“Let me tell you about my character…”

Using a role-playing game as a jumping off point for your fiction is incredibly common—and incredibly dicey. I’ve shepherded enough slush to know that it’s very easy to be thrown off your game by the rules and conceits of a world that’s not meant to be a novel. If the writer is the DM, the setting might get a lot more love than it should. If the writer is the player, the main character can be too perfect. And whichever side the author is on, there are a lot of things happening that don’t fit the plot in the best way possible: Maybe the characters don’t really grow or change. Maybe the confrontations are more about bad guys being bad and good guys being good than anything the characters might want. Maybe there are just a lot of details about what kind of armor everybody has.

So when I was asked write a second Forgotten Realms book and started riffing on the background of the character I was playing in a current D&D game, I got very concerned. What the hell was I doing? I knew better than this. I had seen what horrors such folly wrought! Horrors like that last sentence!

In the end though, I realized it’s the kind of thing that can go horribly wrong or fantastically right, depending on how much you’re willing to accept change.

This is part of the character summary I gave the DM when we started:
Farideh and Tamurra are twin tieflings raised among the dragonborn of Tymanther after a warrior found them beside the body of their human mother. As such, she and her sister have the cultural notions on honor and fear favored by dragonborn, and they tend to think of humanoids as “squishy.” They hate dragons, and any interaction they have with people is bound to go south, as such, they’ve learned to cover up as much as they can.
Farideh grew up sullen and surly, wanting to fit in with her family, but only feeling separate. As an adult, she’s withdrawn and somewhat depressed. When her enterprising sister captured a banshrae, it tried to trick Farideh into letting it escape. Its simpler tricks exhausted and the executioner’s axe drawing nearer, it offered her a pact. Farideh attempted to throw the banshrae off by offering it her soul—believing that as a tiefling, she does not have one and it would be a lot of fun to make the trapped banshrae angry. But the banshrae leapt on the deal, binding Farideh to the feypact…and leaving her searching for a god to help her reclaim the soul she didn’t think she had. The banshrae, Shemzu, has plans that Farideh knows nothing about. She’s on a fine line here, still wanting to be good but—for the first time in her life—truly outcast and being offered a lot of power.

Now, Brimstone Angels is a complicated story, but at its core, it’s about a young warlock’s struggles to master her pact with a sociopathic entity while being caught in the middle of a plot that could bring civil war to the Hells. It’s about the things she does to try and take control over her life, and the ways in which she has to sacrifice and compromise to do so.

If you’re looking at the same conversion—game to fiction—the most important question to ask is this:  Does this detail support and enhance the story? I find there are four answers. Yes. No. No, but it doesn’t hurt it. Yes, if I adjust it.

In the yes bucket, I liked the tiefling warlock combo—two elements that feed the same dilemma. Tieflings are the descendants of mortals and devils and there’s no denying their heritage: horns, pointy teeth, spooky eyes, even a tail. Warlocks make a pact with a supernatural entity to gain magic. If that entity’s not so good, does that mean the warlock’s not either? If the tiefling’s ancestors are devils, are they born to be bad? Love it. And I like that she’s disconnected from her birth family. It just ramps up that character dilemma in a way that wouldn’t work if you knew her mom and dad were okay folks.

The fact that she’s a twin inspired the character in my book, so I wanted to keep that. And it adds, I think, to that divided worldview. Sometimes she’s her own person, sometimes she feels more like half of a set.

But a lot of things that made for a fun PC, just don’t work for a novel, and belong in the no bucket. I like the fey pact build for playing, but since the book is a lot about what it’s like to be a tiefling, an infernal pact made more sense. And PC Farideh is a lot older—twenty-seven—while the plot that quickly started forming for Brimstone Angels really needed someone just starting to come into herself. If she’s almost thirty and just starting to push boundaries, that’s not an attractive character. So Farideh became seventeen. (Actually, she was supposed to be nineteen, but my editor wanted sixteen, so we met in the middle).

And—despite what people assume about teenagers—the character’s voice rapidly became much less bitchy than my PC’s. She hasn’t had time to lose her idealism yet. In fact, I kind of wanted to play up the fact that she’s nice…well, nice enough. She definitely couldn’t be the sort of person who answers the Aglarondan rescue team’s question of “How did you come to be in this evil island fortress?” with “On a boat.” That person is amusing, but not strong enough to anchor a story on.

The no, but it doesn’t hurt bucket is tricky. While I think most people are capable of recognizing the most egregious items that need to go in the no bucket, the no, but it doesn’t hurt bucket can hide a lot of things that really belong in the former spot.

Take names: A lot of people like names for their PCs that reference real world names (e.g. a warlock called “Shynerbach” amuses the hell out of Texans), other works of fiction (e.g. “Arwen”), or their own names (“Nire…?”). These should all be changed with extreme prejudice in my opinion. If you’re making an in-joke, you’re kicking the reader out of the narrative.

But Farideh just sounds right—soft, but not too soft; pretty, but not too pretty. It doesn’t really add anything a new name wouldn’t, but it doesn’t hurt the way it would if the name made a real world reference or nodded to another work. Even if it’s not obvious:  I might love Verity Kindle from To Say Nothing of the Dog enough to name a daughter after her, but Verity the warlock is just too goddamn precious.

The yes, if I adjust it bucket is where you save the things that really belong in the no bucket, but you can’t bear to part with. But still, you need to be ruthless if you want it all to work out. I liked the “raised by dragonborn” bit. I like dragonborn (despite the boobs) and I like the idea of non-dragonborn with dragonborn mannerisms. It helps the story in the sense that it provides a disconnect from her birth family, but as it stands, it’s just too weird.

Why did those mysterious birth parents pick a dragonborn village? There’s enough of a biological difference there—so who knew how to raise babies that grow three times slower than dragonborn hatchlings? How much am I going to have to create and then explain weird personality tics to support this cross-cultural background? And how am I going to stop that from being one long joke that kills my story’s tension every time I reference it. If I have to spend a lot of time explaining it, and it doesn’t really add a lot, then this little oddity is not worth having.

But I wanted it.

So I thought, what if it’s only one dragonborn, one specific, soft-hearted dragonborn, in a village with plenty of tieflings and humans (and a dwarf that raises yaks…). That’s a little less intense. The overall culture of the village would be a human one that’s hyper-aware of tiefling experiences, but she’d be influenced by her adoptive father’s quirks, in much the same way so many of us are influenced by our parents’ cultural origins when they’re transplants. I’ve never lived in the South proper, but I have the faintest drawl on some words that I can blame on my Tennessean father. My husband’s never lived in New Mexico, but he’s learned to have a hell of an opinion about chiles and posole from his parents. And Farideh isn’t a dragonborn, or a scion of a military family from Djerad Thymar, but she speaks Draconic and has only a nascent sense of the gods, courtesy of Clanless Mehen.

And I got my dragonborn. Score.

One last word of caution: Other people’s characters, in my experience, almost always belong in the no bucket. None of them were likely created with your main character or your book in mind, and all of them were created to be the center of the player’s game story—not yours. (Even a name-drop, a side reference, stands out like you wouldn’t believe. This is often a tell for me that the story coming from the slushpile is based on a game.) As much as you might hate to break up the party, it’s probably for the best.

What’s a lot easier, is filling a role. The character backstory above references her twin sister Tamurra, who was played by Susan J. Morris. I wanted to keep a “twin.” And I wanted the twin to be different from Farideh in the same way Tamurra was different from my PC. But much, much easier than trying to adapt my editor’s monster-hunting, kill-counting, sharp-tongued rogue? Crafting a sister who was a perfect foil to my anxious, stubborn, lonesome main character. And boy am I glad I did. Havilar is one of my very favorite characters.

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One Response to “Let me tell you about my character…”

  1. D.C. Copeland says:

    Execptionally helpful and eye opening. I have been trying to force a dwarven PC (created by a fellow player) into an otherwise human dominated story but have been struggling with the back story. I realize now that no matter how much I love the character, he needs to be cut, or at the very least, altered.

    Thanks for another constructive blog post.