I know it’s been a long time since you’ve heard from me, so I hope it won’t be a bother that I’m going to talk about some of the same things I did last time. Specifically, I mentioned the way the RPG experience can inform your writing, both by providing a ready made background giving you the chance to craft a character within certain boundaries, and encouraging research into that world.
I wanted to expand on that today with a couple of examples that could even be turned into writing exercises. These examples both use the Bethesda RPG Skyrim as their frame, but what’s done here could be done not just with any RPG (video game or otherwise), but almost any medium with a decent world to build in.
The first approach is likely to be the easier of the two as it involves using work you’ve already done, and that is adapting a character into another setting. For this example, I’ll use a character from pop culture that’s familiar enough not to need overmuch description: Princess Zelda. So what are the defining attributes and key aspects of her character?
- She’s royalty.
- She has a consistent wardrobe and elf-like appearance.
- She is a skilled archer, and trained in the sword.
- She often has a mentor/care-taker present rather than a mother figure.
- She’s also well known for her alter-ego, Sheik, an acrobatic, ninja-like persona she adopts to help save her kingdom, Hyrule, from ruin.
This is a good list of features to start from, so our work now is translating it to Skyrim. First of all, how do we fit her into royalty? Fortunately, the creators of Skyrim have provided centuries worth of lore for their world, with plenty of gaps we can fill.
Skyrim has historically had a High King or Queen, so naturally she would be their daughter. The game takes place during a war of succession, though, so the best way for our princess to fit in is tapping into the history of time travel shared by both settings. Zelda, then, is the daughter of a King from generations past, transported to this later time by one of the many magical anomalies throughout the region’s history.
There are options for both humans and elves that can give us an appearance very close to Zelda’s as well. As for her talents with the bow and sword, both are prevalent skills in the game. Not only that, but with a little questing Zelda can wield arrows just like the light arrows she uses in her own series.
Skyrim also allows the player to recruit companions, a few of which perfectly fit the role of Zelda’s teacher and protector. There’s even a questline perfectly suited to emulate the hard path Zelda has to take to become Sheik and save her people. The final result? A heroine worthy of both Skyrim and Hyrule!
Pretty simple how that works, though, right? This is about understanding your character, and seeing how they fit into other worlds can be hugely illuminating about how they can fit into the one you create for them. For the most part it’s a matter of matching up characteristics, finding parallels, and blending into the surrounding world and lore. So if you’ve got an RPG of some kind on hand, or a friend with one, try this with one or two of your own characters and see how they fit into a slightly (or extremely) different world.
This second exercise is about full-on creation, rather than attention to world building details and blending. Those will still be important, but the focus will be on creating a new character in a pre-made setting. This is what is at the core of most RPG experiences, a character of your own making dropped into a world full of waiting opportunities and set free to explore as they see fit.
Since we worked on a protagonist in the last example, we’ll create an antagonist in this one. So where do we look for a root of evil in Skyrim? There are old standbys like money and power, or we could go with something more eldritch. Magical being called Daedric Princes lay claim to several different spheres, both good and bad in Skyrim, from light and dark to dominance, and they often choose or create champions to represent them on the mortal plane.
I chose to use one called Peryite, whose sphere is pestilence. He is also considered one of the weakest Daedric Princes, giving him (and by extension his champion) something to prove.
So what would a champion of pestilence be like? Well they would surely spread disease! Fortunately, there are diseases in Skyrim that cause specific effects, many of which can be reproduced with poisons also in the world. This champion could be a mortal (and in this case that’s technically the only kind of character you can create), but all the Princes have mortal champions, and Peryite wants to prove that he’s better. So what if he makes his champion a living plague? A literal cloud of sickness.
So we find precedents in the game world. There’s a suit of armor that exudes a toxic cloud whenever enemies are nearby. There’s a pair of boots that lets you walk on water. There’s a helm that allows you to cast poisonous booby-traps at great distances. There are sickly green poisonous spiders that you can command, and there are even powers that will turn you into an untouchable cloud of mist. Combine all these and you have a character who poses a threat to all of Skyrim, fitting neatly inside it’s background without having to stretch for all kinds of over-powering boons. Its set to show the land that Peryite is not to be trifled with!
This method addresses a common challenge to character creation, where authors end up creating a world for a character, rather than a character informed by their world. Sometimes that works, but rarely does it feel as authentic as a character like any of us, one whose experiences and surroundings have led them to their place, whether as protagonists, antagonists, or even background characters.
Trying it with a world that’s already built just gives you more time to focus on the character, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to use these principles to pull characters out of the world you are creating in your writing.
I’ve enjoyed sharing this with you all and I hope that you find it helpful. As always, feel free to leave feedback and share your own experiences! What are some ways that you have discovered your characters?