Using RPGs to develop secondary characters in your narrative.

A common complaint in literature is the presence of one-dimensional secondary characters. These are characters outside of the standard formula or protagonist and antagonist; or are characters that act as a stimuli for plot progression. Understandably a character that is only going to dominate a single scene or at times a single line of dialogue in your story is not going to be one that you develop in any real depth. However, the lack of any consideration, or flippant description, can be both jarring and demoralising for your reader and will ultimately remove their engagement in the story. The two most common issues are completely generic stereotypes – the balding fat cop or the little asian punk girl – or the use of disjointed extremes – the asian emo-punk girl cop with pink hair but still wearing the standard police uniform – both of which will break the verisimilitude of the reading experience.

One suggestion is to begin to develop framework secondary characters using RPG character sheets. This is similar to making up a skeleton outline of a character, but using a template that keeps all the information in the same areas. The idea is that by using these pre-generated character sheets it will allow characters to be briefly fleshed out in ways that create them as more than a stereotype, but less than a full-blown character. The use of a standard template is already a good organisational strategy that will help you manage your secondary characters. And anyone who has had experience as a DM/GM will know how vital this is for developing NPCs (non-player characters) that populate their worlds. An RPG template will help you categorise the different abilities, skills, characteristics and even notes on physical appearance of each of your secondary characters in a fast and efficient manner.

  • As a GM, this is an interesting proposition and I agree wholeheartedly with the need to flesh out background characters (especially if you find yourself relying on cliches too often). However, I question whether Character Sheets are the best way to do this. A lot of what's on character sheets are strictly numbers, and while this could lead to inspiration for character traits (ex. This guy has an 8 in Charisma, I guess he's a bit stand-offish), there are other ways of fleshing out characters that lends itself more immediately to narrative traits. For example, there are countless "20 Questions For Developing Your Character" articles and things of that nature that can help a writer create a more developed character. Something that could set this piece aside from articles like those could be further recommendations on how writers should further utilize character sheets once they're made, perhaps using those numerical representations in their writing process beyond having a convenient layout for abilities and gear. – Shaboostein 4 years ago
  • I'm not predominantly a fiction writer, but my partner is and from what I've gleamed from him regarding the use of writing templates/formulas is that they are very good for beginners and getting used to structure etc., but when you begin writing more they can be somewhat constrictive and actually quash creativity. I'd say it would work the same in this case. It's probably a good exercise if you feel like you need to improve your skills in that area or if you're a new/beginner writer trying to figure everything out but after awhile you'll probably need to take off the 'training wheels' (so to speak) in order to do more. – ToriBridgland 4 years ago
  • I love your topic, and I think it can go a bit broader than the specific scenario you suggest here. Your idea goes beyond just keeping track of detailed character descriptions. Personally, my favorite parts of storytelling are creating new worlds, creating characters that are shaped by those worlds, and plot twists that change the arcs of those characters and/or dramatically impact those worlds. RPGs, especially from the GM's chair, offer those three things in spades! After making the world and using the rules to combine various elements of that world (this is how magic can intermingle with big swords, this is what affects a robot differently from a human, etc.), you can use any plot twists you come up with as milestones for the characters to be reached. The rest of the plot fills itself in through improvisation and (usually) dice rolls. See also the LitRPG genre. – noahspud 4 years ago

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