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? ūüôā


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 Z√°ks-H√Ĺarta, 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

√ćenth√© 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 √ćenth√©, 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.) √ćenth√© 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 √ćenth√© 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?)

F√©onna 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. ūüėÄ

Willowfern
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 Kass√≠ 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.)

T√°val√≥ 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.
T√°val√≥ 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. ūüėÄ 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. ūüôā 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. ūüėČ ¬†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.

TrueColors02_by_Merodinoongaku
Trizryn’s true colours in Oblivion¬†during transition to vampirism vs …
09FocusOnTheBlood
… 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.

Vampire
Not only would a vampire balk at daylight missions, it would be dangerous for him.
trapped
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.

Bittersweet
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? ūüôā 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’t√≠a 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. ūüôā

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.
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