When I need characters, they generally spring into my head more or less fully-formed and then proceed to work within whatever story I need them to. This is a great arrangement that has worked for as long as I’ve used it, and I foresee it working in the future. Even if I don’t have a complete plot or setting yet, working with characters can sometimes help me get there, and while this is less ideal it still works for my purposes.
So what happens when I need a complete character, but don’t have a clue what she’s up against because I’m not actually writing the story?
I meet with a gaming group regularly, and we’ve all decided to start a Dungeons & Dragons campaign together, beginning with one-shots tomorrow evening and real sessions picking up in the weeks following. D&D is one of those things that, for me up until last week, always fell into the realm of “That would be cool to do… someday.” The only things I knew about the game were what I read in The Order of the Stick (which is a phenomenal webcomic, by the way, even if you don’t play the game). The story-telling aspect was appealing, but the process of character creation and playing along with the sheer number of rules and things to remember (not to mention all of the dice) seemed intimidating from the outside looking in. As someone who tried her best to even casually get into Magic: The Gathering and just ended up frustrated, I was reluctant to try anything that seemed even more complicated. That, and there just wasn’t time: people first approached me about playing during college, when I had a number of other things in my real life to worry about without putting that much work into a fictional one (which, in retrospect, seems a little funny as someone whose degree was in creative writing). Even in the time between graduation and when wedding planning started picking up speed, everyone I would have been open to trying the game with lived far enough away that it just wasn’t feasible. “Someday” was looking less and less likely.
Then, all of a sudden, I wind up with this twenty-year-old lesbian paladin hanging around in my brain. Considering that this was the character that popped up when the group gave me the advice of “play what you want to be,” I suppose there’s a lot you could read into that.
In any case, I had a blast getting to know her. I got to an Oath of the Ancients-flavored paladin by way of both her personality and, nearly equally, the role I wanted to play within the group: I had toyed with the idea of playing a cleric, but realized that I wanted to get in on the action more directly without being a box of Band-Aids (although this way, I still have the ability patch people up if the primary Band-Aid box is out of commission). I was intrigued about playing a devoted, passionate character with the ability and courage to act on it without having a connection to a particular deity, which was a plus. I was able to come up with her backstory first and find something in the player’s handbook that matched the person I was envisioning rather than forcing me into a template, which was really nice.
Above all else, the progression of the paladin fits her character. She’s a young person with a destiny that, despite already having been chosen and being genuinely good, feels as though she needs to prove herself to everyone she comes across. She acts like a stereotypical paladin complete with being a massive stick-in-the-mud to strangers, but only because she feels like she has to in order to be taken seriously, and the façade will crumble as soon as she realizes that she can trust the people she’s with. She’s trying to hurry along this destiny of hers, and in doing so she’s losing touch with the reason she was called in the first place. Fortunately, there’s no cure for not properly appreciating the light quite like being stuck in an underground city of darkness and drow (and really, she’s not breaking her Sacred Oath because technically you don’t take that until third level). She’ll learn quickly.
But that’s exactly the problem. I have a complete character arc and am absolutely brimming with story ideas for her—I could start writing a novel about her tomorrow, that’s how much thought I’ve put into this—but she’s not the only character here. I’m playing with at least seven other people (not including the Dungeon Master), all of whom have either put just as much thought into their characters as I have or are only thinking in broad strokes and are far better at improvising than I am. We don’t seem to be sharing much with each other about our characters, but I don’t know if that’s an actual rule, house or otherwise, or if we just haven’t talked about this much outside of the big logistical concerns. I know that the choices I make about this character will affect the narrative, but to what extent, especially when there are many, many other equally-weighted voices going into this? That, and I’m not an experienced player, so is it even right of me to presume that I’ll need and use as many details as I have squirreled away?
It was Kurt Vonnegut that said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” So on that level, I suppose I’ve done my job and then some. I approached this like a writer, which is to say that I created as much as possible in a vacuum. I know the plot, and I’m sort of loosely familiar with what everyone else is planning on doing character-wise, but other than the sphere that surrounds my paladin I’m not in complete control of how any of this shakes out. If I can use anything I’ve come up with, awesome. If I need to come up with new things on the fly, also awesome, because it would be good for me as a creator. So really, in all, this is exciting, and I can’t wait to get started.
Or I could roll really badly and she could die horribly in tomorrow’s one-shot, rendering all of this moot. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.