their-prime weight lifter.  Also, you look at how smart (intelligent), charasimatic (pretty/sexy), dexterous (flexible, physically maneuverable), will power (for most system I am familiar with.  How easy is it for others to make your character do something against their will.)  The last piece is the constitution – how strong is your character’s stomach and how healthy are they?

So, now, going back to Joe.  Let’s add these pieces in.

“Joe strode down the street in his well fitted jeans that molded to his runner’s legs.  The wind pressed his button down shirt against his surprisingly large spare tire as he brushed back a stray strand of well-cut wavy brown hair out of his hazel eyes.  Though his eyes traced the path his feet were following along the pavement, several of the people in the crowds around him called his name in joyful recognition.  He ignored them, his mind worrying about how he was going to pay next month’s rent for his small bungalow from the pittance he earned working as a mail room clerk at Swashbucklers.”

Can you see the difference?  You still haven’t “crawled into his head” yet, but you sure have made things a bit livelier with just looking at the first section of your character sheet.

Next, let’s take a look at what type of person Joe is.  Is he a magic user?  A fighter?  A religious man?  In this example, I’m going to go with the religious man.  So, what type?  A cleric (priest, or just someone blessed with a god’s blessing?)  A druid (someone able to ask favors from nature and expect them to be answered?)  Or a paladin? (Usually someone blessed by a god/goddess, but not part of the clergy for that deity.  Paladins are not as magically capable as clerics, but often will have some ability to fight using the divine grace to increase their ability in this arena.)

For this example, I’m going to say that Joe is a druid.  Now, there is some natural tension here, just because most of the time, druids do NOT live in cities.  So, that helps set up at least one point of tension/conflict for you to start your story with.  What is a human druid doing living someplace with concrete, like in a big city?  How does he feel about this?

With this much of a start, you can probably carry about three or four chapters, depending on how much you want to investigate just these points.  More, if you are working with aliens, or races that are even more infrequent visitors to a city.  Just from answering a few questions.  And, we STILL haven’t gotten into the fun parts yet.

However, now we get to start on those points.

How happy was Joe as a child?  Did he have friends, or was he a loner?  Did he get along with both parents, one parent, neither parent?  (Did he even know his parents?)

What about how he grew up?  Was it in the city, the country, a forest?  Did he regularly visit or receive visits from other races?

Does he know about his abilities?  Are they gifts, curses, just a part of who he is?  Do they mark him as someone special?  Or do they make him a person to be feared?

Did he get any type of formal schooling, or did he have to learn about life from the hard knock street school?

As a druid, he’ll have some affinity for animals, right?  Which ones?  Can he do anything special with them?

Getting a little closer to when this story picks up, think about why he is working at Swashbucklers as a mail clerk.  What IS Swashbucklers?  Why does his little bungalow take every penny he’s earning in rent?  Does he have roommates?  Does he have a girlfriend?

And, now, it’s time to dig deep.  Everything before here is just the set up to help understand what influences your character’s way of thinking.  Now, it’s time to BE the character.

What do you want?  Why?

What do you see your life’s meaning?  Do you feel like you are special?  Why?

Do you have a physical or mental disability?  What is it, and how did you come by it?  Have you come to terms with this challenge?  Why/why not?

Define yourself in your own terms – who you are to your self, and who you are to the world.  Don’t be surprised if these two pieces bring radically different answers.  Even in real life it is common for folks to feel like they are worthless to the world, but worth something to themselves.

Do you think you are ever going to be worth something to your world?  Why?  Is someone standing in your way?  If yes, who is it, and why?

Do you have any enemies?  If yes, who are they, and why do you think they are your enemies?

There are many, many more questions you can ask your self about your character, just in getting a solid background for them.  But, I will let you clarify those for your self.  For many gamers, the process of getting a character to this point can take between thirty minutes to several hours.  So, I am going to leave you here for this week, and pick up next week on how to get into your character’s head a little deeper.

As for the toss off character we’ve been building, this is what comes to mind for me:

“Joe strode down the street in his well fitted jeans that molded to his runner’s legs.  The wind pressed his button down shirt against his surprisingly large spare tire as he brushed back a stray strand of well-cut wavy brown hair out of his hazel eyes.  He sighed in remorse at the hard concrete he walked over every day, his eyes traced the path his feet were following along the pavement hoping to see some sign that Nature hadn’t been totally eradicated in this cursed city.  Several of the people in the crowds called his name in joyful recognition, but he failed to hear them because of his boss’ last words echoing in his mind.  ‘Son, I don’t understand how someone as graceful as you are could be so clumsy.  That display you knocked over this afternoon is irreplaceable.  Either find a way to fix it, or you’re fired.’

He scrambled through his thoughts, trying to figure out just how it was he had tripped into that display.  The floor had been smooth, nothing to catch his foot, and no loose cords had been laying out.  It seemed that every since he had gone to work for the manufacturer, his luck had just run out.  Maybe his dad had been wrong about him.  Maybe he was just meant to be a failure his whole life.  Especially now.  His roommates were deadbeats, which left him to pay for the bills on his own.  But, how could he fix that display and pay the rent both?  His mind worried about how he was going to keep the despised job so he could continue to pay the month’s rent.  Rent he felt he shouldn’t have to pay.  This small bungalow was all that was left from his mother’s estate.  Supposedly left to him from the pittance she earned working in the same job he held now.  He just hoped that one day he could finally discover why she had left for work one day, and never came home.”


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