What I Mean When I Say 3-D Character Design

Yuna Final Fantasy X-2

Assume that the first 5,000 words of this post is a treatise on the use of propaganda to make it socially acceptable to attack opponents and commit horrific acts throughout history. I want to write it, but I have work to do and I’m grumpy(1)(2).

It was pointed out to me that I haven’t blogged about designing games or writing stories for a bit, and that’s something I definitely want to sprinkle in here and there. Often, the challenge for me is that I have my own lexicon(3) for creative elements. For example, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” with the fiery passion of a thousand red suns, because I feel those terms devalue both the necessary work that systems designers do and the talented efforts of setting designers. Instead, I call the systems the “engine” for a game, because that’s what makes a game go. The setting, then, is the “vehicle”. Combined, they make a game filled with passengers (e.g. the characters). Without the engine or the vehicle, you don’t have a game. You have a pile of rules or you have a bunch of descriptions. You definitely need both to play.

What about those passengers, though? Well, circling back to my goal to define what I mean when I say “3-D character design”, I envision all game’s characters to be a personality that lifts right off the page. Player-characters aren’t photographs, because they’re not static. They’re active, and their stories are shaped by a player sitting at the table. In many games, I also like to envision the GM’s characters to be the same way, because that offers more potential for conflict and interactions. Thus, three-dimensional characters are more life-like than 2D; they are full of desires, fears, and quirks–just like the people filling their shoes.

I’m of the mind that three-dimensional character portrayals actively support a better play experience(4), because we–the designers–are presenting characters for two reasons. First, the characters are there for the GM to narrate. The more characters there are, the easier it is to portray them as photographs because they’re elements needed to build a narrative. But, even tweaking those characters just a little bit makes them more fun to interact with and more emotionally compelling to rescue, fight, investigate, chase, etc.

Second, the characters we present are not only necessary for the players, they also underline the play experience; you typically can’t have a game without characters (or roles) of some sort unless it’s intentionally designed not to have them. Character depictions are also a strong indicator of what that vehicle (e.g. setting) is like for the game, and when these portrayals are flat it sends a strong message to the players at the table.

For example, many players internalize they are not welcome in a game if the art and text doesn’t not include their identities, because they don’t feel a connection and can’t see themselves playing the game. This happens on both a subconscious and conscious level, and it is tied to one of the reasons why people buy games in the first place. To have fun, people need to feel vested in a game, and that investment depends on any number of factors. I’ve found that one of the best and surest ways to increase a player’s interest, is to focus on three-dimensional characters that many different types of players would be attracted to.

Three-dimensional characters do take some work to create, but I personally feel having this as a design goal makes us better designers and writers. The identity portion of that is part and parcel to ensuring characters are handled appropriately, and to that end I’m teaching a class called Writing the Other: Writing RPGs Sans Fail with K. Tempest Bradford. Outside of the discussions to sensitively portraying different identities, there are tons of techniques you can employ to zero in on making better characters.

Now that I’ve defined what three-dimensional characters are, I’ll address tips for designing them in a later post.

(1) Politics and winter. I have a great life, but nothing sends me into a rage faster than attacking women’s rights and seeing a bunch of dudes be smug about it. And winter, because this season has been way too long for sure!

(2) Broke my pledge to check in less, but I’m glad I got that out of my system now.

(3) It has always been this way, ever since I was very little.

(4) The same is true in fiction. Flat characters are boring to read!

Pesky Emotions. Storytelling and Heart’s Cockles.

Shiva Final Fantasy X Avatar

Okay, I admit it. I’m penning this instead of diving back into storytelling and game design. I’m a bad writer, I know. But? I write this post and away I go. In a way, I need to get this thought process down into a digestible form that provides some amount of solace, comfort, and I suppose, in a bizarre sort of a way — complacency.

Emotions have been on my mind. I finished editing a non-fiction book earlier this month and I felt like I had grown another head, cut it off, and then seared it with a hot poker so it wouldn’t grow back. After the book, then, I experience this broad range of emotions that run from ecstatic to relief to. . .sadness. Yep, I get teary-eyed because the book is out of my system and it’s in the wild.

But, obviously, the process doesn’t end there.

I talked a bit about this with one of my other (more creative than I, if you can believe that) friends, and she said that it sounded almost like I was going through a mini-depression. Okay, if that were true, that frightens me like you wouldn’t believe — but, was she right? Was it possible I was wallowing in post-creation sadness?

I’m not sure. What I think is true, though, is that creatives have to tend to their psyche and well-being, and take great care to ensure we are doing what’s best for ourselves in order to produce efficient and quality work. In this context, I mean “quality” within the boundaries of what we feel is good enough, pending where we’re at in the process. And by well-being? I also mean holistically. Diet, exercise, friends, family, relationships, creatively. . . All of it.

Writing requires a certain amount of emotional connectivity to characters and story; the more formulaic the tale is, the easier it is to see the “seams,” and the less emotionally-responsive I get. Stories can be wholly and technically correct in every way — but they can lack emotional connectivity. While not everyone will agree with what I just said, I feel tales that offer the reader the chance to get emotionally-involved with the characters are the ones that resonate the best. Sometimes, there’s other factors involved with that emotional vibration that have nothing to do with the story. Is the book popular? Do you love the author and know what to expect? Usually though, I do think it’s how we consume that story as part of the relationship between writer-and-reader. (Key word: relationship. I’m not writing for myself, you know!)

But what happens when the writer pens sad scenes or violent snippets or characters that are “off.” Do we become our characters? No, I don’t. I may try to understand them through my writing so they’re more believable, but that doesn’t mean I could ever blow up a building or harm someone myself. It’s very easy for me to move from real world to fiction/games and back again, save for a touch of emotion. I do, after all, write characters I can’t stand and then attack them vigorously. And as I’ve said many, many, many times before, I write in the dark because I want to highlight characters that are either overcoming that evil or that not everything can be tied up nice and neat with a little bow. I love stories about heroes. Real, unlikely, reluctant, brave, nervous, etc.

Sometimes, though, it’s the research part or the emotional let-down that sends me into a strange tizzy. And then I get a touch of the “I’m not really sure I want to write this, but I feel compelled to, and I’m afraid of it.” One story I’m writing is. . . It’s everything I hate about the current climate and treatment of women. That’s a “theme,” however. That’s just a small piece of the layers and layers for that one. It’s fun to write, a blast to structure, and there are ways I’m getting my writer-nerd on here. Still, experiencing that kind of emotion doesn’t just “happen” in a bubble.

Knowing what my response is to a work means that I can either run from those potentially-negative emotions or dive in with full abandon. (Guess which one I’ll have to do? Hrmmm?) But, it also means I had to find ways of dealing with those emotions outside of the writing to prevent a darker mood in real lifeTM. How do I do that? With the silly, of course! Why do you think I decompress with crazy-fun illustrations, comics, bright colors, extraordinarily silly accessories, and games like Star Wars Legos or LittleBigPlanet? They’re brainless (after a fashion), a lot of fun, and they whisk me away from the darkness.

Lessons I learned: avoid reading dramatic books where characters die when writing dramatic books where characters might die. Oh, and. . .there’s nothing wrong with being silly, reading something silly, or just having fun with a silly game/comic/book/song, etc.

Well, I guess I lied. I guess there is one way I’m like most characters (e.g. humans). If I’m sinking into a character’s dark mood, I need to recognize that’s what’s happening and put something wholly enjoyable and fun into my post-writing routine. After all, one cannot experience light without darkness — a fact that’s both reassuring and terrifying all at the same time.

And a-way I go.

    Mood: Can I cackle? Is that allowed? Or. . .not.
    Caffeinated Beverages Consumed: I see buzzing people.
    Work-Out Minutes Logged Yesterday: I keep walking, but never seem to get anywhere.
    In My Ears: Strange Tales podcast
    Game Last Played: Star Wars Legos
    Movie Last Viewed: The Raven
    Latest Artistic Project: In progress!
    Latest Release: “Fangs and Formaldehyde” from the New Hero anthology through Stone Skin Press

[My Guest Post] Writing Prompt for Perspective

This month at Apex Book Company, I talk a little bit about something I feel is crucial to ensuring your story is your own — perspectives. When I’m worldbuilding and mapping out my plots, I also include something that happens a lot in romance — what the character believes and fears.

Just recently, I had the chance to apply this to a flash fiction piece-turned-short story called The Legend of Aeneis that I submitted into the atmosphere. The premise was about how a group of priests conducted a ritual they believed would save them from an impending attack. Thinking that uber-ancient technology or magic is the end all and be all is quite common in our culture, but it’s not always true. In this case, it definitely wasn’t.

Here’s a quote from the article:

Perspectives are one way to achieve the characterization. I just got done watching Season Five of Doctor Who, and I was reminded of how the Doctor’s view of humanity affects and shapes what he does and how he sees the world. Each alien race in the series has a different view of humanity, and for our own stories understanding that perspective — and why they believe and feel what they do — is crucial to ensuring an alien race is distinct yet something we can relate to. — SOURCE: Writing Prompt: How Would an Alien Describe a Human at Apex Book Company

I hope you get the chance to check this out. For more writing prompts, the Donald Maass Literary Agency has been offering some excellent ways to dig deep and find literary treasure. You can also follow the president of their agency on Twitter @DonMaass.

Missing Heroines, Romantic Tension and Doctor Who

Yesterday, I wrote a post about how we need to dig deeper to find a heroic heart. It’s timely, since I’m anxiously awaiting the debut of a few short stories out in the lands of publishing. It’s also relevant for another reason: just got back from WisCon and finished watching Season 5 of Doctor Who.

It’s really difficult for me to read books without tearing apart their structure; it’s becoming more challenging to do that with television shows and movies, too. I can relate to the many sides of the writer’s struggle — fulfilling the requirements of whatever format the story is in, watching screenplays get tweaked according to the producer’s needs, meeting IP guidelines.

However… It still blows my mind that here it is — 2011 — and we still struggle with painting “alternative” heroes: people of color, gay characters and, in many cases, strong non-bitchy women. In my article, I talked about how physical descriptions shouldn’t limit a writer, because the hero/heroine’s journey is about overcoming a limitation of some sort. If anything, I don’t understand why we don’t see more diversity in a heroic character, not less.

Enter my frustration with the female characters in Season 5 of Doctor Who. The Doctor is an iconic hero: like Superman, he doesn’t change. To understand him, to know him, I try to identify with the characters around him. I cannot, in any way shape or form, relate to Amy Pond. The actress herself isn’t the challenge; I don’t believe her character’s story. I cannot buy that she has fallen into extreme hero worship, where the Doctor has become her own personal Jesus, yet she still managed to fall in love with Rory. She’s a character that is only important because of the things that happen around her. She has absolutely no personal power of her own, regardless of what the Doctor says.

What I felt made the David Tennant era so believable, was the sharp contrast in the moments when he was having fun and the moments when he was totally and utterly alone. Donna Noble was my favorite companion, because there was no “love” there. They were best friends. I understood that she couldn’t physically handle the power she took into her system, and I was okay with that.

I feel that romance is Season 5’s biggest weakness. The minute the Doctor’s Companion starts to go down that path of “My Doctor,” it all falls apart because we know — as the audience — there is absolutely no chance in hell of that happening. There’s no romantic tension. There’s no conflict. There’s a very powerful, very suave, unattainable man that no one — with the possible exception of River Song in this season — can ever be with. Even in the episode where the Doctor is a lodger, he still gets the near-immediate attention of Sophie and the infatuation builds, leaving the “couch potato” out in the cold. I don’t buy it when Sophie flips the switch when Craig professes his love for her either.

I know it sounds like I’m being harsh, but I enjoy the show immensely and recognize how difficult it might be to write this series. The Doctor is a problematic character to write into a romance, because there is a sort of meta-storytelling tactic going on in each episode. We know he’ll never fall in love, so why introduce love interests in the first place? Romantic tension would be something that could be done, provided we believe there’s a chance — even a glimmer of hope — that he might end up in the happily never after with another character.

The happily never after is something I feel the show could take risks with, but it doesn’t. The continuous storyline about the crack in Amy’s wall is really where Season 5 begins and ends. I just wish there was more to emotionally relate to without being pulled out of the story completely. I still like and enjoy Doctor Who, but there’s something missing from Season 5: a heroine I can relate to.

[My Guest Post] Dig Deeper to Find a Heroic Heart

Today, over at the Rogue Blades Entertainment website, I’m talking about the nature of a true hero and heroine in Dig Deeper to Find a Heroic Heart. Take a look:

When I’m writing a heroic character, the physical aptitude and appearance of a hero or heroine isn’t as important as what shortcomings that character must overcome. When I’m designing the world and their backstory, I look at limitations within physical, mental, social or emotional spheres. By going about it this way, I am not painting my character into an artistic corner. I’m not saying, “Well, my heroine can’t possibly do X because she isn’t shaped like X” right off the bat. I have more freedom and more flexibility to work with the character than I would if I focused on gender or simple concepts like “super strong” or “invisible.” Sure, a character can be super-strong, but that’s not enough to sustain a story. Why are they strong? How does that power affect their self-worth? Their relationship with other people? Their role in society? — SOURCE: Dig Deeper to Find a Heroic Heart at Home of Heroics

Within that article, you’ll find my thoughts on why I think it’s silly to obsess over the physical aspects of a character, and why I believe we can have more unique heroes and heroines that don’t fit into the traditional mold.

Next Posts

Monica Valentinelli >

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