A story succeeds or dies by the merits of its characters.
Big bold statement right out the gate, I know. Let me back that up a bit.
You can have one of the most compelling and unique settings ever imagined. You can have a powerful, impactful plot the likes of which has never been seen before. But if the characters populating this setting and/or following this plot are as interesting as soggy biscuits, your story still isn’t going to go anywhere. People won’t enjoy reading it, and apart from anything else you’re not going to enjoy writing it.
God knows there’s enough things to torture yourself with in the writing process: you don’t need to add more fuel to that particular fire.
There’s no one sure way to create compelling characters (I’m so sorry) for your story. Everyone has a preferred way, some are more effective than others, but ultimately it comes down to personal taste. Maybe you base them off real-life encounters with interesting people. Perhaps you follow one of those ‘100 Character Questions’ sheets to help define who they are and what they do. Both are perfectly valid methods, but what I’m proposing today is one I’m quite fond of personally.
So let’s talk about using character creation systems from Tabletop Roleplaying Games to make more interesting and well-defined cast members.
A Short Digression on Tabletop RPGs
Chances are that if you’re reading this you’re at least familiar with what a tabletop RPG is, but for the sake of inclusion let me offer a quick definition from Wikipedia:
“A tabletop role-playing game (or pen-and-paper role-playing game) is a form of role-playing game (RPG) in which the participants describe their characters’ actions through speech. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, players have the freedom to improvise; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the game.”
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is probably the most well-known example of such a game, but other systems such as World Of Darkness and Shadowrun are pretty popular as well. They cover a wide range of genres and settings, as well as differing pretty wildly in their mechanics and systems. Character creation is therefore a pretty varied affair depending on what you’re playing, but I’ve come across several systems that offer useful structures to construct characters through. You could be building them for a game you’re playing with some friends, sure.
But you could also be building them for your stories, too.
How Tabletop RPGs Teach You To Embrace Character Flaws
The best characters have flaws: weaknesses and limitations that both humanise them and give them something to struggle against (or give into). This is true of everything from Norse gods to the main characters of your favourite fantasy series (mine’s The Belgariad, sorry not sorry). It’s true that some RPGs don’t always encourage this (looking at you, D&D), but plenty do. For this example, I’m going to be looking at an RPG system called FATE, made by the fine folks over at Evil Hat Productions.
FATE is a system that understands how important it is for characters to have flaws, as shown by the fact that one of the first things you define about a character you make using it is their ‘Trouble’. This is, as they put it:
“Next, decide on the thing that always gets you into trouble. It could be a personal weakness, or a recurring enemy, or an important obligation – anything that makes your life complicated.”
The italics are my emphasis, since this a pretty concise summary of one of the most important lessons about storytelling: the complications your characters face. Complications are what gives your characters depth
To use one of my own characters made in FATE as an example, let’s take a look at my boy Pais and his ‘Trouble’: “Sic Semper Tyrannis”. He’s a drunken, devil-may-care religious investigator serving the setting’s God of alcohol and freedom (“a libertarian jock” as another member of the group puts it), but the thing that lands him in bother most often is his irrational dislike of overbearing authority figures. They embody everything he despises in the world, and he will never pass up the opportunity to get in such a person’s face or cause them trouble (even if it’s likely to wind up biting him in the ass).
This is something that both myself and the GM can use as an Aspect to bring up during game, in order to create difficulties for Pais. Yet by doing so, it also grants me extra Fate Points that I can use to apply his more positive Aspects (his ability with a bow, divine powers and ability to fast-talk, for example).
Or, to put it another way, FATE’s mechanics encourage you to bring up a character’s flaws in order to empower their abilities, helping you to depict them as a more fleshed-out and interesting person.
A Jack-Of-All-Trades Is Master Of None (And Boring To Read About Besides)
To continue this idea of using tabletop mechanics to help construct more interesting and well-rounded characters, let’s turn our attention next to one of the other important aspects of an RPG: the statistics (generally referred to as stats). These are numerical values that represent the abilities and skills a character possesses. Some systems go in for them in a big way, such as GURPS (you need a fucking PhD in Mathematics to complete a character in that system, I swear) and even D&D to a certain extent, whilst others play a bit more fast and loose with their approach. Yet they all help to define two of the most important aspects of a character.
What they can do, and what they can’t do.
Nobody’s perfect, at the end of the day, and at least when it comes to storytelling that’s a good thing. A character capable of handling literally everything you can throw at them is a boring character, and readers are going to find very little about them to relate to. A character who excels at some things yet struggles with others is someone that we can all empathise with on a certain level, though, which makes them far more appealing to read about. Tabletop mechanics can force you to think of your characters and their talents in this lens: they’re actively trying to prevent you from making someone who’s amazing at everything, and as we’ve discussed that’s actually quite an advantage for you.
More Tools For A Writer’s Toolbox
I’ve only touched on a handful of RPG systems in this article, I should stress. There’s a myriad of interesting games with clever mechanics out there, and I don’t doubt that many of them could well be of help to a writer stuck when it comes to making compelling characters. We’ve focused largely on FATE today, but please do remember that there are alternatives that might work even better for you personally. Sites like DrivethruRPG make it easier than ever before to get ahold of them.
So next time you find yourself stumped for a character that you feel is both capable and compelling, it may well be worth opening up the FATE SRD (or your own choice of system) and trying to filter your ideas through it’s character creation system. It’s a handy and genuinely quite entertaining way to add a bit of flesh to the bones of your cast, and it helps you develop ways to depict them in an engaging manner.