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,Β 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. πŸ˜€

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?

FΓ©onna, Alderan, and Willowfern ready to hunt down an ogre chief ... Oblivion style. (Personal screenshot.)
FΓ©onna, 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?Β (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 β€” really role-play! Β 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.

Summary

  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.

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4 thoughts on “Writer’s Block Rescue: Character Development Between Games and Novels

  1. This is fascinating how you do this. How you really role-play in games! But is there a way that someone who’s writing a story set in the contemporary world gain from this? I love Skyrim but my heroine is a programmer πŸ™‚ And I dunno many modern open-world games.

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    1. Good question! πŸ™‚ You’re right most role-playing games take place outside the boundaries of “normal” modern life, being sci-fi, fantasy, war, historic, or dystopian. I think you could still drop a modern person into those settings and then translate the experiences into something else. And for something like programming, puzzle games might offer inspiration.

      For example, the “normal, modern human” in my series is Aija. So, when I rp her in Skyrim, I try to give her modern clothing mods, modern-ish homes, etc. It acts like a mental tag to remind me that she’s very out of place in this world and belongs to another. For her quests, I limit her to “odd jobs” for the same reason — she has no business joining guilds or becoming a thane. She’s an outsider. No one would trust her more than a day doing manual labor of some sort for cash pay. So, that right there gives me something to write about concerning how other people receive her (or not), and the fact that she’s actually kind of living in a state of “Don’t ask; don’t tell,” in terms of not wanting to provide information on who she is and not wanting people to dig too deep. If I was going to transfer that back into the modern world setting, there are a number of options. Perhaps she’s in a witness protection program. Perhaps she’s ashamed of her background because of her family or poverty or because they are powerful and she wants to succeed on her own terms rather than always being “daddy’s little brat”. You can make the translation of circumstances as dramatic or as mundane as you like.

      For actual memories … traveling on the road and being attacked by a wolf could be turned into the fact that her car broke down and she got lost in the woods, lost in a bad neighborhood, attacked by muggers. Having to jump into a bottomless hole in a cavern could translate into falling down the stairs or having something horrible happen to the elevator: it got stuck between levels and the building is on fire, etc. Sometimes the game’s quests involve missions with specific objectives like delivering messages, intercepting messages, persuading people to do things or not do things, finding missing objects, etc. Those kinds of quests can be translated into mundane missions that can blow up into big issues for conflict, or kept minimal as just the office task for the day. I remember one of the civil war missions was to intercept a messenger. In an office setting, perhaps someone sent off an important message or report that they realized had flawed information and they need it back … like, yesterday! So, they have to run after the messenger and get it back in a rush and then confront. Then the character has a choice. Would this person threaten the messenger to get it back, or misdirect with lies, or attempt to pick pocket? And it can escalate into more drama if the messenger realizes the attempt to steal the message and fights back or reports it. Or if the mission fails and then the character has to pick up the pieces of the disaster she created by sending the wrong report. You can choose to either strip away the fanciful escapist adventure and sub a more modern conundrum in its place, or keep some of the aspects of the adventure, but change the setting to the modern “jungle” of traffic, crime, and intercultural/infrastructure factions.

      The one thing that will remain constant in *all* stories is how people interact when making choices and dealing with each other. So, if you have a military commander challenging a character to do something unethical in a war game or a fantasy game, that can translate to a modern setting by having a military commander, government official, employer, client, or friend or family member challenging a character to do something unethical. If you have to persuade someone to form an alliance in a fantasy game, you can translate it into having to persuade people to make peace in the office, the apartment complex, or the police station. Human nature never changes. You can even turn dragons into humans. πŸ™‚ The dragons of fantasy usually represent greedy, bullish, mean people who are willing to bulldoze everyone beneath them to get what they want. They can be animals about it (mafia bosses, gang members, domestic abusers, corporate criminals), or they can be cunning and subtle (ex-boyfriends, friends that had a falling out, rival girlfriends, mothers or fathers that aren’t very nurturing in nature, the office co-worker that really wants your position for himself, etc.)

      And lastly, puzzle games might provide intellectual problem-solving material. I suck at programming. πŸ™‚ But I’m a linguist and languages are basically codes. Learning languages is like solving a puzzle. In my story, my interest in linguistics shows up several ways, but one of the puzzles the characters must solve is that they have a sack full of documents on the gate portals that they can’t translate. And they don’t have a key. When I come to the parts of games that have puzzles in them, I pay attention to the set-up in case there’s anything I can use for that aspect of the task I’ve given my characters. Skyrim’s thief guild quests have one mission that involves breaking into a museum to find a Falmer language key stone that you need to take charcoal rubbings from and deliver to a mage at the college. I happened to be watching a movie in which the characters found a tombstone with glyphs that they took charcoal rubbings from and pieced together to realize the language wasn’t a language at all, but a map. And then I have my own experiences to draw from in translation work since I’m familiar with the struggles and pitfalls first-hand. The idea of taking rubbings on codes you can’t figure out instantly is generic enough that anyone can use it for anything, so I started with that idea long before playing Skyrim or seeing the movie. But I really like the “Rosetta Stone” idea and the “not a language; a map” idea. So I took notes for future use. I will do them my way, but these are base ideas I can launch from when my characters solve their puzzle.

      To pull those kinds of puzzle problems into a modern setting for a programmer, consider how The Matrix handled it — someone hacked the system and found out how twisted their reality was. But how did they hack the system in the first place? To decode a code, there must be an initial key that the designer created. Perhaps the character must find it. Perhaps the character must solve it. Perhaps the character must create it. πŸ™‚ And that is where your own programming knowledge or skills you use to solve strange game puzzles can blend with personal experience. Again, it can be as mundane or dramatic as you like. Maybe she just walks into an office and takes a photo or does a download of the information she needs. Or maybe she has to pull a “Mission Impossible” or “Laura Croft” type of endeavor to get it. Espionage stories and crime/ mystery stories quite frequently involve someone getting murdered because of sensitive technical information falling into the wrong hands and flying away to exotic places with it before it is recovered. Games from those genres might, therefore, offer inspiration to draw from, too.

      You can look at the parallel, core literary elements and mix and match to your liking: themes, tropes, archetypes. Or you can look at the details and decide what translates easily into a modern setting: jungles of trees can be big cities with skyscrapers or dark ghettos with shadows lurking in alleys; predators exist on the streets, in the office, and in every class and kind of human being; problem-solving could be a loss of information, a loss of technology, or personal obstacles. Either way, pay attention to human behavior and interaction. Human behavior is the heart of the story. And human behavior is everywhere. It’s the same regardless of whether we’re talking about goblins, aliens, or office minions. (Or office minions who happen to act like goblins or aliens.) πŸ˜‰

      I keep my phone near when I play games (or watch TV or whatever), and I have an Evernote notebook for writing. So when I’m role-playing in a game, if anything relative to my story pops up, I can take notes. I was recently playing FFXIII, and (without offering spoilers) it has a god-complex theme. My novel series also has a god-complex theme. So, I pay close attention to the interaction between the game’s fal’cie, Pulse fal’cie, and cie’th. My story is nothing like that game. But the interactions between those who think they are above everyone else, those whom they use to get what they want, and the way the general public treats those whom they fear and hate is universal. Playing it reminded me of an older anime I used to love that had a similar god-complex theme. And then I recently watched a new sci-fi/ dystopian anime with another god-complex theme that was sort of the icing on the cake. Loads of ideas to compare and contrast for my dragons, elves, and humans, so even though I’m playing, I’m actually working, looking for parallels that could tighten my plot for book 5. God-complex themes also exist in stories about corporations, government, mafia, crime-scene investigation, and in family situations where one member dominates all the others. Give your programmer a god-complex boss or father or client and watch her squirm. Or maybe the program itself has the god-complex (“Matrix”, “War Games”, “Space Odyssy”, etc.) πŸ˜‰

      Long answer, but hopefully that gives you a good idea of some possibilities. πŸ˜€

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      1. This is fantastic! My mind is going off in multiple directions right now. You are absolutely right on all counts, I think there is indeed something that I could take away from the games I play or movies I watch. Because you said it, there are only three plots! Man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself!! I think I need to look for ways in which I can translate those emotions into something I could use for myself. In fact I think I can start right away as I’m playing a game called Dishonored (a steam punk/fantasy dystopia) but the lead character does go through the kind of trials that my hero will go through. Let’s see how I get on with it πŸ˜€

        And Melody, I think you can turn this comment into a post of its own as this is some real good and insightful advice that others might benefit from. πŸ™‚ But thanks a ton for taking the time to type all that out!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you and you’re very welcome. And I love that game. πŸ˜€ I am ashamed to say I have yet to finish it, but I’ve started it twice and become distracted both times. But yeah, go for it. And if you get stuck, maybe I can throw some more ideas at you. πŸ˜€ (My brain has no “off” switch when it comes to this kind of stuff.)

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