Creating Characters: A D&D Example

I was the college kid who spent her weekends around a table in the Student Center, rolling dice, playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Playing D&D became more than a weekly hangout with friends and more than a stress reliever. This game taught–and continues to teach–me about creating characters.

When I sit down to start a new story, creating characters remains intimidating. Yet, it’s no secret that knowing your characters creates plot. At the very least, knowing your character makes the process of plotting much easier. You don’t have to come up with what happens next; your characters decide for you! Or, at least that’s how it works in an ideal world.

Most writers don’t live in that ideal world. Character and plot continue to vex us.

But when I get stuck, I think about my characters from various campaigns I’ve played in Dungeons and Dragons and how they’ve developed and continue to develop. Because D&D is a multi-player interactive game, where you sit around a table with friends, roll dice and talk “in character”, there’s no time to ponder for hours on end  what your character will do or say next to move the plot forward. You are in the moment. Your character has to act or else the game comes to an agonizing halt. If you’re a writer like me, who likes to have all of your background information on your character and world before you feel confident to move forward with your piece, consider this D&D approach.

Have a basic outline of your character. I usually know how old my character is, their gender, a few basic notes about their childhood/adult life (poor? rich? lived with their parents? grew up an orphan? etc), and above all, what they want. No, you still cannot escape the extensive reach of character desires, even in this crash theory on character creation.

Put on your character’s voice. What does your character sound like? Talk like they would for a few hours, even if you’re talking to yourself interview style. This will not only help with dialogue, but will be great for crafting first person narration. I will unashamedly talk in character on my commute to work. It’s especially amusing to get to know your character’s music taste–and even better when you disagree with their song choices and radio stations. Have fun and experiment with their voice.

Let your character fail and come up with the reasoning as you go along. In D&D, you can have a critical fail. You roll a nat 1 (a natural 1 on a 20 sided dice) and your character fails miserably at whatever they are attempting to do. Thought you could kill that orc with your axe? Nope, you wiff and stab yourself in the foot. And while you as a player know you rolled a nat 1, your character only knows that they have an axe in their foot. Now’s your chance to get creative with why they failed so miserably. Maybe she looked over, saw one of her companions in trouble and got distracted. If that’s the case, this could open up a whole new avenue in their relationship. Take each action as it comes.

Listen to your character. It sounds corny and we’re venturing into “my characters just write themselves” dreamland, but sometimes this can be an effective tool. I had a monk character who refused to go downstairs in an inn the party stayed at. I didn’t know at the time why he refused to join the rest of the group, but I knew that if I, as a player, made him move, I would be doing a disservice to his personality and the autonomy I hoped he would eventually achieve. Because I listened to him, I realized later that night that he is terrified of soldiers and the inn was hosting a battalion. His fear became a major piece of his character and created further plot developments as the story progressed.

As writers, we create characters. Sometimes an interactive approach is just what we need.