April 21st, 2002
Mudslinger Writer's Guide - Part XI - By Excrucior
He's a bit of a character...
The above title is all too true. When playing Medievia, you are playing
characters as well you know, but this is the game term and not the one
you need to consider for fiction. Players rarely role-play within the
game as such, which has affected many works that have been sent to me.
Many submitters forget that each protagonist in the story should have
its own personality.
Name any two people you know - think about them and how they are
different. One may be more avaricious than the other; one may dislike a
certain food that the other could not live without; one may be scared of
rodents when the other isn't. People are different. (No doubt someone
will give me an example of two people they know who are exactly the
same. If you know of this then please keep the knowledge to yourself.
Ignorance is sometimes bliss.)
You have to try and imitate this in your story. You may be asking,
"Why?" at this point. You want people to read about your characters - if
they care about them or find them interesting, they will continue
reading. It's a subconscious thing and can be very effective,
especially if you wish to evoke reader sympathy by wounding one of them.
One tool in the author's armory is the question "Why?" and it is very
useful to bear that in mind here (I'll be dealing with this later in
more detail). We're dealing with short stories, so you do not have time,
or the need, to justify every single action. You should be able to and
that is where you can form more rounded characters. Ask yourself
"Why?" at every opportunity. The character in my new novel, 'Travels around
Medievia,' is called Mrtarget. I want him to be a grouch. Now, why is
he a grouch? Some reasons suggest themselves - he could be a habitual
drunk and thus frequently hungover, and it wouldn't take too much to
push him over the edge into dipsomania. Instead he could be encountered
just after a relationship broke up and thus out of sorts, so he's
normally a romantic at heart. Perhaps he's only happy when he's miserable and
spreading gloom. Three possibilities there that add life to a
character - all from one preposition and one question. Make sure that it makes
sense and the characters will breathe for you.
I mentioned before about the plucky band of rebels fighting the
Imperial war machine (Yup - back to Star Wars - all rights to George Lucas and
so forth). You can tell the difference between each of the actual
characters - Leia is prim and uppity, but very brave; Han is a rogue who is
motivated by cash and a pretty face; Luke is an untutored farmhand,
although his heart is in the right place, bless his little cotton socks.
You get to know them and begin to work out how they would react in a
given situation. They show human characteristics that people exhibit -
that the audience exhibits. Maybe I should qualify this by saying 'would
like to', but it's a touch redundant. Anyway, people identify and
sympathize with them.
Then you have the Imperial Storm Troopers. Faceless in white plastic
armor, probably revived for the next scene when they are cut down again
by those brave and charismatic rebel types - cannon fodder is all they are. Do you
feel anything when they get shot? Compare that to the slight adrenaline
rush (and it happens) when a shot from their blasters hits the wall next
to Leia's enormous hairdo. You are concerned for her, but when she
blasts an enemy with a well-aimed shot, you don't care for her victim.1
It's that simple.
What makes a characteristic? We prefer short stories, and as such you
don't have as much room to play with. You can deal with the basics,
Maybe someone is scared of rats. Be it a burly warrior or a weedy
mage, a fear like that can affect anyone. This is a characteristic,
something that sets them apart from (probably) everyone else in the group.
As previously mentioned, mentioning something just once is not enough -
reinforce the idea in the reader's mind with comments harking back to
the original mention. Maybe the party are murdering their way through
Shadowclaw and are cheerfully disposing of soldier after soldier.
There's a grain store there with a few rats - one of them (your choice)
would probably refuse to go in in case one scampered up his leg. Maybe
some comments about cowardice would be in order here, or sly looks, but
you have set a character trait by having them worry about it. A bit
later, you can reinforce the idea in the reader's mind - maybe the guy's
friends tease him when looking into a dark tunnel ("Hey - can you hear
something like rodents? Snigger!") - this reminds the reader, reinforcing
the idea, and it adds interaction.
People don't have just one character trait. Two warriors are brave in
all situations, but one may have a liking for soft cheese whereas his
friend is more partial to waybread instead. Think about people you know
and various facets of their character. Maybe they are emotional and
generous, but unforgiving of those who betray them.
Feel free to make up characteristics to pad out your characters - they
should seem alive to people. Of course, you shouldn't overdo it. If
your piece is just about one character and his foibles then it's not
going to be too interesting. More characters make for a more interesting
story but we're trying for a short story for preference, so be careful
about how much information you put in there. Sprinkle hints and mentions
sparingly, and don't bludgeon your reader with them.
Then you have to consider the stereotypical adventurer - what sort of a
character does he or she have? Your basic warrior will try and sort
problems out by hitting them; a thief would look for a way around and
attack from behind; a cleric would seek divine guidance and proselytize
frequently; a mage would... you know the sort of thing. You wouldn't
expect a thief to advocate an all out attack on a guard post, you wouldn't
expect a warrior to know more than a mage about a magical object -
unless you could justify it in the tale properly.
Each race has its own general traits. As you will know, the Medievian
player characters are basically human. Only the descriptions and
titles really allow you to make your mark as an elf or dwarf or half-orc -
whatever. People do play as them, though, and we have a lot of
non-human mob races in the game that you can use.
We have a rich history of fantasy literature which was pretty much
defined by Tolkein (there were fantasy authors before him but he pretty
much set the standard fantasy races). People know what they expect.
Dwarves live in tunnels and mine stuff; they are short, fight with axes
and like beer and are generally bearded. Elves are tree-huggers who
like fine wine and cultural events; they are excellent bowmen and are
slight of build. There may be minor differences between different
authors, but in general this is how people expect to see them. Do you deviate
from these traits? Not too far if you want to maintain credibility, is
the answer. These are various racial characteristics that give a
general personality to your protagonists. You wouldn't expect an elf to
sing a rude dwarven drinking song, nor would you expect a dwarf to make
his home in a tree. Within these general boundaries you can have some
personal characteristics, such as more ready to wait for reinforcements
than charging straight into battle, but you can only take it so far and
that's a judgment call. You have free rein with humans for such
characteristics, so take the chance to make your mark.
Any characteristics - racial or otherwise - you give must remain
consistent. This is very important - having someone scared of rats, as per
the previous example, is fine, but if the story comes across some mutant
rats later then that person had better be good and worried. A
character cannot change over a short story - they may be able to make a great
effort to overcome their fear once but they would still have that
The most important thing to remember is that when writing about
someone, you are writing about a distinct person. Bear that in mind and
define them - make them live for the reader.
Next issue - Talking.
1 - If you're any sort of normal human being, that is. If you aren't
then please don't email me. I get quite enough of that already, thank you.
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