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 …
- … looking for parallels among literary elements in stories you like. Basic literary elements and primary resources have no copyrights.
- … 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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”.