Character Building Without Writing: Playing your Protagonist into Existence

Sometimes, in fiction writing, you have a really good idea for a certain type of character, but you’re not sure what story to put him in.

Sometimes, you have a good idea for a story, but struggle with building a character.

Sometimes you want to share that idea with the world and tell your character’s story, but you don’t have the slightest idea how to start. In fact, that’s probably most of the time.

When I’m faced with a situation like that, I put my character through something like a stress test. That is to say, I’ll put said character through a number of unusual scenarios to see how they act. In other words, I role-play them.

The amount of choice given to players in modern role-playing games (RPGs) is ever-increasing, chiefly because the point of playing them is the ability to, you know, role play. Historically, video game RPGs have considered “role playing” as basically stepping into the role of a pre-fabricated character and playing through his/her story. And your story-building options are twofold: win, or lose.

Now, there are more options. RPGs now allow players to customize physical appearance,

Video game screenshot: A man's face on a digital device with sliders for changing his appearance
Fallout 3

choices in what to do throughout the story,


Video Game screenshot: A box full of dialogue options about what the player-character should do next in the game.
Fallout: New Vegas

and interactions with other characters,

Video Game screenshot: an on-screen character apologizes for a mistake, under which there are three differently-toned player-controlled dialogue options.
Mass Effect

including options for romance and sexuality.

Video game screenshot: non-player dialogue: "But I never want to leave you." Player's dialogue options are "I love you," "I'm hungry," and "Get out of here."
Dragon Age

Throughout these games, you make decisions on a constant basis concerning what kind of character you’re building. The game will change to fit your choices, whether through plot-based events, changes in appearance, or in the types of interactions experienced with in-game characters.

This makes for a fun, immersive experience when you’re simply looking to play a game.

But what if you used this function for character building? Suddenly, you cease to make these decisions as yourself, and instead start making decisions as your character. In the process, you have to make decisions about things you would never have thought about before.

What skills does your character have? How would your character react given a difficult life-or-death choice? How does your character interact with other people? How do they react to your character?

If you’re not sure how others will react to the things you do in the game, that’s okay. Often the game is more than willing to tell you.

The situation you throw your character into may not be canon to what you want them to go through, but putting them through the kinds of experiences you find in these games can help you to learn who your character really is.

A reasonable counter-point to this is that when you’re writing a character, sometimes the way you want them to react to a situation is not accurately reflected in the limited dialogue options offered to you by the game. But ultimately, this is a good thing! If you can recognize that as you go through, make a note of it! It means you are coming to understand your character.

Ultimately, this kind of thing isn’t going to write your story for you, and when you finish the game, it certainly isn’t going to spit out exactly how these experiences relate to your own piece of fiction. But if you want to get a better feel for who your character(s) is (are), projecting them onto an existing narrative to play out how they react is a good way to learn new things about your own creations.

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