How do characters come into being? How do they grow and mature, develop likes and dislikes, tastes, desires, triggers and fears? Is there a magic formula to creating a story character who feels real and relatable? Or is it just accidental happenstance when somehow that undefinable boundary is crossed, and an imaginary person transcends the pages and becomes something more. I suppose the answers vary as widely as all the fiction authors who have ever been, and all the characters they have created.
I suspect many authors draw from their own lives, from people they have known, friends, family, co-workers, modeling their characters after them in some way. It makes sense. Then if you needed to find a motivator, a fear, a schism of some kind, you’d only need to tap into your knowledge of that person in your life. Of course this also leads to the inevitable trap of that person (or someone who knows him or her) figuring it out, and then you’re in a certain kind of creek without a paddle. You’ve just told a real person all the things you think they believe and fear and love, all their faults and flaws and annoying mannerisms…yeah, that’s risky.
Another approach, a little closer to home, is to draw from within yourself. Create characters from who you are, or perhaps versions of yourself you’ve always wanted to be. Perhaps even those versions of yourself you struggle to make sure you never become. Still risky, but also quite an excursion into knowing yourself, don’t you think?
Still a third approach is to create them from nothing, deciding upon every facet of their character by what I call the ‘PFA’ method (plucked from air), or some form of random chance. Gamers roll the dice for their characters’ strengths and weaknesses, charisma, intelligence, beauty and so on, and then sort of decide how their life went that led them to have those strengths and weaknesses. Some truly unique and hard-to-believe characters can be generated this way, with the equally challenging difficulty of making them believable to a reader.
How do we do it at Legends of Cyrradon? The short answer is: a little bit of all of the above. Sticking to one method or another, I think, would tend to make for one-dimensional characters, whose personalities were as thin as the paper they appear on. A story with depth and complexity should have characters that are likewise layered.
It’s no secret our family enjoys role playing games. Rolling up characters is great fun. Rolling the dice, choosing character classes, choosing a race, deciding what they look like, what kind of clothing and equipment they have, deciding on a little origin story, that’s the first big adventure! Then we send them off into the wild where they get to explore and make the best (or worst) of their randomly-generated stats, and see how they fare! At first it’s about the numbers, the hit points, the proficiencies and equipment. But more than that, it’s about the decisions they make, and what motivates them in that moment. What does a half-orc warrior with no clothes who stumbles into a country homestead owned by three old crones in the dead of a winter night say to convince them to help him?
So what tends to happen along the way is those character sheets full of numbers and hit points and lists of property items and weapons somehow turns into a real person somewhere. But how? Where does that personality come from? What drives those decisions that the dice have nothing to do with?
I can tell you, some of the characters we’ve played for years, many we’ve included in our stories, are as real to us as our own children and friends and family. Because along the way, we drew from ourselves, aspects of our own character, and made them real.
In the dawn of Cyrradon’s creation, in the histories centuries before our first story begins, there was a time when Aralieth, the Father of the Gods, was alone. He created a race of beings he called the Mayhara. They were beautiful and perfect. But as you have probably read already, they grew dissatisfied and wanted to wander, to discover the amazing variety of wonders Cyrradon had to offer, and to find their own places to call home. Each tribe wanted Aralieth for their own, but He could not (or perhaps would not) be with them all at once. So in His wisdom he drew from within Himself aspects of His divinity, and gifted them to the Mayhara. They became the Noralieth, the Elder Gods, Children of the One Father, each destined to lead their people to their destinies. And each of them was unique and far different from the others. And so those who followed them also became different and unique the farther apart they grew.
In the same way, our family drew from ourselves, creating characters we came to know and love as parts of our own family. Lendil, Hans, Hawk, Phoenix, Dia and Mea, Antonio and Derek, and many many others, all began on paper, and at some point blossomed into three-dimensions, with wills and characters surprisingly unique. If you’re a parent you know your children are just versions of you, they’ve taken on some of your traits and some of their other parent or someone who’s had a hand in raising them, and then injected a heaping portion of themselves in the middle.
As I write this, I can’t help but recall the many times while writing out a dialogue between characters, when the conversation took a twist I had no clue was coming. All of the sudden, one of them would just say something crazy, turn the conversation on its side, crack a joke or whatever, and I had to just sit back in amazement and think, “Wow, that just happened!” And at the same time, “That was so Derek!” or whoever. At times, it’s not just the character who surprises me, but the real-life person who created them to begin with. When Dia speaks, in her gentle, caring voice, I still hear the voice of my daughter who created her. Others are much the same in much different ways.
Writing is a privilege. Every day, every minute I am able to spend doing it, is time I am able to spend with loved ones; not only the characters themselves, but those who had a hand in their creation, whose aspects they embody. The act of creating them seemed hard at first, breathing life into them, artificial and clumsy. But watching them grow and learn, take risks, fail and succeed, and truly become heroes, is where the magic of writing truly takes place.