Ambiguity and Absolutism in Literature

Image: Copyright 2015 Melody Daggerhart

Clearing out email (yes, doing a lot of clearing lately, mostly to clear my head) and came across this superbly written article from Mythic Scribes on the differences between “black and white” fantasy and “gray” fantasy. If you’re not familiar with these terms, they are exactly what they seem to be. “Black and white” or absolutism is when the good guys vs. the bad guys is easy and obvious to distinguish: think J.R.R. Tolkien. “Gray” or ambiguous writing makes determining who is good and who is bad a very complex question because good guys sometimes do bad things, and bad guys sometimes do good things: think George R.R. Martin.

I like both. I think both have their places in terms of escapist entertainment and in terms of reflecting on realities in human behavior. I’ve tried to sprinkle a little of both in my novels. Some of my characters are static — they have absolute values and will stick to what they believe no matter what. But most of my characters are dynamic — they change and grow as they are influenced by their experiences, for better or worse, like real people. For plot tensions, I deliberately started with an absolutist pov where prejudices are revealed throughout the course of the tale, but then I deliberately broke those group demographics in half to make the point that blanket assumptions are a poor way to go about understanding or determining what’s good and evil.

I believe that the real world is gray because it is full of black-vs-white idealisms. For every faction that believes they are doing the right thing, there is an opposing faction that believes that group is doing something wrong. Faction B believes they are doing the right thing by opposing Faction A. Often there is also a faction C and D, etc. Each faction may or may not want the same goals, but each faction has its own ideas about how to achieve or disrupt those goals. You need look no further than politics or religion to easily see how broken and divided humanity is, each believing their own dogma holds the “only truth” and the “best answers” to life’s problems.

Ambiguous fiction tells us, “This is how the big picture looks,” while absolutism tells us, “This is how we perceive ourselves and our world.” The ambiguous pov offers a less biased overview compared to the one-sided pov of the heroic tale, but both contain important truths about human behavior. You can’t truly understand human nature without understanding each of the opposing forces and the overall consequences of how they behave regarding each other. So, I’m glad we have both forms in literature.


Writer’s Block Rescue: Character Development Between Games and Novels, Pt. 3

If you missed parts one and two of this topic, you can find them here:

Part 1: The Basic Methods Behind the Madness

Part 2: Tracking a Character’s Evolution to Show How It’s Done

In this third and final segment, I’m going to offer a few more examples on how to mix, match, and adapt characters inspired by games. And I’m going to discuss how to use screenshots from games to look for and create character-related ideas that transfer well between worlds regardless of medium. Then I’m going to issue a challenge for your own characters. Are you ready? 🙂

By-Product Characters

Daerazal and his
Daerazal and his “raptor” via Oblivion.

Part two of this series followed the evolution of one of my original characters, Chizrae Záks-Hýarta, starting from her conception for a game about 15 years ago through each step of traveling back and forth multiple times between other games and stories to finally land in my own original Elf Gate novel series and become “who” she is today. I mentioned Chizrae’s brother, Daerazal. His character was drafted and partially developed at the same time as hers because he was a direct and major influence on her personal history. As a result, her story has contributed to shaping him into “who” he is, too. So, he started off as a by-product.

In spite of that, like his sister, he’s endured character building, stripping, and rebuilding through D&D, Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, and two fan-fictions before being transformed into a world of my own design. He’s still only a supporting character in my novels, but when he speaks in vague detail about his experiences prior to the Elf Gate events, his history is solid because those are game and story experiences I actually put him through, as both a by-product and a main protagonist.

Extension Characters

Íenthé has a very similar history. Like Chizrae and Daerazal, she was invented about 15 years ago for D&D. But unlike them, she died. I don’t bring characters back from the dead without good reason, so she stayed dead to that game. However, if there was such a things as an afterlife for interesting characters in an alternate universe … well, she was interesting. So, I used her character to launch another that could logically share some of her attributes — a daughter.

This might be a rather childish approach to hanging onto a character you don’t want to let go of, but if your readers aren’t familiar with the original character, the “new and improved” character will be fresh to them. Since only a handful of people in this entire world were introduced to the original Íenthé, I felt it was fairly safe to recycle her in a completely different world setting. But to breathe new life into her, I intentionally created her to be an extension of a concept, rather than just doing CPR on the original.

The original character’s life and death were kept, but as events that influenced her, rather than events that happened to her. So, it was her mother that died when Daerazal’s caravan was attacked, and that event left her orphaned with him feeling responsible for contributing to her welfare afterwards. Since her mother was a thief and spy, it’s possible she would pick up a similarly shady trade. She could have a similar look and come from the same place. But she could have differed in those latter aspects, too.

Since she had no history (no experiences) of her own, I dumped her into Oblivion for the thief guild quests — to “teach” my new creation how to be a thief. (Level 1 always humbles characters, no matter how powerful they previously were.) Íenthé was working on her last quest for the Gray Fox, when she stumbled into a vampire nest, was nearly killed, and became infected. I hadn’t planned to make her a vampire, but since it was part of her story in the game, I thought, “What the heck. It IS part of her story, after all, right?” So, she kept the vampirism, but I took the experience a notch further and fleshed it out in different detail for my book. I had her tell Aija how she was caged for breeding, but picked her lock and tried to escape. How she was caught and spitefully turned by a feral nosferatu … How she escaped again but then had to return to her adoptive guardians, Chizrae and Daerazal, who now had to decide whether to tolerate and help her with her new affliction, or kill her to save themselves and everyone else. You won’t find any of that latter stuff in the Oblivion thief guild quests. I’ve even played that same quest with other characters and had completely different outcomes. One character was already a vampire and beat the crap out of the coven before he emerged from the sewers. But Íenthé barely made it out  alive, and not without repercussions. (Same game, same plot; different characters, different outcomes.)

The Gray Lady on a gray day in Riften.
The Gray Lady on a gray day in Riften, pre-vampire affliction.

In my novel, her blood-smuggling operation calling card is “The Gray Lady”, but it’s not because she eventually won the honorary title of “Gray Fox” in the game. It’s because of her changed appearance. In my world setting, vampirism (death) drains the colour from the eyes and skin, unless the vampire has recently fed, in which case there is a slight hue of life and warmth. So, like Trizryn, she started as a raven-black dark elf. Like Trizryn, after being turned, she became gray. She uses her new appearance to pass as an ordinary gray elf, rather than revealing her true, and perhaps more fox-like, nature to potential donors. She was cut from the same mold as her mother, but she is definitely a different person now.

This summer I put her in Skyrim for the thief guild quests in that game, too. Now she has even more new memories I can build on for both her days prior to being a vampire and the current plots in book 5.

Happy Accident Characters

Sometimes there is no intentional design. Sometimes I create characters for a game just so I can play the game — with no intention of using them for anything else. This is probably how most people (i.e. non-writers) enjoy games? (My fellow writers might find this hard to believe, but there is such a thing as character creation with no ulterior motive … where a character is nothing but an avatar “Mini-me” representing the player. Crazy, right?)

Féonna was a druid I created for Oblivion. She wasn’t an avatar to represent me, but she wasn’t important as a stand-alone creation, either. She wasn’t even given guild quests. I used her to explore the map and test the mods I was crafting. But by limiting her use like that, I unintentionally put her on a regimen of only clearing bandit camps, mines, ruins, etc. When I did take an interest in playing her.

After a time, I briefly installed a companion mod with a character which inspired me to create a ranger boyfriend for her in my own companion mod. And then while looking for something entirely different one day, I spotted a dryad mod that I fell in love with. I had absolutely no reason to create yet another character for this game. I just really liked the leafy skin-tattoo textures. So, I made Willowfern on a whim and figured a dryad would make a nice companion to a druid and ranger. I stuck the three “nature-bound” characters together for map exploration and mod testing, but in playing around with them I realized I was sticking to “nature-minded”  actions, and that became a game in itself. Would they calm the wild animal so they could escape, try to gain it as ally, or kill it?

Eventually, I created a treehouse mod for them to live in. It turned out to be one of my favourite home mods. The more I explored with them, the more they started to develop their own stories, in spite of the fact that that was not my intention for them. I ended up writing them into a few short stories based on their explorations, but still had no intention of doing anything else with them. So, it was a stroke of accidental genius when I was writing my second novel, asked myself what kind of fun thing I could do with Aija’s mouse, Henry, and those three characters came to mind. 😀

Willowfern the dryad praying to a deer’s spirit after taking its life.

Dreikuil was another happy accident. Originally, she was created for the Dragon Age Origins game as just a game piece. But I moved her to Oblivion for further fleshing out after moving her into my Elf Gate series because even though she was exactly the kind of character I needed to fill a specific role, she felt really empty of details.

There is nothing new or exciting about a character who loses family due to undead creatures spreading a plague across the land, inspiring her to pick up the sword and fight back. It’s a standard heroic revenge trope if there ever was one. But when trying to think of a summoner friend for Kassí that could later be a thorn in Trizryn’s side, Dreikuil came to mind. She would have reason to fight my undead plague … and him. Especially after I changed some of the details in which she found those undead … and changed the type of undead that she ran into. And in my own world setting the plague situation has a different history and conditions.

She is a unique character in her own right now, but one I had never intended to use in a story. She was just a game piece, but look at how that heroic, undead-hunter trope can be adapted to the different settings.

First Dreikuil ...
Dreikuil originated in Dragon Age Origins to fight darkspawn.
Transferred to Oblivion
Transferred to Oblivion to fight vampires, necromancers, and their conjurations.
Still experimenting
I’m still experimenting with her for Skyrim, but one thing is certain. For my novel, the parallels for this character’s “collective life” are that she is a barbarian whose entire clan was killed by vampire remnants of the Blood Reign. She is now a reaper in service to the Derra Eirlyn, and she will never stop hunting the undead and forcing them to leave this world before they turn into demons. She betrayed her vows to bring justice to a lost friend who was murdered, so Trizryn will always need to watch his back around her.

Mix-and-Match Characters

This is a fun exercise in character development regardless of what medium you’re basing your inspiration on.  When asked what inspired his interpretation of Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp confessed that he was a cross between Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Pepe Le Pew, the cartoon skunk from Looney Tunes. In other words, one way to brainstorm a new character is to consider mixing two or more pre-existing ones. The more different they are, the more bizarre the blend; the more interesting the new creation.

Albino Sorcerer ... to be determined at a later date.
Albino Sorcerer … to be determined at a later date.

I happened to be reading Elric the Stealer of Souls (novel) about the same time that I watched Hellboy: the Golden Army, (film) in which Prince Nuada (a prince from Celtic mythology) was an elven antagonist, when I had the sudden desire to create an albino sorcerer for my game. You can probably name other books, films, or games that have mysterious albino sorcerers, because this is another fantasy trope, usable by anyone. First I attempted to recreate Elric. Then I attempted to recreate Nuada. Then I used what I learned in that process to craft a blend of the two into an interesting new character. I haven’t found a use for my albino, elven sorcerer yet in my writing, but the idea still intrigues me so … stay tuned for that one. (This time the character was molded on a book, a movie, and mythology before using the game to flesh him out as someone else.)

Távaló is a mix-and-match that did find his way into my novels. His foundation was inspired by a companion mod for Morrowind, where he was a powerful, albeit boring, high elf battle mage. But he had a note on his person that indicated he was a dishonest “player”, lying to a woman about her husband having died just to create an excuse to comfort her. (Tsk, tsk, tsk. Hmmmm …) At the time, I was into the Underworld series of films, which I thought had the best werewolf models ever. (Hm, again.) And I had just watched the movie 50 First Dates, starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. (Two utterly unrelated films and a game mod.) … (Hm, indeed!) I thought, wouldn’t it be funny (horrible, but funny), if a battle mage “player” played around with the wrong girl and found himself cursed with lycanthropy so that he never could remember sleeping with anyone after her? No matter how hard he attempts to ditch her, the curse could rob him of everything that happened in the previous month, so that after his moon-cycle, his memory defaults back to the woman who gave him the curse.  The perfect mate for Chizrae was born.

Távaló playing with the undead in Skyrim.
Távaló playing with the undead in Skyrim. Fire … because biting into draugar would be just nasty.

I wrote this new character into my fan-fictions with Chizrae, perfecting his back-story through that means. But to give him new memories, I also threw him into Oblivion. Then I corrected his history to fit my own series and put him in the 3rd novel, and this summer I put him in Skyrim because … werewolves. 😀 I’ve never actually game-played as a werewolf, so I had to indulge myself in that experience. Perfect for gaining more insight on this fun, furry, and fiery, character.

Character Development, Screenshots, and Flash-Fiction

Lastly, I want to address how I’ve used screenshots as a flash-fiction medium to help develop a character’s story. I’m a screenshot addict. I admit it. I use them as storyboards the same way TV, film, and animation writers and artists use visual aids to map out their plots. If you’ve never used your games this way, consider it as another tool in your arsenal for fighting writer’s block. A screenshot is the equivalent of snapping a photograph of a character’s memories. And you can write about them later the same way flash-fiction is done.

If you’re not familiar with how to take screen shots, you’ll need to look up the individual game’s information on that. Sometimes it’s a matter of just hitting the “print screen” button. Other times, the images go into special game folders. You can take them “as-is”, or you can turn them into art. I enjoy turning my screenies into art. I remove the menu interface, pose the characters, take several angles using the flying camera, etc. I guess it’s a combination of photography and cinematography the way I do it — like how clay animators work, but with 3-D paper dolls. And then sometimes I put them in GIMP and add further embellishments or smooth out the wrinkles like any other photo-manipulation project.

If you’re not familiar with flash-fiction, basically it’s when you are fed a visual or other prompt and told to write a short paragraph about it. Sometimes it needs to be as complete a story as possible in as few sentences as possible. Other times it looks more like a really short short-story. But the main idea is to envision the story behind the prompt. I’ll come back to flash-fiction when I write articles on visual arts as tools for overcoming writer’s block. For now, let’s stay focused on games and screenshots.

Trizryn is one of the main characters in my novels, so of course I put him into my games. 🙂 I put him into Oblivion and Skyrim, but surprisingly that’s it. His story is probably as complex as Chizrae’s, but from a wider variety of influences.

In Skyrim, to match his personality and history in the novels, I put him in the Civil War Imperial quests, the Thief Guild quests, and then the vampire quests in Dawnguard. Each quest fed new experiences to his memories from the past or inspired new material for his future. I’ll use him as my example of how I employ screenshots as storyboards.

First of all, as I said in the other articles, don’t sweat the appearances. If you can make your character in the game turn out like what you see in your head, great. If not, think of it the same way an artist uses a storyboard to sketch out the positions of the characters for the action. The exact details are not as important as the fact that you are dropping that character into a visual element to see how the body might twist when sword-fighting, or where he might have to hide to avoid being seen, etc. What matters here is being able to ask yourself, “What would he do in this situation?” and then get a visual reference on it.

Sometimes the screenshots can influence branch ideas worth exploring. For example, Trizryn has long, shaggy, white hair in my “mind’s eye” and novel descriptions. But these were the only hair meshes I could find that looked long and shaggy. At first, they felt weird because they’re different from what I envision, but the more that I played with that second mesh, and its uneven back, the more it led me to question why it was sheered off unevenly like that. That led me to imagine the back of his hair getting burnt … which led me to delivering a flaming arrow to his back in the 4th novel. Now he needs a haircut … and he’s getting one in book 5. 😉  The game’s visual representation inspired me to try something different with the character’s appearance due to something that happened to him in my plot outside of the game.

Trizryn’s true colours in Oblivion during transition to vampirism vs …
… his true colours in Skyrim after his transition. The representations don’t have to be exact.

But my favourite use for screenies is to capture those “memorable moments” that would make good scenes in my stories. The examples below are from the Dawnguard quest where he had to plant false evidence on a Dawnguard member. The fast-travel to Markarth left him smoking under the blazing sun, so I asked myself, “Would he hide in the inn and wait for sundown to find this guy? Or would he suffer it out until the job was done?” Triz is the kind of person who would be stubborn about it and want to get it over, even if it meant shade-hopping, healing while stranded in the shadows, or drinking blood potions to make up for the major damage when no shade could be found. I have not incorporated these scenes into my stories yet, but I’m looking for ways to transfer these generic sun-sensitivity actions (that have nothing to do with the game’s plot, by the way) into his daylight experiences in the next book.

Not only would a vampire balk at daylight missions, it would be dangerous for him.
How inconvenient getting trapped in itty bitty little shade spots to recuperate from sun damage while sprinting across town. Seemingly unimportant things like that can be very transferable between stories because they’re generic enough to not be tied to a specific plot or setting, yet are unique enough to my character’s experience while I was gaming.

And, finally, this last screen has so little to do with the game’s plot, and yet everything to with this character’s history in my novel. This screenie was taken after he killed the commanders of the Dawnguard fortress. The game’s plot ended upon the death of the last commander. But Trizryn’s story would have gone beyond that. Triz would have needed blood to mend his wounds, and he would have gladly taken it from someone who hunted and tormented him. This “kiss of death” would have been the icing on the cake for him. This “kiss of death” may or may not show up in one of my books, but now I have it firmly in my head that he would not be above doing such a thing. And just because there is no Dawnguard command in my world doesn’t mean there is no one he would love to take a bite out of for hunting him.

Taking bittersweet revenge on vampire hunters in Dawnguard is something Trizryn would very likely do to recover his strength. This was not part of the game. It’s something I staged as a storyboard “moment”. Therefore, it would be easy to transfer this act of revenge into my own plot.

Bottom Line

Don’t throw away leftover characters. Don’t overlook characters that mean nothing to you. Consider ways to recycle old, unimportant, or multiple characters to create new ones. Consider storyboards as a means of “photographing” that character’s memories for later … or, if not for that character for someone else.

When you let the story flow freely between settings, the characters develop naturally, fluidly, and uniquely through the course of play and imagination can fill in the gaps. Even if a game’s plot and outcome are the same for every player, not every player’s experiences are the same. Not every character’s experiences are the same. That’s the takeaway. Authors are writers, directors, and actors under one hat, so we have lots of options when it comes to salvaging and recreating usable material.

Screenshot Flash-Fiction Challenge

In the screenshot below, my Skyrim character Vindrstag, was walking through the town of Dragon’s Bridge, when he ran into a courier standing in the middle of the town in his Underoos.  No, this was not part of the game. Some programmer out there is doing a face-plant on the keyboard because this glitch eluded him. But it’s a glitch sooooo worth noting because … why not? 🙂 I have yet to incorporate the courier strip-o-gram in a story, but let’s just say it has potential to be twisted to my own designs someday.

Vindrstag is in only one short-story, fan-fiction, so far, but he’s developed enough that I could imagine him stopping, blinking, then shaking his head and telling himself to not ask questions or it could lead to some ludicrous quest to fetch the courier’s clothes back from however they were lost.

If this had been Aija, she would blink stupidly at him and wonder if she should help. Chizrae would blink at him as if he were stupid, but then maybe wink at him in passing. Shei would be curious and unable to resist saying something comedic to find out what happened. K’tía would cry out in surprise. And behind all of them, Trizryn, cloaked head to toe because of the daylight, would muffle his younger sister’s outcry, hide her innocent eyes, and pull her into the shade with him while quietly cursing both the sunlight and the blood bait. She would then have some barbed verbal jab for her overprotective, older brother. … I know my characters well enough to know their responses, even if I don’t know the “story” that led to this moment yet. That’s okay. I can craft what happened around that. It’s just a visual tool to get the creative gears spinning.

What do you think? Why would this courier have no clothes? What happened? How would your characters react? Strip away the details belonging to my character and this particular game to expose the generic elements of what’s going on here and use it to give your character an experience. The town could be anywhere at any time. The people could be any race under any conditions. There is no copyright on a naked person standing in the middle of the street, but you must change the model enough to make this event and these people your own.

Models are springboards that can launch new characters to great depths, regardless of how they start. 🙂

Strip-o-gram ...
Vindrstag, an OC designed for Skyrim, was passing through Dragons Bridge when he met this courier who stood in the middle of the street in his underwear … for no reason. But there has to be a reason, right? Everything has a reason, no matter how pointless. Was he robbed? Did his wife kick him out for cheating on her? Did he just feel like catching some fresh air on his bum? How would you explain this? How would your characters react? Games and screenshots can be used like storyboards and flash-fiction to inspire and develop character histories.

Writer’s Block Rescue: Character Development Between Games and Novels, Pt. 2

If you missed part 1 of this topic, you can find it here. In summary, I discussed how important imitation is to learning new skills and how to use it as a tool for finding new ideas when stumped by writer’s block. By copying good models of a chosen discipline, you can learn your craft well. Input (inspiration) is necessary for output (the script, the score, the painting, etc.). But eventually, you have to be able to strip away the model and reconstruct your own results based on what you’ve learned. In writing, you can do that by …

  1. … looking for parallels among literary elements in stories you like. Basic literary elements and primary resources have no copyrights.
  2. … giving characters new experiences in new settings gives them “memories”, and in shaping their history, you often can’t help but shape their personalities, too.

In part two of this topic, I’ll give some examples of how I’ve switched between gaming and writing multiple times to create and flesh out some of my own characters. This article is long with specific details for those who want to know exactly how this is done. So, please, bear with me. 🙂

Game to Novel

My oldest game-to-novel character is Chizrae. She was originally created as an NPC (non-player character) for a Dungeons & Dragons game that I was Dungeon Master for, about 15-20 years ago. She was a Drow (dark elf) priestess of Lloth (insane Spider Queen goddess). She was to be a “damsel in distress” for my players to rescue.  My players’ characters were immediately divided on whether to free her, or walk away. (For those of you unfamiliar with Drow, most of them have a reputation for being untrustworthy and vicious, but there are good ones, too, that defy the stereotypes.) Chizrae happened to be a dragon’s prize trophy that he used to lure adventurer’s into his den, so, yeah, she turned on her rescuers to save herself, but then later helped them fight the dragon. Welcome to chaotic neutral characters. But I digress.

Her first-ever portrait was probably this little doodle-gift drawn by one of my players in an attempt to humor me. Thank you, Michael. Ace work there. Totally sums up her chainmail-bikini conundrum and still makes me giggle all these years later.

Chizrae's humble beginnings ... I think she needed a little
Chizrae’s humble beginnings. I think she needed a little “fleshing out”, don’t you? 😀 (… Okay, yes, bad writerly pun, I know.)

Game to Game

I transferred her to another group game of my own creation, but it was largely a continuation of the first one she was in. Later, however, I transferred her into the game Baldur’s Gate in an attempt to think like she would think for combat, relationships with companions, and other important decisions. Balder’s Gate is another D&D world, so not much changed “who” she was or the history she’d built so far. I mentally added her new PC (player character) experiences to her previous NPC ones, so between the three games, she had a running time line and was building a detailed back-story. (New experiences = memories.)

Then Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind came out. I inserted her into that game world, but a different completely different setting and magic system required a few changes. I recreated her as a Dunmer — a different kind of dark elf. There was no priest class, but she’s most not a paladin or knight type, so spellsword was the closest I could come to a magic-user-turned-sword-slinger. (Parallels.) I tried to keep her weapons and magic as close as possible to her previous world’s setting, but inevitably she was unable to use spells she previously learned and had to learn new spells she didn’t know before. I liked the new blend. It forced her to “grow” in a way similar to how living things do.

Chizrae as a Dunmer in Morrowind. I gave her a spider tattoo on her face as homage to her Llothian Drow roots.
Chizrae as a Dunmer in Morrowind. Initially, I gave her face a spider tattoo as homage to her D&D Llothian Drow roots, but later removed it for the fact that it was too similar to Drow spider worship.

Game to Novel

Morrowind was the game that turned me into a die-hard Elder Scrolls fan. I wrote a fan-fiction about Chizrae’s post-Nerevarine adventures, but kept her Drow history and created a cross-over multi-verse to fill in the gaps as to why a Drow priestess of Lloth would be in Vvardenfell fighting Dagoth Ur. This gave her even more history … more memories.

Anyone remember the Drow mod someone created for Morrowind? Loved it. :)
Anyone remember the Drow mod someone created for Morrowind? It was like a place where two worlds met — a portal between the Underdark of Forgotten Realms and Vvardenfell of the Elder Scrolls.

Novel Back to Game, Back to Novel

When Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out, I took Chizrae out of the Morrowind fan-fiction and put her back into a game. Oblivion was the same world as Morrowind, but took place in a different province with new events and slightly different game-play. So, once more I had to tweak her character template, adapting her to her new environment … keeping true to her story so far, but adding more new experiences to her “life”. I then wrote another fan-fiction that drew her D&D, Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, and Oblivion histories together. Plus, I included elements from another D&D group game I was DMing that ended before it was finished.

“Betcha won’t do that again.” … The thought that ran through my mind after Chizrae was mugged by a bandit on her first road trip in Oblivion.
Because of their dark environment, you might need to click on this one to see it better, but this was Chizrae and her brother Daerazal, Oblivion-style. They still had their Drow name at that time.
Dark elves typically live in dark environs, but some fictional worlds place them on the surface. You might need to click on this one to see it better, but this was Chizrae and her brother Daerazal, Oblivion-style.

Novel Back to Game

So, when Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out, guess who traveled from the realms of Oblivion fan-fiction back into another game! Yep. I continued tweaking her to fit a new environment so I could give her even more new experiences.

New look and legion gear for Skyrim.
I’m still playing with the face generator to make Chiz look more like her Oblivion model because I preferred that face.

The Cumulative Strip-Down

Chizrae’s story is now extremely complex. This is good. I don’t have to do anything else to develop this character if I don’t want to. In fact, I could write another series based only on her memoirs! But when I decided to move her into my original novel, I couldn’t exactly call her a former Drow priestess who became the Nerevarine and escaped from Akavir through an Oblivion gate to end up in the future in Skyrim. Those are copyrighted specifics. So how the heck was I supposed to transfer a character so intricately woven into someone else’s worlds into my own original setting without losing the essence of who she has become?

Parallels. Build the character up in the temporary setting. Strip away copyright material to see the universal elements of literature underneath. Then reconstruct her new “memories” in ways that make sense to the new setting. It’s kind of like telling your character, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” There are bound to be a few difficulties with things that you don’t want to let go of, or when you can’t easily see how to bridge the gaps — when that character seems to be screaming back, “I’m strong enough, thankyouverymuch!” (Because that’s usually how I feel when people tell me to look on the bright side after I’ve endured an ordeal that tore me to the bone.) But it’s your job as an author to push your characters over the edge, watch them frazzle, and then coax them back from the brink of insanity to find the solutions to their problems, right? Be patient and connect the dots (literary elements) until you can see the new, whole picture of who that “person” has become.

Okay, that all sounds very poetic, but HOW did you do it?

I started by modeling Tolkien and taking my novel’s dark elves back to what inspired him: the elves of Norse legend — the Svartálfar, to be exact … but with my own twist. With research I found out that light elves in Norse mythology are named so because they were thought to be made of light. This is important because it means elves were thought to be spirits, ghosts, or angels of some sort … not fair-skinned, Caucasian humans with pointy ears as modern pop culture understands them. Sure, they could blend with humanity if they wished, for better or worse. They could even mate with humanity. But that minor detail not only helped me redesign the physical and magical aspects of my elven races, it redefined the plot’s social prejudices.

The prejudices of my fae are not based on skin tones (although that dead horse does get dragged along for the ride). They’re about essence. Many prejudices in reality are like this: religious, class, and lifestyle prejudices aren’t always obvious at a glance, but can cause hate to burn just as deeply within. If light elves were thought to be made of light, then it’s logical to assume dark elves could be made of darkness. This doesn’t match Norse mythology on dark elves, but I liked this theory for my fictional world. And I returned to Norse mythology anyway for explaining why dwarves are really gray elves, rather than short humans with Scottish dialects.

My light elves work elemental magic, drawing on their environment externally through something called The Weave (wizardry). My dark elves work psychic magic internally, drawing on the power within their own minds and bodies (sorcery). Light elf magic is visible; dark elf magic is invisible. Therefore, the main reason light elves fear dark elves is because they have no means of interrupting magic they can’t see … short of killing the sorcerer. So, when it comes to things like mind control, dark elves have a distinct advantage. Light elves, however, have more abundant source material. The dark elf is more likely to drop first in battle because 100% of his magic comes from within himself. The light elf will last longer, but is susceptible to having his source of magic voided … because fire magic is useless on damp wood.

On top of this, I chose to advance their civilization out of the stereotypical Middle Ages into a somewhat industrialized, steampunk environment. So, they still have swords and ride horses, but they also have magical mechanics … things like trains, automaton golems, and airships. Developing my own elven racial traits while world-building for my novel, was the key to Chizrae’s transformation into a new kind of dark elf.

The term “new”, however, is relative because dark elves of any kind are a common, ancient concept, as are the vague and varied forms and rules of magic. There is nothing new under the sun. But I get to cherry-pick races and worlds and backgrounds from elements of design that I like and rearrange them in a specific way that makes them “mine”.

This balance between knowing what belongs to everyone and what belongs to individuals as intellectual property is important because if you hesitate to write down your ideas because you’re stuck waiting for that unique idea that that no one has ever thought of before … you’re never going to write anything at all. Jump the writer’s block by using a good model that you like. You’ll have to change things later anyway because writing is a process of multiple revisions, not a start-to-finish task. Stripping your original creation away from the mold that inspired it is just one of many vital stages of revision toward the end product.

Rebirth into Elf Gate Series Novels

I tweaked Chizrae’s physical appearance first because that’s the easiest part of the conversion. She still has raven-black skin because Norse mythology has “black elves”.  I let her keep snow-white hair because that’s a common color for hair, both in fantasy and in real life.  Chizrae’s eyes are still crimson like her previous Drow and Dunmer heritages dictate, but my dark elves have two irises in each eye — concentric and of different colours.  Her second iris is lavender. This second iris is what allows my dark elves to easily shut off day vision for dark vision, but it gives the cornea a soft glow from within. Dark vision (night vision, night eye, cat eye, etc.), whatever name it goes by, is also a standard element of fantasy fiction. I chose to fashion my elves after the oldest fae of Norse and Celtic mythology, warriors who stood taller than men. But Chizrae is short by their own standards which makes her average height to a human. If you compare her to others of her kind in the genre, she’s a fairly typical modern dark elf, except for that second iris and the fact that her magic is now inherently limited to psychic sorcery. (She can still use her hard-won enchanted items that were imbued with their own magic.)

Her family history was created entirely by me, so I let her keep it. But I changed her surname because the original was based in the Drow language, which is copyrighted specifically to that race in D&D manuals, novels, and games. She is no longer Chizrae Velve-Xukuth. Rewritten in my own dark elf language, she is now Chizrae Záks-Hýarta. The meaning is the same, but with a more Anglo-Norse influence: “Dagger Heart”.  Her name has always been a parody of my own. Our names mean different things, but the parody suits a soul like her. (Or as Távaló once said, “Soft like a kiss, but cuts like a razor.”) 😉

For her time line, Chizrae gets to keep the core of each world-hopping experience. I just had to be more generic in some places and more “differently specific” in others, and then let my imagination fill in any gaps between main points of interest. For example, she can still tell you about the time she was captured by a dragon and used as bait to lure other adventurers into his den.  She gets to keep the backstory designed to explain why she was nearly murdered by her own brother, but Lloth is no longer part of it. I don’t need that particular goddess when one of my own dragon-gods will suffice. Instead of being a former Llothian priestess, she is a former dragon priestess. Dragon priests are abundant in fantasy. But the core of that back-story, what matters most, is the relationship between sister and brother … and daughter and mother … and son and mother: the human cause and effect. I can easily transfer that to the new setting.

Obviously, I couldn’t make her the Nerevarine — the prophesied outlander who returns as the reincarnate of General Nerevar to defeat Dagoth Ur. That specific content belongs to Morrowind. So, I had to ask myself, what archetypes are going on in that copyrighted plot? Prophecy is a literary element in a bazillion stories. I can keep that. Reincarnation is not a new concept, either. Using a general to defeat his old, vengeful enemy … no one can copyright that generic idea. I just can’t use those elements the same way they did or with their specific details.

You’ll have to wait for book 5 to see how I actually handled the core conversion of Chizrae’s collective stories. But I can tell you she unearthed a false prophecy. And if you’ve read all four books in the Elf Gate series so far, you’ve already met a very important general who defeated a vengeful god-like creature … and that general is not her.  🙂 I intentionally broke up those plot elements, mashed a few other plot elements into the mix, and redistributed them in different ways to build my own chimera. (Sorry, I can’t say more than that or answer guesses about it because … spoilers.)

(See what I did there? You’re curious now, aren’t you?) :3

New adventures ... new memories.
New adventures … new memories.

Next up, in the third and final part of this “Writer’s Block Rescue” on using games for character development, I’ll give a few more examples of how to mix, match, and adapt ideas for characters and their personal stories. And I’ll issue a challenge for your own characters with a little something called “flash fiction”.

Writer’s Block Rescue: Character Development Between Games and Novels

In my last article I discussed how copying is a necessary and vital part of learning languages … and learning how to write. Copying has a stigma attached to it because it so closely related to stealing or lacks originality. But if we assume all forms of copying are bad, we’re missing an important element in learning and inspiration. Like most things in life, there are times when it is appropriate and necessary, and times when it is not. The wisdom lies in knowing the differences.

I referenced several quotes on copying for learning and inspiration, so let me throw them in here one more time.

Good Japanese starts with mindlessly imitating good Japanese. … Input always comes before output. (kahtzumoto, All Japanese All the Time website)

Start copying what you love. Copy, copy, copy, copy. At the end of the copy, you will find yourself. (Yohji Yamamoto, fashion designer)

Good artists copy; great artists steal. (Pablo Picasso, artist)

Now, before I go any further, this is where I must state I am not advocating violating copyrighted material. What I am advocating is recognizing that copying is a foundation for learning new skills. It is a tool that can be used for inspiration to break past writer’s block. It can help you discover the differences between someone else’s creativity and your own and use those differences to your advantage. Sometimes you must be willing to go back to the beginning stages of copying and learning before your muses overflow with inspiration. But you must be able to move beyond imitation to create something you can take with you and call your own in order for it to not violate copyrighted material. This is what’s significant about what these quotes mean.

I hardly ever get writer’s block. Since this seems to be a plague for a lot of other writers, maybe I can share some tips now and then about how to skip past that obstacle and turn almost anything into a writing tool for inspiration. Everything has a story. Everything has a past. Everything has a future. Everything happens because of a sequence of events. You just need to learn to view everything in the world around you as story-telling tools.

One of my favourite story-telling tools is video games, so I’ll start there. I’m a big fan of role-playing video games. Other types of games can offer inspiration of different kinds, but role-playing games are supreme tools for character creation and development. So this article and the next are for writers who love to game … err, or gamers who love to write. Because it goes both ways, of course. 😀

If you have a character in your story that seems rather “meh”, consider putting him in a role-playing game as a PC to flesh him out a little further. Or, if you have a character in your game that is already well-developed, consider putting her in your story.

I know I’m not the only one who does this. In fact, it’s very common among role-playing gamers to write fan-fictions or draw fan art including original characters in copyrighted world settings … because it’s a dorky fan obsession thing that’s a lot of fun. But perhaps there are some writers out there who never considered gaming as a means of awakening their muses. And how do you transfer characters from a copyrighted world setting to your own without losing their “stories” from the game … and without violating copyrights?

Féonna, Alderan, and Willowfern ready to hunt down an ogre chief ... Oblivion style. (Personal screenshot.)
Féonna, Alderan, and Willowfern … Three of my original characters are ready to hunt down an ogre chief in a very specific dungeon that can’t follow them into my own world setting … or can it? (Personal screenshot from Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.)

It’s much easier to move a character from a game to a novel than the other way around because characters developed in role-playing games can gain back-stories, motives, and traits through the natural course of play. All you have to do is transfer their physical descriptions, desires, and personalities into words. But there’s a major caveat: you can’t take the copyrighted game setting or plot with you.

If you’ve created a character in your story and want to further develop him in a game, you’ll have to accept the design limitations on things like physical appearance, race, magic abilities, class, etc. and work within those confines. This might be annoying. I’ve attempted to put a dark elf in a game that has no elves, let alone dark elves, and had to recreate him as either a dark brown human or a tree spirit made of wood … neither of which look anything like him. But what’s important here is not how exact you can be in transferring your character into the game. What’s important is that you have something that represents your character so you are free to get into his head and make decisions HE would make. (That’s right. If you’re a habitual tank gamer, but your character is a mage, you might have to suck it up and leave the armor and weapons bonuses behind in order to learn the vulnerabilities and strengths of magic.)

So, let’s take a look at each of these processes.

Game to Novel

You’ve created a PC in your game that you’d like to write a story about, but you cannot use copyrighted material that became part of the character’s story while playing someone else’s product. I’m going to assume you’ve already created a character template for his physical and personality traits. That’s the easy part. Now ask yourself this: could the game’s events be prequel? Or do the game’s events relate to anything currently happening in your story?

Parallels are the solution. It helps if you know how to critically analyze creative literature to look for specific plot elements, but the main idea is to look for parallels when you compare and contrast your story with the game.

There is no copyright on archetypes, themes, tropes, folklore, etc. There are thousands, maybe millions, of stories out there that share common elements. Strip the game plots down to their bones and take another look at them. There is nothing new under the sun. There are only three plots ever: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. Start there.

Dragons ... and the people who love to slay them. Parallel archetypes that practically define the fantasy genre.
Dragons … and the people who love to slay them … are parallel, generic archetypes that practically define the fantasy genre and are not owned by anyone, unless they have specific names, details, and backgrounds. (Personal screenshot from Dragon Age II.)

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever took to heart was something Michael Moorcock said. I’m paraphrasing, but he said don’t strive to be like the masters, go to what inspired the masters. Tolkien went to Norse mythology for inspiration when he wrote his masterpieces, partly because there is no copyright on mythology.

Novel to Game

Let’s say that in your story you’ve got a secondary character who falls flat. Or maybe your villain might as well be a two-dimensional, mustache-twirling man in who declares, between bouts of maniacal laughter, that he wants to rule the world. Or, one problem with writing for female characters when the main character is male is that the female character’s existence is defined by her ability to help the male character discover his true self, his own strength, his talent, his confidence, make him smile again, etc. It’s all about him, but what about her? Does she have no life, history, or motives of her own? Every main and supporting character deserves to have an existence beyond what we see in the story.

One way to get past the writer’s block or nagging suspicion that a character is too vague is to give her some new experiences by making her the main character in her own story. Insert that uninspired character with no motives or personality into a different setting, giving him his own challenges under the spotlight. Instead of wasting time staring at a script that’s not speaking to you, start up a game, create a player character (PC) based on your original character (OC) in your own story, and play.

The character creation engine and game play limitations are not important. Maybe you could even embrace the limitations as new character traits. What’s important is that you restrict yourself as closely as possible to how your character would behave and problem solve when confronted with new experiences. Observe that. Take notes on that. That’s what you can use to flesh out a dull character without infringing on copyrights. Role-play — really role-play!  Writers are actors on a different kind of stage. Immerse yourself in your character’s head to figure out what actions he would take, which quests he would accept or turn down, what guilds he would join, what motivates him. Consider his strengths and weaknesses when making these kinds of decisions. Would he hunt the deer that darts in front of him because he’s a skilled huntsman, or because he’s a demented psychopath that loves any opportunity to shed blood? Or would he consider it a blessing from the deer spirit of the forest because he’s a druid and let him go? Maybe your elven priest is a vegetarian. Maybe his sidekick is a dimwitted ogre who hops like a rabbit with every deer he sees and keeps an OCD mental tally of how many deer they pass crossing the plains. (shrug) Your actor; your call. Just make sure those decisions are not based on what you (the author/ director) would do. This is not your story. It is not even your reader’s story. It is your character’s story.

With a little creativity, and as long as you can tell the difference between specific plot elements and archetypal plot elements, you can also borrow parts of the story and redesign it to be unique to your character’s past. What you’re actually doing when you give a character new experiences is you’re giving her memories … a history that will shape her into whoever she becomes for your novel.

Screenshot of Aija in my Skyrim game.
Aija enjoying a quiet moment by a peaceful river in my Skyrim game. This is a very generic scene that could take place anywhere with anyone. It’s up to me to tell her story about why she’s there and what happens next.


  1. Look for parallels in archetypal elements when determining what you can take and what you cannot.
  2. New experiences give characters new memories … new stories.

In part two, I’ll give some specific examples of how I’ve switched between gaming and writing to create and flesh out some of my own characters in the Elf Gate series novels.