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?
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.
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.
- Look for parallels in archetypal elements when determining what you can take and what you cannot.
- 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.