What D’n D Taught me About Characterization


As part of the continued guest post series, today we have writer Melody Kaufmann, a lovely blog-friend and twitter buddy!

I love the characterizations in her work, and invited her to talk about it in this post. Take it away Melody!

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D&D is a group of friends essentially “acting out” a story, not unlike a movie.  In any story, good characterization is essential. Good characterization, in a novel, avoids author intrusion, and provides the reader with what my oldest child calls “movies for the brain”. For this to occur the author needs to “build the characters” which is what each player does at the start of a D&D game. In both there is a challenge and reward to “artistically representing human character and motive” in a believable and engaging manner.  The purpose in both cases is to create a story that others will enjoy.

Everything I know about characterization I learned by playing D&D. Ok not everything… but many things I learned while role-playing influence the method I use to create my characters. Webster defines characterization as “the artistic representation (as in fiction or drama) of human character or motives”. Characteristics and motives are what the reader uses to identify each character as an individual. Any writer can become published but real success for a writer comes from being read. Characterization is a part of what determines whether or not a work will be read. Here are a few tips for making your characterization work:

1>    Don’t kill everyone – parents, siblings, extended family give a character, particularly a main character, depth. If they have nothing to lose & no one that matters to them then why do we care about them? Relationships forge a character’s personality. Would Dr. Yueh betray Duke Leto if he had no one he loved? The Pet Sematary is only a local legend if Dr. Creed is a single man with no family.  The ties that bind sway character actions, change the entire plot, provide a WHY, and make us laugh. Don’t cut them.

2>    All good / all evil = boring – Even Voldemort’s back-story is one that evokes a certain amount of pity.  Batman is more popular than Superman because he is a less-than-perfect Dark Knight unlike the Man of Steel. Humans are rarely flawlessly good or entirely evil. This is why there are so many different alignments in D&D. A character’s identity is built from education, race, religious beliefs, and cultural background. Who he/she is and how he/she thinks should flow from the logical impact of each of these elements.

3>    Individuality is important but so is commonality – Characters with commonalities in same education, race, religious beliefs, and cultural background will share similarities. This doesn’t mean that all characters of a certain race or religion will be identical. It doesn’t happen in life so it doesn’t make sense in writing (unless you are writing about clones).  The point is that you must balance logical commonality with character individuality.

4>    Give your character a voice – Writers must think carefully about how each character sounds and behaves.  Different speech patterns and personalities add flavor to a story but not if it flies in the face of logic.  Favored sayings, personality quirks, and speech patterns should make sense as the by-product of the character’s background.  A lot of what connects readers to one character over another exists in the form of facial expressions, movement, and personality traits. This is the meat of characterization– getting the reader intimately acquainted with the characters. Here is where the reader decides who they like and who they hope doesn’t make it.  Characterization is the writer’s tool for sculpting the reader’s opinion.

5>    Make a Question list – I have a list of 20 questions that is indispensable. The idea came from my amazing husband who did much DM’ing (Dungeon Mastering) over the years. Moving from basic things (place of birth, appearance) through personality details (their goal in life, would they sell out) brings each character alive. I have multiple versions for short stories, novels, and series. An abbreviated version is usually enough for supporting characters. The list reminds me what the reader wants to know. It gets me fully acquainted with my characters. Not every bit of it appears in my story but as a writer, intimate knowledge of a character is an utter necessity to maintain consistency.

Sample Characterization List

There are many other things I’ve learned and not all of them from role-playing. Characters can save or ruin a story.  Invest in them and your reader will become invested as well.

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Melody-Ann Kaufmann

Melody-Ann Kaufmann

Melody-Ann Kaufmann is a Systems Developer for University of Florida, wife of a techno genius, a student completing her MS in Information Security, mother of two autistic children, writer, geek, gamer, anime & manga consumer, avid reader of eclectic works, web comic connoisseur, and the owner of a horse-sized dog. She can be found on Twitter @Safireblade & FaceBook here. Her fledgling website can be found at Safireblade.com.

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20 thoughts on “What D’n D Taught me About Characterization

  1. Great post, Melody-Ann. I especially like point number 4. I’m amazed sometimes when I can read just the dialogue in a story and know who’s talking. As Allan Douglas points out in his comment, it’s difficult to do.

  2. Pingback: Writers, Why Are Character Lists a Waste of Time? | Daily (w)rite

  3. Raine, I am so glad to give you a new angle on DnD. In many ways I feel role-playing can really help a fantasy write understand the role of a storyteller & with understanding the psychological background of the reader – Many DM’s are great Storytellers even though they may not be great writers.

  4. Great advice and a wonderfully written post. Thanks to both of you for this information. Building interesting and complex characters takes patience and practice. The methods you outline really simplify that.

    • I’m glad it was useful and you enjoyed it. I agree it takes a lot of patience and practice for me I needed a streamlined method that didn’t cheat the reader

  5. Excellent post, Melody! I never start a story without character sketches that contain a lot of detailed information…some of which might not ever make it into the story, but I know it, and can write my characters more effectively because of it. I never looked at DnD in quite this way, but I couldn’t agree more!

  6. Rick, are you referring to the Kenzer & Co. KoDT? I’ve read a few of them but will definitely take a closer look at your recommendation.

    I think a lot of what a writer does in there non-writing time impacts (whether they realize it or not) the way they write. It’s just more obvious with gamers like us.

    For the record – that orphanage attacked me first ;)

  7. Ciara, if you want I can send you the sheets I use for supporting and ancillary characters, as well the speech sheet I use for building distinct patterns of speech – I love your characterizations too – you’ll have to share with me how you build yours

  8. Kelly, I completely agree – the method of keeping the information isn’t nearly as important as it is to collect the information in a place you can refer to it consistently – a spreadsheet is a great idea particularly if you are working with a large cast.

  9. Allan, it means neither but it does it excuse it. I’m a strong, stubborn, smart woman but one of my characters is innocent, sweet, & down right naive so it’s real work to keep her in line. Try making a detailed background & personality sheet for each character. I refer to mine constantly and think – “does this sound in line with this characters personality?” I even have some speech lists for certain characters. It also allows me to line the sheets up and see if I have too many extremely similar characters. Hope this helps.

  10. Sandra I am so glad you enjoyed the post – I enjoyed writing it. Readers when they are invested in the characters are very loyal and forgiving if a later book drags more than the first few – as long as the author doesn’t stay at the level for long :)

  11. Excellent post. I’m always happy to meet another writer / gamer. My gaming tends to influence my characters as well but more in a “Knights of the Dinner Table” fashion (if you haven’t read that comic, you should). My top lesson learned from D&D: a group of adventurers + an orphanage = disaster. :)

  12. My alignment would be chaotic good. Just so’s you know :-)
    I’m pinching your character list. I want to build my own and I have another sample to start with but I have a sneaking suspicion yours might be a better base for fantasy!

  13. Wonderful, Melody. I like your characterization list. I have something similar that I keep more in spreadsheet form, because it’s easier for me to keep track of. But the no matter how one keeps the info, it is very valuable.

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

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