Imagining Story Characters as RPG Players

As an old Dungeons and Dragons™ player, I sometimes think about my characters in terms of how I would role-play them. This allows me to crawl into their mind and understand their motivation in any given situation. The moral and motivational terms used are general but completely applicable to most fiction characters.

For those of you unfamiliar with role-playing games, the game’s characters are made up, with their characteristics shown through a series of numbers for each attribute. A role of one or two is terrible while an eighteen to twenty is freaking awesome. The characteristics may vary in name across the different RPG games but tend to include some indication of strength, dexterity, wisdom, intelligence, and charisma, along with a host of more minor attributes.

Alignment: Law and Morals

When I think of RPG characters, however, I don’t think of numbers and abilities. I think in terms of Dungeon and Dragon’s alignment features. Every creature (elf, troll, halfling, human, or even dragon) has an alignment that defines two distinct traits: personal morality and the attitude towards the local legal system. These two factors help provide motivation for every decision the character makes. For instance, will the orc prefer money for a job or perform the task out of loyalty to his ruler?

The alignment forms from the conjunction of two terms and three choices per each term. The legal concepts are lawful, neutral, or chaotic and the moral choices involve being good, neutral, or evil.

Characterizations: Hero, Lawman or Villain?

If you think of your story’s character in terms of some mix of these ideas, the motivation towards any action becomes obvious. Here is a list of what attributes lead to a particular kind of character.

Lawful good: The perfect hero. He follows the law and is generally caring about strangers.

Lawmen. Ideally they are lawful good.

This person never speeds, never lies (unless it avoids hurting someone), nor will he ever break his vow. A good example is the classic comic book Superman or the law man in most western movies.

 

Lawful neutral: Many of us fall in this category. This group probably includes the most honest politicians and lawyers because they are bound to the law although their actions may, at times, be not nice. Shepard from Firefly is close to the attribute. He is a normally moral, law-abiding man who takes up a gun when faced with real evil.

Lawful evil: In a nutshell, Hitler, Ming the Merciless, or Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall fame. This villain twists the law to their own selfish gains. In some cases, the person must create the legal situation to cause the evil. Since this person is still bound by what he sees the morals of society, the motivation involves a lot of subtlety.

Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, played artfully by Max von Sydow

Neutral good: This character is a damaged hero. He is a good man at heart who has no problem ignoring society’s rules for the protection of the innocent. Examples include Batman and John Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame.

Neutral neutral: If you play a character with this, you have a lot of freedom to make any decision you want but the character is often a bit dull. Many NPC (nonplayer characters) or background characters might have this alignment. One case might be the Wizard of Oz from the movie. He worked the system but didn’t really care about good or evil. He simply did what helped his situation the most.

Neutral evil: This organized villain is very methodical and deceptive. Often very disciplined, this character doesn’t care about the law either way but has clear malevolent intentions. Examples include Jubal Early from Firefly, Bobba Fett from Star Wars, or Dexter from the show of the same name.

Chaotic good: This person is the borderline anti-hero. For him, the ends justify the means as long as some good comes out of his actions. Models include the movie version of Wolverine and Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly.

Chaotic neutral: This avatar is the true anti-hero. You can’t predict which way he will go

Beautiful and deadly River Tam played by Summer Glau.

in a battle. For example, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes loved the puzzles of crime fighting but didn’t care about the victims. Others might include James Bond, River Tam, or even Deadpool.

 

Chaotic evil: This is the embodiment of one bat-crap crazy villain. This person is the true cold-hearted psychopath. Although he might disguise his nature, he can’t love or care about anyone. The Joker, Moriarty in the modern Sherlock Holmes BBC production, and Hannibal Lecter are all excellent examples.

Attributes in the Book World

However, the writer must remember that these are broad labels simplifying characters for easier gaming. RPG folks often use these games to safely explore the darker sides of their thoughts and desire without ever really showing this face to society. Then again, isn’t that what writers do as well when they create their people and worlds?

But a book’s character must be more complex. For a great story, they should go through an evolution somehow, possibly into a different moral code. After all, an anti-hero can evolve into a true hero for the right reasons, such as a great love or revenge. Deadpool is an excellent example of this.

These attributes are simplistic, of course. Yet considering how difficult it is for an author to get inside a character’s head, I’m all for any concept that makes the process easier. After all, the best characters dance on the edges of shame, brilliance, greatness, or insanity. Understanding and even playing on that edge alongside them is where the best stories begin.

Happy writing!

Nerds? Geeks? How about We Ditch the Labels.

I’m a nerd, or geek, however you want to phrase it. I love sci-fi, comics, steampunk, complex board games, fantasy creatures, urban fantasy books, and cosplaying as a highborn lady for any local Renaissance festival. I’ve introduced PMS into Dungeons and Dragons when my character needed a good excuse for fire-balling some grumpy dwarves. I’ve been a geek so long that I understand what Heinlein meant by “groking” someone. (If you get that reference, bless you. You’re old too.) In fact, this year I may vote for Cthulu for President, figuring he actually might be the lesser of two evils.Cthulhu, pictured on the campaign trail.Even more so, for the most part my family could substitute for any number of the characters on The Big Bang Theory. We own light sabers and have fought with them. We play Magic: The Gathering (known as Mystic Warlord of Ka’a on TBBT) along with Star Realms, Fluxx, Dominion, and many others. If a blue police box vibrated into reality in front of me, I’d not hesitate to step inside and meet the Doctor. We quote movies at each other, have IMDB as a favorite app, and answer the phone in Huttese. And don’t even get me started on my AFOL Lego collection!

Nerd? Geek?

Now I want to write a book that involves this somewhat specialized group of people who love things whimsical, futuristic, powerful, and wildly different from the “average” person, or ‘danes as we call them (short for mundanes). We are a great and growing population that was stigmatized in the past. We wander down different thought paths in search of the great beyond or the magic deep inside.

However, in desiring to name the genre of this new book, I wanted to avoid hurting people in this lovely group. What should I call them? Nerds and geeks were the tags most often used. Traditionally “nerd” was a bit of a social misfit but not necessarily smart, while geek was an almost idiot savant smart person in only one category, now usually associated with computers.

What Rules in the Name Game

For more views, I reached out to others with that question. The answers I got back were wide and in some ways astounding. Some talked about which words were less offensive. A few said they wore the monikers with pride. Others suggested alternatives like “the fandom life.” It doesn’t have the negative connotations but also is a bit too vague, in my opinion. A few responders said nerd was more akin to social awkwardness while geek has a “passionate fan vibe.” I think the Nerdarchy people might disagree with this, however. One beautiful, intelligent lady even declared she was called the “Dork Queen” for years. Really? And that’s not nasty? She didn’t think so, so more power to her!

“I aim to misbehave”

Finally I decided, “Ditch the labels.” I hated them anyway. These name tags foster unnecessary bigotry and separateness. We have nothing to be ashamed of. I can’t think of one negative aspect about living the “nerdly life.” My people are dreamers, builders, teachers, explorers, readers, lovers, and so much more. We stand proud, wizards and superheroes next to storm troopers and airship commanders.

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Steampunk fans gather at Renaissance Faire in Bristol, Illinois one weekend every summer.

If you in the mundane world doubt any of this, just take a look at any of the original 1960s Star Trek episodes. The communicators then are the cell phones of today and Yeoman Rand always presented Kirk with a box to sign forms. Her small computer embraced the idea of the modern day tablet. Some of the members of the fandom collective invented these wonderful modern conveniences by being inspired by the possibility of “what if.”

So here’s to the fandom life! Or as Jayne would say, “Shiny! Let’s be bad guys!”

And look here to share one of my theme songs. Talk Nerdy to Me