Trivial Character Details: Why They’re So Difficult, and What To Do With Them

Most people who create characters know what it’s like trying to get the character down for the first time, especially when it’s one of their earlier projects. There’s that bit where just about everything seems like it should be chosen carefully so as to make sense later, making the choices themselves a bit of a challenge. And it’s easy to look at the big choices that way—things like “Where is this character from?” or “What can she do?” They can be pretty tough (more so when you’re dealing with mechanics-related things and trying to stay in budget).

Then you get the little choices. “Tea, milk or water?” “What do you want to wear today?” (Okay, maybe not that one quite as much; physical appearance takes on a disproportionate importance in a lot of texts). “What is your favorite color?” Many people would expect these to be the easiest ones, because they really don’t have to tie to who the character is, and because odds are they aren’t going to be particularly important later. Couldn’t you just choose randomly or something?

But there’s a sense in which these are actually harder than the questions that ‘mean’ something. The thing about the big, important choices is that they have constraints on them—a character has to be a certain way to keep the plot running, or can’t start liking this because that would contradict the thing in Chapter Two, or needs to keep this quality because otherwise there goes the Designated Plot Romance (why this is such a bad thing is another question entirely, but eh, you get my drift). And since constraints limit the options available, they can serve as jumping-off points, focusing a bewildering variety of possibilities into something that can be sifted through.

On the other hand, the little detail doesn’t matter—and that means there isn’t a necessary constraint that can serve as a jumping off point. Whether the character takes tea or water or milk is just about the character. Someone who’s still working on pinpoint detail on a character might take confusion from this because they feel that they should know, even if they don’t.

How do I handle a situation like this? It’s pretty simple; I try to find a way to make the seemingly trivial detail fit in with the who the character is, restoring my jumping-off point. (So to take the “which drink” example—a lot of my polite-society-capable characters drink tea. One favors a particular variety of tea so as to help thwart assassination attempts. Another’s siblings, perpetrators of a rather one-sided and very bitter sibling rivalry, prefer coffee because their sister prefers tea.) There are a lot of factors that can be brought into play to try to resolve a trivial detail quandary; history and social connections, culture and skills, previously established trivial details…. it’s just a matter of finding a point that could serve as a prompt and building on it from there.

The devil may be in the details, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be chased out.

(A note for my blogger-readers: I’m extending the deadline on April’s RPG Blog Carnival to 10 pm Pacific time on May 2nd. Let’s get a couple more in, hm?)

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