Last year, I wrote a piece about finally finishing my first novel. At the time, I focused on the ability to type because that was the single greatest determining factor in being able to complete the novel. As a child of two writers, coming up with characters and stories is really second nature to me. But it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to talk about that process as well. Even though it’s simple for me, it might be helpful to others.
A lot of my storytelling ability has been honed by running tabletop roleplaying games for a decade. I get plenty of practice coming up with characters, including looks, personality, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Often I just start with a name, a character trait, an occupation, or even a color and let my imagination wander from there.
For example, when I wrote my novel I wanted it to be about a modern person who had a similar job to mine. That way I could write what I knew. But the story wouldn’t be as interesting if I made her just like me. So when I was building her character I made her like me, only Japanese American. I started with the basic concept of the story I wanted to write, then created a character who would work well within that. Sometimes I’ll do the opposite, create a character and then design an adventure for them. Or I will create a character, imagine a situation, and then just think logically about what they would do in that situation with the skills and experience they have, and work from there. That last method comes straight from my roleplaying games. We are taught to decide what a character knows and can do, and operate entirely within that. It makes for more interesting characters and better stories.
As a game mistress, I also have to come up with stories all the time. I often take a story element from one plotline and weave it into the larger narrative, so that my player has mysteries to solve and new things to explore based on what they have already seen and done. Say there was an oddly dressed stranger the player noticed two weeks ago? Perhaps they are a part of a secret society- dovetailing with the character’s suspicions of being abducted by aliens- and the story could go anywhere.
Gaming has made me write stories that have far more internal consistency. I’m used to having a player picking holes in them all the time, so I am sure to make my stories interesting, internally consistent, and well described. A roleplaying game isn’t worth beans if your player is left wondering what their environment looks, sounds, feels and smells like. This transfers very well to stories and leads me to show, rather than tell. Though I still stray at times, it’s still more natural for me to say “Sanae walked up the tree-lined street as plum blossoms drifted down. She smiled at the happy squeals of playing children as the sunshine warmed her” than “It was a warm spring day and Sanae was happy.”
If I could give one tip to writers, it would be to describe your story and your characters well. Details matter. Which is more interesting, “a bowl of soup,” or “a pottery bowl of tomato soup?” Without using too much purple prose, try to immerse your reader in your story and situations. Take them away from the everyday with your vivid descriptions.