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Characters + World = Story

Photo by David Henning: The Swanson-Henning family roleplaying.

A few weeks ago, I was procrastinating scrolling through the Writer Unboxed Facebook group [1] and came upon a great question from Veronic Standish:

As usual, there were lots of supportive, helpful answers. Some people talked about starting with world-building, others about starting with characters. I added my own thoughts — either is fine, depending on the way your brain works — and moved on. I probably wouldn’t have given the question another thought if I hadn’t almost immediately come across this meme (h/t Valerie Chandler and Danielle Davis):

Those two pieces of social media crashed together in my brain and got me thinking. About what? About Star Wars and prequels and characters and world-building and the mish-mash of elements that lead to Story.

Dudes wrote it.

Look, I’m as happy as the next person to jump on the “men don’t understand what women want” bandwagon when it’s required, but, in this case, I don’t think that’s the problem. (At least, not the entire problem.) No, I think the issue with the prequels was simply that they were, well, prequels. So it was all about the plot.

Imagine being in a writer’s room, trying to put together the plot of a trilogy to precede one of the biggest movie franchises of all time.

Nowhere in that mythical brainstorming session does the subject of authentic characterisation come up. Characters existed for the sole reason of hitting the necessary plot points. We need a kick-ass space-princess senator? Introducing Padme. We need a princess to fall in love with Anakin? Hello, Padme. We need the princess to give birth and then die? Sucks to be Padme.

Sure, it makes more sense for Padme to fall in love with young, hot Obi-Wan. But she couldn’t. Because plot.

Interactive Storytelling

Which brings me to the intersection of these two snippets of social media. See, when I answered Veronic’s question, I related my answer back to the way stories are created in roleplaying games; specifically in that old staple: D&D. (Dungeons and Dragons, for the uninitiated.)

I grew up playing roleplaying games (RPGs), and I can honestly say that I learned more about the nuts and bolts of telling stories from participating in RPGs than through any other source. For the non-geeks in the audience, rest assured that I’m not about to delve into the mechanics of rolling funny-shaped dice and killing monsters. That would be boring. Besides, that’s nothing but a bad stereotype of RPGs.

My favourite way to explain what it’s like to play a roleplaying game is as follows:

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and thought: “Man, I would not do that.”?
Or: “If I was that character, I would <insert better plan here>.”?
Congratulations. You’ve mastered the basics of roleplaying.

Roleplaying games, at their best, are a form of interactive storytelling wherein players take on the role of an authentic character and follow a narrative that takes place within a well-developed world.

Being a Character

The majority of the players in an RPG (all but one) take on the role of a character. Depending on the game, creating a character may involve rolling some of those funny-shaped dice I mentioned earlier. But that’s just window-dressing and game mechanics. Really, creating a character for a roleplaying game is exactly the same as creating a character for any story.

Your character has a personality, a backstory, values, beliefs — and misbeliefs [3] — and clear wants, needs, and goals. Then you take on the role of that character, interacting with the other characters and the events of the world as they arise.

What events? I’m glad you asked.

Being a Storyteller

One of the players in an RPG does not take on the role of a single character. She takes on the role of the Storyteller (also called the Dungeon Master, Game Master, or one of a dozen other titles, depending on the game). Her job is to create the world.

Now, I don’t just mean the physical landscape here, although that’s part of it. The world includes:

The Storyteller creates dozens of authentic characters (called NPCs – non-player characters): the antagonist, the plucky comic relief, the police informant, the monster under the bed, the mafia accountant, and the manic pixie dream girl who sells the characters coffee embellished with foamy pictures of unicorns. And then she lets them loose to follow their dreams, goals, wants and needs.

Characters + World = Story

The story (game) is afoot when the player characters intersect with the Storyteller’s world. A good Storyteller will create NPCs that specifically push against the beliefs of the player characters, forcing the characters to confront their misbeliefs and grow, but she doesn’t create a “plot”. The plot is merely the series of events that ensue as the story develops naturally; the milestones along the way as the characters’ goals crash against the NPCs’ goals, creating tension, conflict, successes, failures, and, ultimately, a resolution.

This is true of roleplaying games. But, more importantly for us, it’s also true of any other form of storytelling.

I use this perspective in everything I write. I am the player characters, taking on the role of the protagonist and major characters of the story. I am also the Storyteller, designing the world and all the denizens within it. I play all the parts of my story, and scribble their interactions on to the page.

Do you begin with world-building or characters?

And so, back to Veronic’s question:

It doesn’t matter whether you start your planning by being a Player Character or a Storyteller. Design your characters first if that appeals to you. Design your world first if that appeals to you. What matters is not the order in which you do those things, but the depth and authenticity that you bring to both aspects of the story.

If your characters are full-blooded, 3-dimensional people with hopes and fears, and your world is well-developed and full of authentic NPCs who have goals that intersect with and disrupt your character’s needs, you will have yourself a story — and the plot events will develop naturally.

Have you learned about storytelling through roleplaying games? Do you have a different answer to Veronic’s question?

About Jo Eberhardt [4]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.