Characterization Catalysts

Over the break, I found myself involved in three new games (long stories, all of them), so I found myself doing up characters for all three in the span of about a week—and all of it was right smack dab in the middle of another noveling attempt, meaning that I was, in different ways, working on about half a dozen at the same time. Needless to say, backstorying them did not go equally well—and in watching them succeed or fail as they went, I found a lot of interesting factors that affected how easily/cleanly/quickly they ended up with backgrounds and characterization.

One of the big ones, of course, was world knowledge. I chalk that up to why I was having more luck with two of the RPG characters than the story characters, and with all five of those than with the third RPG character. A lot of people won’t have this issue as long as the world is sufficiently similar to things they’ve played in before, but some people need to have a few constraints, or at least a few springboards, in order to get something more specific than “She’s a [whatever] who is involved with the group thing because it seemed interesting/for the shinies/for the glory.” In general, even having a few wireframe location/population/individual/history concepts helps, since it gives people something to link to and bounce off of.

There was also the question of who or what it was being done for. Granted, flat-out requiring backstories kicks in the homework principle (I’m supposed to do all this extracurricular stuff why, exactly?), but on the other hand, there’s something about not having a person to write for that tends to dampen motivation—or, conversely, about the possibility of feedback that excites it. Sometimes you can work around it with external challenges—this blog, for instance, is powered almost entirely by deadlines, and my last two major rounds of progress on projects were a result of being talked into the lightweight summer parallel to National Novel-Writing Month. Branching off of this, as well, is the idea of how much of the character stuff is going to be either a. relevant at all or b. resolved in a decently cathartic manner (I, for one, love breaking my characters and trying to fix them, so the latter is rather important to me)–people who don’t think their work is going to see use or who figure they’re setting themselves up for more grief than they need aren’t as likely to get into it as the ones who know their effort won’t be wasted. Enthusiasm feeds enthusiasm—if you want it, make it clear that you’re looking forward to it.

And then there was the issue of lead time. It’s easier to characterize someone who’s been floating around the back of your head for months than someone who just popped up two weeks ago, and easier for both than someone who came into existence the day of and was changed at the last minute due to information that had not been available beforehand.

If someone’s lagging or having trouble getting a character backstory together, one of these issues might be coming into play. Keep an eye out!


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  1. More Characterization Catalysts | Exchange of Realities
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