Doc’s Writercraft: Developing fictional characters through roleplay

Every author, from the rookie to the seasoned pro, has their own tried and true methods of creating believable (or not-so-believable) characters.  For me, developing characters has gone hand in hand with roleplaying.

I’ve been a gamerchick almost as long as I’ve been writing (I started out on AOL chats when I was twelve years old; moved to IRC in 1997 and picked up ISRP around the same time I started playing serious tabletop games in 2000), but it wasn’t until I was in my later college years that I began to notice the overlap between characters I created to play and characters I created to tell their stories in print.  Somewhere in the middle, it all began to merge.

A prime example of this is the pairing of Tim McConaway (created solely for an RPG–as a background character, no less) and Brigid O’Connell (originally part of a now-defunct set of stories).  I hit upon the idea to combine them almost by accident, since they each needed a longtime friend that wasn’t a romantic interest.  They further developed as characters during my time with ISRP and their through-line is an anchor for the UNSETIC Files.

Tim McConaway started out as a cardboard cut-out, an Air Force officer whose parents had been murdered and was raised (with his sister and best friend) by a pair of uncles in Chicago.  His sister, originally, was the focus of my roleplaying efforts, but I later became attracted to her quiet, intense, tragic brother, unlucky in life and in love.  So I started roleplaying him, and he became increasingly complex as a character.  He found his way into a set of afternoon scribbles about a year and a half ago, depicting his first “mission” for UNSETIC with a woman who would become his lifelong friend, Brigid O’Connell.

Brigid originally popped up–surprisingly enough–as a character that should have been in the Epsilon universe (the set of stories that would have been wrapped up into that universe, set in the mid-21st century, have since been scrapped).  She was a retired military officer (honorable discharge due to medical issues) who bought a bar in Virginia.  I began roleplaying her purely by accident–I needed a character without any connections for a very specific reason, one with a particular level of authority, and she fit the bill.

Of course, she got away from me and started changing and developing all on her own.

That’s the one thing that no one tells you about roleplaying: if you’re doing it well, with the right people, your characters become very, very real, very very quickly.  Things happen that you don’t expect, things that you never would have imagined.  I’ve found it to be sometimes incredibly helpful.

Have you ever thought about asking one of your test readers–if they’re so inclined–what they think a conversation with one of your characters would be like?  Have you ever tried talking out that conversation?  Try it!  Let them ask hard questions that you might not know the answer to.  It’ll help you figure out who some of these characters really are and you might even find that they surprise you.  Who knows?  You might end up coming up with whole new subplots.

If you’re really brave, you might even try them out somewhere in the ether or in a tabletop game.  Sometimes, the best characters are the ones that you don’t expect to become your favorites.

Tim and Brigid were like that for me.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

            “Do you ever wonder what it would’ve been like?”  Tim asked suddenly as the subway car clacked and swayed its way uptown, toward Central Park.

Brigid frowned, watching the tunnel lights flash by out the windows.  “What what would have been like?”

“If this never happened.  You and me, partners.  You ever wonder what life would’ve been like?”

Simpler.  Less exciting.  “What the hell kind of question is that?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know,” he said, starting to get up as the train slowed, pulling into their station.  “I was just curious, I guess.”

“Be more curious about your Corps problem and less about what life would’ve been like in an alternate reality,” she said, heading for the doors as they slid open.  He was right behind.  “It’s probably a better use of what few brain cells you’ve got left.”

He grinned at her teasing as they fought their way through the sparse early morning crowds on the platform.  “Probably right about that.”

They were mounting the stairs up to street level when she said, “I’ve never wondered, Tim.  I can’t imagine life any other way.”

He smiled at her over his shoulder.  “Me neither, B.  Me neither.”

Excerpt copyright 2011 Erin M. Klitzke


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