Writing Characters & Role-Playing Games

vintage computer.jpg

Similar to my first computer.

Today’s post is going to look at how earlier role-playing games (RPGs) introduced the basic concept of archetypes to me when I was younger without me even realizing it.  For those of you who are nerd types, this post will likely appeal to you.  For those of you who aren’t, perhaps you’ll find some of it amusing.

When I was twelve or so, my dad surprised my mom and I with a new computer.  I should preface this by saying my dad was notoriously tight with his money.  I say this in a good way.  The comforts I enjoyed as a young boy were due to my parent’s ability to manage a limited budget.  Regardless, I was awe struck.  It was sometime in the late 90s.  We weren’t the most technologically advanced family out there (I grew up on a farm) so this wiz-bang addition was mind boggling.  The new computer had amazing features!  It came with a mouse, and a color screen was now standard.  This new computer also unlocked a new world for me.  The world of in-depth RPGs.

baldurs gate.jpgThat following Christmas, I received Baldur’s Gate from my parents.  I carefully opened the box with the smiling skull on it and looked at the five discs.  Five discs!  This game was going to be huge.

Christmas was at my grandma’s house.  Needless to say, I was chomping at the bit the whole hour plus drive home.  The game box came with an instruction book and a little map.  I must have read the book ten times before we got home.

I popped in Disk 1 and waited through the installation.  I couldn’t believe how fast it was going!  It must have taken less than an hour to install all of it (if only I knew how technology would evolve).  The game fired up and I was blown away by an amazing cinematic.

Baldur's Gate Intro.jpg

I quickly clicked “New Game.”  The game asked me to build a character.  I would be a sword and shield wielding hero!  Then it asked me to select my alignment.  The question caught me off-guard.  The younger me thought, “Heroes are only good…duh!” I selected Lawful Good and off to the races I went.

baldur's gate logo.jpgAs I began the game (in a state of sheer wonderment) I began clicking and watching as my character navigated around.  I clicked on a person and to my surprise a dialogue box popped up.

[Note:  From here on out I am roughly recalling the dialogue and actions of the game.  If you played the game, don’t bust my proverbial balls too much if my memory fails me.]

The computer character I clicked said something to the extent of, “There are rats in my cellar, if you help me out I’ll give you a reward.”

baldurs gate gameplay.jpgI selected the most heroic option.  “Leave it to me!”  With that, I moused the character to the house, found the cellar door, and brought down the fury of lawful goodness down on their rodent heads.  I nearly died.  My baby character was either using a crappy dagger or his fists.  I can’t really remember.  But I do remember my heart pounding because I thought I was going to die five minutes into the game.

After the battle, I noticed I could click on the environment.  I figured it would be foolhardy to not reward myself with some items from this cellar.  As I clicked a chest and opened it there were a few items inside.  However, instead of saying, “take these items,” it said, “steal these items.”

I quickly navigated away.  I would not be tempted by the fruits of evil.  Nay I say!  I found the gentlemen who assigned me the task and informed him of my glorious success.  He responded, and again, there were different options to respond with.  I could accept a small reward, or just say something to the extent of, “Think nothing of it.  I can’t accept a reward for helping a person in need.”  A heroes glory is reward enough after all…I selected the the no-reward option.  I continued playing the game in this manner.  Never straying from my Lawful Good alignment.

baldurs gate character.jpgAs minutes turned into hours, and I continued to explore and play, the dark side started calling to me.  Wouldn’t it be more fun to have just punched that first guy in the face and stolen his promised reward?  Then I could have went into his cellar and looted it as well.  I considered how much more powerful my character would be if I had chosen a different path.

I saved my progress, went back to the main menu, and created a new character.  This one would be Chaotic Evil.  I would do whatever the heck I pleased and reap the rewards!  The game was much harder to play in this manner.  Suddenly game mechanics popped up and began murdering me.  Magical police forces would materialize and blast my character into oblivion.  It didn’t matter what I tried to do, there was no escape.  Where the heck were these guys while I was getting mauled by rats when I was lawfully good?

baldurs gate map.jpgThen I considered that perhaps a blended option would be best.  Maybe not a total goody two shoes, but someone who was willing to take a reward and cut corners every now and then.  I selected a Neutral Good character, that seemed to fit the bill.  For me, this yielded the most enjoyable results and allowed me to wander in ways that didn’t confine me to alignment.

I noticed that each character gained different benefits/consequences in the game world.  For instance, when I would encounter a shopkeeper how they responded to me would be different depending on my character alignment and my previous actions.  I would click on the shopkeeper and indicate I wanted to purchase or sell some gear and these could be the shopkeeper responses.

  • Lawful Good: I’ve heard of you good adventurer, enjoy this discount. 
  • Lawful Neutral: Welcome to the shop.  Feel free to browse my wares. 
  • Chaotic Evil : Guards!  He’s here!  KILL HIM!

Flashing forward to now, this concept is no real revelation.  Most modern RPGs are carefully crafted and written.  They all have built in mechanics to reward/punish you for the choices your characters make.  It’s standard.  But back then, it challenged my perception of what a hero could be.  After all, even as a chaotic evil character (exercising moderate restraint) I could still win the game and beat the big bad boss.

skyrim.jpgTo this day, when I play a RPG I typically create three characters.  A good one, a bad one, and a neutral one.  I want to see what the game developers and writers built into the game to cope with these types of characters and their subsequent decisions.  For me, it adds a whole new dimension to the game play.

I encourage you to apply this same methodology to your writing.  Especially when you are outlining and creating characters.  Consider how the character’s alignment will impact their interaction with the world you are creating.  Really take the time to fully realize this early on.  Make sure you select an alignment that will offer the most interesting and rewarding results in your story.

The benefit you gain when writing (which most RPGs fall short on) is the characters you create can evolve in your world.  Their world views and alignments can change.  In essence, you control the character arc and can direct it in a way that best elevates your story.  It just needs to be believable.

question markAs for me,  I think I’m going to track down Baldur’s Gate and take a trek down memory lane.  We’ll call it research.  If you are a gamer, was there an RPG that really impacted your view on characters and what they can do?  If you’re not a gamer, do you take the time to consider character alignment and how it impacts your character?  Are there particular character alignments you find especially appealing to read and write about?  I’d love to hear about.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!  (Keep gaming too.)

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Template for Tracking Character Arcs

I had a couple emails from folks regarding how I track character arcs.  Specifically about the extra notes I take chapter to chapter to track changes in character.  I’ve talked about character arcs in the past here (use in self-editing) and here (what they are).  I do have a standard template I work from and attach to chapters as I roll through.

Below is the one I mocked up a while ago.  I just recently converted it to Flickr so you can click on the image below and print it out if you need it.  It’s been formatted to fit a standard piece of printer paper (landscape) so you should have no trouble printing.

It’s pretty self explanatory as you look at it, so I won’t go into any great detail about how to use it.  If you do have questions about it, don’t be afraid to leave a comment. I’m pretty good at getting back to people.  I destroy trees at an alarming rate so I just print them off as I need them.  This template would cover six chapters.

Character Arc Tracking Sheet.jpg

Give the image a click and get teleported via interweb majesty to my Flickr page.  You can print a higher-resolution version there.  Created by me, and as always, free to use and share.

 

Today is a mercifully short post, but provides you a handy tool.  If you can get your beta readers to use something like this – you win the prize.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Archetypes: Threshold Guardians

A while ago, we went on an adventure and traced the lines of The Hero’s Journey.  We talked about the hidden pulse flowing through most of the stories we read and see.  Today we are going to hit the trail again, and test our mettle against some threshold guardians.

dragon attack.jpgHave you heard of these beasts?  If not, strap on your armor, quiff a potion, grab your sharpest quill, and let’s break it down.

The scholar Christopher Vogler penned in his dusty tome, The Writer’s Journey, that, “At each gateway to a new world there are powerful guardians at the threshold, placed to keep the unworthy from entering.  They present a menacing face to the hero, but if properly understood, they can be overcome, bypassed, or even turned into allies” (p. 63).

I have created a bestiary of sorts to catalog some of the various types to assist you in your quest.  Oh, and for you more seasoned explorers, a threshold guardian is considered by some as a type of archetype.  If archetypes are unfamiliar to you,  touch this stone, and the information will be telepathically linked into your brain.  Now let’s examine some of these garden variety beasties.

semicolon monster.jpgThe Underling.  They haven’t achieved super-villain status yet, but they are trying.  You can find them in the tavern throwing darts at pictures of unicorns, boxing unwary peasants, and ordering lesser life forms around. These are your mercenaries in the woods, giant stone golems barring entry into the mine, or the big bosses second-in-command.

The Unwitting Barrier.  These foes have no allegiances.  In fact, they may not even be foes.  It doesn’t mean they won’t test your resolve.  Sometimes the jackals feast on the leftovers of the dragon.  While the dragon is your enemy, you will still have to contend with those toothy little scavengers – be it by sword, or by cunning.

scale of justice.pngThe Scale of Judgement.  You’ve battled your way across the land leaving a trail of destruction behind you.  This has attracted the attention of great powers – curious powers.  These super-powered entities enforce balance.  Even if you slay the dragon, if you destroy the world doing it, you are no better.  These entities will appear and test both your heart and your body.  Pass their tests, and they will offer knowledge and/or powers.  Fail, and be ground into the dirt and serve as cautionary tale to those who follow.

The Switcheroo.  Sometimes the underling doesn’t want to be an underling.  They were strong armed into it.  You can cut them down or enlist them to your cause. Never forget, while sometimes smelly and verbally obtuse, these switcheroos have unique insight into their boss’s inner circle.

The Inanimate Object.  Stupid door, wall, mountain, swamp, ocean, rubik’s cube!  These may just seem like boring obstacles to overcome, but they are something more.  The door can teach you an important lesson about locks.  The mountain can offer you perspective on resolve.  Not to mention the grip strength.  Seriously.  Climb a mountain wearing full plate and you will have fingers that can crush boulders.  That might be useful for say, a stone golem!  Every barrier stopping you is a chance to become stronger, wiser, and more well-rounded.

link v link.jpg

Very cool artwork from ComicVine.  Image ‘Link’ed back to artist!

Yourself.  No, not a conjured doppelganger hell bent on your stealing your life, but your inner self.  Your own fear and hesitation can serve as powerful threshold guardian.  You must take a leap of faith, face your own fears and weaknesses, and transcend.  What use is a flaming sword if you fear fire, or the power to walk on water if you fear drowning?  Often times, the threshold guardian we conjure in our mind is greater than any perceived foe.

Are you ready?  While my bestiary may not be totally complete, (the last two heroes never returned so I didn’t get updated information) it’s a good starting point.

The beauty of examining archetypes, and sub-types, is it opens your mind to the possibilities of merging different concepts.  By understanding the sheer number of available archetypes, and blending them in a way that suits our purposes, we can move away from stereotypes and create multi-dimensional characters.

warrior.jpgWhen it comes to threshold guardians, they are the fodder that builds your characters.  Each obstacle (threshold guardian), is a chance for you to shape that character in a different way.  Think of a door.  A character can turn the doorknob, use a key, kick it down, blow it up, remove the hinges, pick the lock, or get someone else to open it up for them.  An action as simple as how they approach a door can drastically change the way we perceive them.  In this way, threshold guardians have great potential to tell volumes about your characters.

What I love about the concept of threshold guardians, is outside of fiction, we contend with them in our own lives.  If we can just be willing to accept that we have the heart of a hero, we can look at these struggles as chances to improve.  Do you have some examples you would like to add to the bestiary?  Or perhaps some instances where a threshold guardian knocked your socks off?  I’d love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp.

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Writing: Subtext in Setting

Text Versus Subtext.jpgToday let’s tackle subtext in setting.  Subtext, when we rip away all the frills and look at it naked, is the unique theme or style hidden within your writing.  It’s the feeling and unspoken sentiments your words relay.  Whether you are tackling dialogue or narrative input, subtext is present.  This sub-textual feeling is often based on whichever character is offering this information.

Here’s a real world concept to help you visualize this idea.  When I was a Combat Cameraman in the Navy, I would attach with combat units and document their missions.  Many of those missions were nighttime raids to apprehend wanted men.  Because of the equipment I had been issued, and my training with it, I could collect visual intelligence in the dark – literally.  This is why I was useful.

Now that’s the background.  Let’s get to the point.

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This photo was taken by Michael Watkins, who was stationed at Combat Camera with me.

During a mission the team would breach the door, flow into the building, secure the area, and sometimes someone would be there to apprehend, and sometimes it was what they call a, “dry-hole.” This meant it was empty.  Regardless, I would flow into the building at the rear of the assaulting team, provide backup, and as soon as the area was secured, my rifle would hang and my cameras would come up.  I would document anything and everything I could find that seemed relevant, and some things that were seemingly irrelevant.

After the mission was over and we got back to wherever we were staying, I used my portable workstation to compile photos and video into an After Action Report (AAR).  The next morning/night the team, and the local combatant commander (person in charge of all operations in the region) would assemble.  The team would provide a verbal AAR.  Each member of the team (which ranged from 6-12) would provide a rundown of what they saw, what they gathered, what went right, and what went wrong.

talking about the plan.jpgThis is where the idea of subtext in setting really comes into play.  While many of their recollections were similar, each one was different.  Each person focused on a different aspect of the mission.  The guy who specialized in breaching (knocking down doors, windows, and walls) would talk about how the breaching went, then his description from inside varied.  The team leader would talk about coordination, but his description from inside, again,  varied.  The intelligence guy would talk about artwork, posters, and murals he observed and what those meant – and so on.

Each one of their perspectives and descriptions of setting and events were limited by their own worldview.  While they all talked about the same thing, each one of their perspectives was different.  That’s important to realize.

play on video.pngThen I would push play on the video I compiled of the mission.  I always found it very interesting (rewarding) when my video offered them insights they missed.  I didn’t have tactical advice to offer, I didn’t specialize in breaching or tactics or the analysis of intelligence, I specialized in observation and collection.  I had been trained to collect everything and anything in a very small amount of time.  I didn’t speak, my video spoke for me.  In this way, I was almost a omniscient observer of setting (i.e. an unbiased viewpoint of the events).

This was real life.  And this also serves as a solid foundation for how we should approach writing setting from a characters point of view.  Let’s play with some made up narrative from a mission.  For the purpose of subtext in setting, let’s focus on the initial entry by an assault force.

*Forgive my sloppiness, I’m making up this next part as I go*

Team Leader Perspective

This site was like every site we deal with in the region.  Dirt walls about 8-feet high, and a sliding metal gate closing off entry to the two-story mud and brick building.  My guys were tucked up tight on the wall, stacked neatly chest to back, and safe from any potential threat.  I signaled for the breach and indicated a chain was barring our path.  The breacher rolled up, cut the chain with bolt cutters, and we flowed in.

eagle eye.jpgSubtext:  We have a viewpoint from the most experienced person on the team.  The information isn’t highly detailed, because in reality, he is looking at the situation like an eagle from above.  There is a feeling of confidence (i.e. this isn’t the first building like this, my guys were in a safe position, the stack was neat).

Breacher Perspective

We were stacked up against a clay and sand wall.  It would stop a bullet, but nothing more.  I had my shoulder tight against the man in front of me and was waiting for the Team Leader to give me the signal.  The Team Leader signaled for me and indicated a chain.  I didn’t expect a chain, but was prepared.  I pulled the bolt-cutters out of my breaching bag, moved quietly up to the gate, and gave the chain a once over.  The lock was pretty fancy for this area, not something a local would have access to.  I snapped the bolt cutters through the lock, slid the door open, and stepped back for the team to flow in.  As they passed by I pocketed the lock.

clear the way.jpgSubtext: This viewpoint is from someone with a specific job: defeat doors, walls, and other obstacles.  From his viewpoint, the wall suddenly isn’t so solid.  The locked chain is not something normal.  The lock is even more unique.  This viewpoint, offers additional insight. And a feeling that perhaps there is something more to this site.

The takeaway.  When offering your reader setting information, sometimes how something is described is more important than what is being described.  Also work to make setting descriptions as unique as the people offering them.  Much like the example I offered above, each fictional character is a unique person with a unique worldview.

Here are some solid resources:

That’s it for today.  Do you have any additional ideas or concepts you could share about subtext?  I would love to hear them.  I’m always looking to add tools to the ol’ toolbox.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Build & Control Characters: Dungeon Style

Critical HitA few weeks ago I shared a post about how I sometimes (when bored or low on inspiration/creativity) use dice to create chaos for my characters.  Letting the roll of of the die determine how effective a character is at coping with a situation.  If you missed that day – it’s here.  Today I wanted to talk about how I use character sheets to keep track of characters, build them, manage what they are carrying/wearing, and also how I sometimes use dice to build minions.

This method hearkens back to my nerd roots, and nights spent playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) down in the basement with my best buddies.  If you have no concept of what D&D is, give episode one of Stranger Things a try on Netflix (if you haven’t watched this series, you can thank me later).

First, I thought I would show you an example of what a character sheets looks like.  You can simply use a search engine and type, “Dungeons and Dragons Character Sheet,” to find endless variations.  Or, if you are already keen to the concept, make you own.

character sheet.jpg

Now you have a rough concept of what character sheets look like (if you had no idea what I was rambling on about before).  Like I mentioned earlier, these are just two variations – there are hundreds of them online you can print out.  Now let’s tackle some uses of them.

arrows.jpgManage Inventory.  Depending on the setting of your book, gear (the things your character carries) might really matter.  In the novel I am finishing up now, Wastelander, gear is limited.  People have to scavenge and build the things they need.  One of my Alpha Readers is quick to point out things like, “Dude, are you sure Jim has arrows left?” or, “Why didn’t they use [insert item]?”.

These are important continuity issues that must be addressed.  When I get into a writing rhythm, I don’t like to scroll back pages to try to recount how many of an item is left.  I just take a guess and move forward and tell myself I’ll fix it in rewrites. Using a character sheet can help you keep track of those items and speed you right along.

character template.jpgWhat the heck does you character look like?  I’m not a big fan of blasting out two or three paragraphs describing characters as they show up in the book, but that doesn’t mean I don’t slowly reveal how the character looks.  I like to sprinkle description in dialogue and narrative to slowly build the character over time.

A character sheet is an easy way to record what your character is wearing and some of their physical traits.  If you are an artist (lucky) you can sketch them out.  By having this quick reference handy while you write you can sprinkle in character description along with dialogue and narrative as beats (i.e. “My hand shot up to the black leather stitching of my eye patch.  It was still there.”).

It also lets you keep track of the condition of what they are wearing.  This is another continuity issue you can run into.  Alpha Reader: “Bro, he fell down a cliff last chapter.  Shouldn’t his clothes/gear be messed up now?” Yes Alpha Reader, they should be.

strength.pngQuick reference for character statistics.  While you may have a cement foundation built for how your main character looks and acts, some of those supporting characters may not be as fully developed.  Character sheets can allow you to record character statistics (i.e. Strength, Charisma, Intelligence, Dexterity, Constitution).

Maybe you are building a supporting character and aren’t sure what they should look like just yet?  Grab some die, give them roll, and start assigning values.  What makes D&D fun is the characters are built around luck.  When you first generate a character in D&D you had to roll die/dice to determine those statistics, as you play through the game you are now saddled with those traits.

diceGenerate Characters.  Maybe you need to make some minions.  Here’s an easy way to do it.

Let’s say you are using two six-sided dice.  The worst number you could roll would be a 2 and the best would be 12.  So if you are determining Strength (can they punch through walls and carry cars), Constitution (do they stay healthy or does a paper cut cause massive infection), Dexterity (how nimble are they), Charisma (can they talk their way out of situations), and Intelligence (master tactician) – you have five statistics to work with.

Roll five times and record the numbers.  Then assign those totals to the character however you want.  Now you are saddled with a character that is competent at some things, and terrible at others.

Use sheet to record character arc.  I recently wrote a post on character arcs here.  If you are using character sheets to keep track of your characters you can also record important things that happen to them as you write.

Character Arc TrackerAt the close of a chapter I like to scribble down things like, “Drake realizes so-and-so is betraying him.”  Doing this gives you a quick reference to look at as you write.  You can, at a glance, recall important things that have already happened to a character.  This should help you navigate them through the story in a more believable manner.

That’s it for character sheets.  For me, I like physical things like character sheets.  References and tangible items help me sink into the world I am creating.  Often times, having a quick reference to guide me, helps me move my characters in a believable manner.  It is also nice when you are managing a host of characters.  It can get tough to keep track of everything when we fall into our worlds, tools like this can act like a compass.

Do you use character sheets?  Do you have some other method of keeping track of your wandering character?  I’d love to hear about it.  I’m always looking to improve my craft.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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What the Heck is a Character Arc?

character arc.png

Click the image for the source: the 5 Minute Workday.  Awesome site!

M.L.S. Weech recently wrote a post talking about how he had to change a couple character arcs in his upcoming novel Caught.  It got me to thinking, maybe I should touch on character arcs.  After all, the first time I heard of character arcs I didn’t have a clue what it meant.  I nodded my empty head, acted like I was checking my phone messages, and quickly did a Google search.  A few years later I have a better grasp of the concept.  So here’s a basic intro for you all to sink your teeth into.

*Failure Log: 000201  It is here I would normally talk about the origins of the term, character arc.  Wouldn’t you know it, I was unable to find the origins of the term.  I was curious as to who coined the term.  Everyone loves an origins story!  If you have some insight – please drop me a line.

When people talk about character arcs it’s really just a fancy way of saying, “a characters journey.”  Each character in your work should undergo changes (ideally) through the duration of the story.  A character arc is a way for you to track those changes.

(Beware!  Lord of the Rings and Hobbit references incoming…)

hobbit hole.jpgBeing a Tolkien fanboy, I think of Bilbo Baggins.  He is plucked from his cushy hobbit hole, thrust into a great adventure, goes through many changes, resolves the conflict, and returns home a different hairy-footed hobbit.  He has a very dynamic arc.

While his arc is interesting and enjoyable, think of all the other characters from the book series.  Frodo, Gandalf, Samwise, Aragorn, and the list goes on.  If you pluck each one of these characters out of the book, chart their progressions individually, you will see major shifts in their arcs.  Arguably, it’s one reason why The Hobbit, which was written in 1937, is still relevant today.

The point of character arcs is to prevent your character from being flat.  By this we mean the character changes very little throughout the story.  If the reader senses no emotional changes or growth in your characters they will be left feeling hollow.

If the concept of character arcs is completely foreign to you, here are a couple resources to check out.

How to Write Character Arcsis an article by K.M. Weiland.  She does an outstanding job of explaining the concept and even digs a little deeper by offering examples of positive change arcs, negative change arcs, and flat arcs.  If you like the article, she has written a few books on the subject as well.  The two I would recommend (in regards to this specifically) are Crafting Unforgettable Characters and Structuring Your Novel.crafting unforgettable characters.jpg

Veronica Sicoe, is an author and blogger.  She wrote an article called, The 3 Types of Character Arc – Change, Growth and Fall.  Not only is her article really solid and spot on, it’s a hilarious read (seriously, her writing style is glorious).  She offers insight into what character arcs are and offers three types: change arc, growth arc, and fall arc.

I‘m not going to try to re-explain what these two have already done perfectly.  What I will offer is how I track arcs when I self-edit, and when I edit for clients/friends.

As I read/write I jot down characters as they appear in the story on a piece of paper.  At the conclusion of the chapter I write whatever it was they did.  Sometimes the character does nothing.  Sometimes they punch a hole in someones chest, and in doing so, learn a greater lesson about life and love.  I keep a separate piece of paper for each character.

Character Arc Tracker

Here is an example of what I use.  Feel free to use it yourself.  Image is linked to my Flickr.

 

As the book progresses I continue to add events onto the character pages.  Once the book is completed I look at the character sheets individually.  This is when I can really see the change in the characters.  Does hero #1 simply crush everything in his path?  Does he/she ever really get challenged?  Sure it can be cool to have a hero that is a demi-god and smites every obstacle foolish enough to present itself, but in the way of emotional content this can be a fail.

Looking at it on paper lets me cut through the pages of extra information and focus specifically on the character minus all the other frills.  As writers we tend to get lost in the story and can lose track of what all our characters are doing (or how they are growing).  It’s also effective because so many writers focus mainly on the protagonist and antagonist.

one ring.jpgIn the Lord of the Rings series, Samwise Gamgee could have just been a guy who took some punches, carried gear, and groomed his hairy feet.  But no, instead he touched our quivering hearts by saying stuff like, “Come, Mr. Frodo! I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”  What a moment.

Sam wasn’t just carrying Frodo, he was helping to carry the story.  For moments like this to happen in your own writing, each character needs to grow and change.  Character arcs can help make that happen by forcing you to consider the work each one of your characters are doing to elevate the story.

That’s it for today.  Don’t forget, if you are the keeper of character arc lore and know the origins, please share.  Do you have a method of utilizing character arcs?  Do you make doodles or outlines?  I’d love to hear about your processes.  Here is a template I use myself. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Archetypes: Shapeshifting Characters

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Zeus shapeshifting into birds; what a creeper.

When I think of shapeshifters, I think of television shows like Supernatural, and the liquid metal android assassin T-1000 from the Terminator movies.  I also think of the mythology I read when I was a younger.  Stories of Zeus shifting his godly form to seduce women and sow chaos for us mere mortals.

A shapeshifter is a form of archetype (if you are unfamiliar with archetypes you can go here for more information).  While the ones I mentioned above are literally  shapeshifters, they can even be more subtle in the context of fiction.  A shapeshifter can be a chaotic character who constantly switches sides, opinions, and appearance.

Christopher Vogler explains in The Writer’s Journey that, “Shapeshifters change appearance or mood, and are difficult for the hero and the audience to pin down.  They may mislead the hero or keep her guessing, and their loyalty or sincerity is often in question” (p. 75).

subliminal.jpgThere is an interesting psychological component to shapeshifters.  Carl Gustav Jung, the psychologist who developed Jungian Archetypes, believed that on a basic subconscious level we all identify with certain types of characters.  The shapeshifter taps into our human need to categorize people.  When we are unable to do this successfully, this adds another dimension in how we think of the character.

I think we have all met someone who we found to be very attractive, or very repulsive.  It is a shallow way of thinking, but on a certain level, we all do it.  In that moment, we make a snap judgement about the person before we know anything about them.  Often times, our judgments are flawed.

This is one reason why shapeshifters are such a powerful tool.  The ability to cause the reader to make snap judgement allows you the opportunity to surprise them.

Here are a couple concepts to play with and toss into your creative whirlpools.

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I made sweet tea!  Don’t mind the rocks…

Physical observation clashes with emotional understanding.  This is classically revealed in fiction as the femme fatale.  These are the beautiful and enchanting sirens singing songs and luring sailors to their dooms.  Or the damsel in distress who is actually a spider weaving a dangerous web.

This is obviously not gender dependent.  I think of the television show Dexter.  The socially awkward, and seemingly harmless, blood spatter analyst who moonlights as a serial killer.

Regardless of gender, the shapeshifter wears their disguise just as well as they hide their intentions.

These examples don’t just challenge your heroes and add interesting twists to you story, they also impact the readers understanding of the world around them.  It alters the way they look at it.  It enforces the idea that things aren’t always as they seem.

loki.jpgThe convenient shapeshifter.  These are the characters who don personalities and disguises to navigate troublesome situations.  This ability for a character to change who they are adds a level of complexity to the writing.  It can also cause the reader to look at your characters in a different light.

There is something inspiring about the daring hero who uses a disguise to sneak into a enemy hideout and delve out justice.  Or the hero who pretends to be a bad guy just long enough to take out their enemies.

On the flip-side, there is something cowardly and nefarious about the person who changes their personality to make those around them happy, or for the purposes of manipulation.  What makes this sort of character appealing is we all know one.

That’s it for shapeshifters.  If you run into a literal one, you should probably try to kill them with silver (according to Supernatural).  If they are a liquid metal android assassin just run – that’s a complex beast to kill.

I will touch on other archetypes in the future as I become more educated about them.  What are some examples of shapeshifters you have found appealing?  What was it about them that stands out to you?  I would love to know – it’ll help me build my own creations!

Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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