The Blog of John Hewitt

Creating a role-playing character biography

The point of writing a back story for a role playing character is to enrich your experience in the game. The biography of the character helps define that character’s actions and attitude. When it comes to adversity, the character’s life doesn’t have to be miserable, but it should include some moments that give the character motivation.

Let’s say I decide to play a bard (I don’t want to taint your sorceress). I want my bard to have some fighting skill and some musical skill, but the character is still young and relatively unproven. In researching character skills I decide I want him to start off with skills in performing, scribing and basic weapons. I also intend for him to pick up forgery, diplomacy and information gathering as skills later on. Personality wise, I picture him as good natured but a bit of a con man and a blowhard. He doesn’t just want to kill enemies and make money; he wants to have a great story to tell. He’s also the type of adventurer who will do whatever it takes to survive.

Below are a few short questions and answers that I will use to flesh out his character. I include my thought process in parentheses.

What’s his/her Name?

Lute Barjoey (This name is musical and it ties into his heritage. Yes, that can be a little hokey but role-playing games are for fun, not literature.)

Where did he/she grow up?

Lute grew up in a minor town of about 800 people. He was the third of three children, all boys. His father and mother owned a small tavern where they and his eldest brother Edward worked. Lute grew up surrounded by laughter, liquor and music (Explaining his formative background in music and revelry).

Why did the character become a bard (Sorceress, warrior, etc.)?

Lute was an amazingly intelligent and beautiful child with an excellent aptitude for mimicry both in voice and instrument (Accounting for the high points I allot to charisma and intelligence). As the third child he stood little chance of inheriting the bar so his parents apprenticed him to a touring theater company where he received basic training (Enough to be a low level bard with some performing abilities). While touring, the theater company disbanded for a lack of funds, leaving the young man in a new city with almost no money (Adversity). He survived for a while by performing music and storytelling in the streets and by writing letters and documents (Scribing) for the illiterate townsfolk but spent more than one night hungry and huddled in the cold (More adversity!). While he believed himself to be a good person, he stole food on more than one occasion and conned his way into a few ladies beds by virtue of his looks (Food and shelter trump law and honor for him).

Tired of living hand-to-mouth he joined the military and was sent to a foreign war. He spent most of his time as a prison guard and saw very little action (Remember he is still young and untested), but he learned how to use basic military weapons such as swords and bows. Much of his time was actually spent playing music for his fellow soldiers and writing letters home for them (More performing and scribing).

How did the character come to seek adventure?

The roots of the bard’s wanderlust began when he toured with the theater company. The desire to travel grew while in the military. After his country was victorious in the war, they cut back on their military. Lute was given a small severance package and went home to live with his parents. He worked for a year scribing documents for the local government (The roots of both his emerging forgery and diplomacy skills) but still spent his nights playing flute in his parent’s tavern and entertaining the locals with his exaggerated tales of the war based on other soldier’s letters (The roots of his information gathering skill). His future seemed set, but the thought of spending the rest of his life writing down other people’s words depressed him (More adversity and desire for adventure). Also, he longed for the money to start a theater group of his own and he knew that his small salary would never be enough (A goal). Plus, he had told his exaggerated stories of adventure so many times that he had started to believe them himself.

How did the character arrive where he/she is?

One day Lute packed up his few belongings (Including paper, a pen and ink, a sword, a bow and a flute) and decided to head out in search of adventure. There were rumors of rebellion in the lands his country had conquered. Apparently martial law was failing. Lute smelled adventure . . . and money. (These circumstances may have to be molded to whatever adventure is being planned)

What is a short story?

WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF A SHORT STORY?

I define a short story as a brief, focused fictional piece that contains at minimum the following key elements: plot, setting, characterization and some sort of resolution.

HOW LONG SHOULD A SHORT STORY BE?

In my opinion, the optimal length for a short story is between ten and fifty double-spaced pages of text. To me, anything longer than this is a novella (a short novel). Some other ways of defining the length of a short story are:

  • Short stories are short enough to be read in a single sitting (from a half hour two hours). This definition can be traced back to Edgar Allen Poe, one of the first great short story writers.
  • Short stories are less than 5000 words.
  • Short stories are shorter than a novel.

HOW IS A SHORT STORY DIFFERENT FROM A NOVEL?

In my opinion, the true difference between a short story and a novel is that a short story has a unity of theme, character and plot that is much more focused than a novel. Here are some other ways of stating the difference:

  • Short stories tend to concentrate on one major event or conflict.
  • Short stories have only one or two main characters.
  • Short stories create a single specific effect.
  • Short stories are more compressed than novels.
  • Short stories do not have sub-plots.

WHAT ARE THE MINIMUM ELEMENTS OF A SHORT STORY?

In my opinion, a short story has all of the elements of a novel. Specifically, they tell a story, as the name suggests. One or more characters experience an event or conflict, and that event or conflict has an observable effect on the character or characters. This differentiates a short story from a character sketch, which serves only to illustrate or flesh out a character. It also differentiates a short story from anecdotes or parables, which are often amusing or demonstrate a lesson, but which do not necessarily call for a character to be changed in any real way.

WHAT KIND OF SHORT STORIES ARE THERE?

Short stories are as varied as novels. They can come from such genres as horror, fantasy, romance, erotica, adventure and science fiction. They can be action packed and exciting or introspective and philosophical. They can be romantic, sexy, satirical, cynical, bleak or optimistic.

I tend to write what are called literary short stories. Literary short stories focus more on character and tone than plot. In most cases they avoid other genres. I also tend to include a lot of humor in my stories, often unintentionally. That is simply my style. Your style can be whatever you want it to be.

WHAT ARE SOME GOOD SHORT STORIES THAT I CAN READ ONLINE TO GET MYSELF READY FOR THIS PROJECT?

The downside of the web is that most of the stories we can access by major authors are older, public domain stories. With that said, I found a nice variety of short stories to get people started.

Mapping out your novel’s characters

In much the same way that you need to outline the action points in your plot, you should map out the relationships of your characters. Creating the backgrounds for your individual characters is important, and I covered that with this series of articles about building characters. Here, I am talking about mapping out the relationships between your characters. The goal of this process is to give structure to the relationships in your story. Knowing the individual traits or attitudes of your characters is important, but knowing the history and events in the relationships of your characters is equally important.

Character Map

Let’s say that you have three lead characters (just to keep it simple): Allen, Jillian, and Lisa. A character map would map out the relationships and past interactions between these three characters.

  • Allen and Jillian are married.
  • Lisa is Jillian’s younger sister.
  • Jillian views Lisa as being more successful and attractive than she is.
  • Allen thinks that Lisa is an annoyance, and dislikes any contact with her.
  • Allen has brought up his dislike in the past and has had Jillian get upset, so he no longer mentions it.
  • Lisa envies the relationship that Allen has with Jillian and misses the days when she and her sister were closer.
  • When Jillian and Lisa were younger, they both competed for the same guy, Wes, and Lisa won out. The relationship ended quickly, but it has created a slight distrust between them.
  • Jillian has gained weight recently, while Lisa has been losing weight and getting fit, which makes Jillian feel increasingly insecure.

The series of relationship ties can go on and on. The important point is that you map these relationships out so that you know how each character feels about the others and why. That way, as events play out in your novel, you will have a better idea of how each character will react to the actions of the other characters. You may not want to, or need to mention every item in the relationship map over the course of your novel, but knowing that these relationship intersects are there will give you a better view of how these characters will react to each other and why.

How to Write Personal Essays and Opinion Pieces

All I wanted was a pair of boots for plodding around my muddy garden. The local shopping mall offered rubber boots for girls, boys, and men. And low-cut high-gloss “fashion boots” for women. The outdoors shop had a good stock of rubber boots for kids, steel-toed boots for men, and hiking boots for women. At the secondhand store I found rubber boots for men, rubber boots for children, and a pair of women’s pink nylon boots that wouldn’t get me through the first puddle. I finally found a yellow pair of rubber sailing boots at the ship chandler’s, but I had no intention of wearing $89 dollar boots in the potato patch.

So, instead of working outside in the yard, I wrote an essay about looking for wellies. My vegetable garden didn’t get dug that year, but I did make a few dollars for the essay (which paid for the boots I finally did track down).

Personal Essays and Opinion Pieces Sell

There’s a great market for personal essays in magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Everyone, it seems, wants a glimpse into everyone else’s life and is eager for their opinions on just about anything. Consider the growth of ‘reality TV’ — you no longer have to be a celebrity to find voyeurs peering over your windowsill or past your shower curtain.

Personal essays (sometimes called opinion piece, or personal narratives) allows you to have your say, get your gripes and raves off your chest, and have a shot at publication. Many new writers first get published with an essay on child rearing or job hunting or how they helped a family member cope with a serious illness.

Perhaps you have strong feelings about the invasive use of cell phones, or want to share a compelling story about how one saved your daughter’s life. You might feel strongly about environmental issues, or want to relate how your handicapped son learned to ride a bike. You may have a story to tell about a personal crisis, or a high point in your career.

A Wide Range of Topics

Whatever you care about is fair game for an essay topic.

And that’s the first point. Be sure your essay is about something you care strongly enough about to wax eloquent and passionate about it. Readers wants to know what you know, feel what you felt, and understand where you’re coming from.

Conversational topics that get you excited, or news stories that make your blood boil or get you laughing out loud, are likely to be provide good fodder for essays. Small gripes and observations also offer worthwhile material.

However ‘big’ or small the subject is, however important or trivial it might seem on the surface, make sure you set it in a frame that allows your reader to identify, empathize, and be involved.

Ever got stuck talking to a bore at a party? They regale you with their life and opinions, but don’t leave enough air or space to let you in to trade tales; they relate their story to nothing bigger than their own experience.

Whether you’re writing about your kid’s first day at school or nursing an Alzheimic grandmother, winning a scholarship or finding the first spring bulb in your garden, make the frame wide enough to allow your reader to find parallels between your experience and theirs. Give them the opportunity to say, “Ah! Yes. I’ve never been there or done that, but I can relate to what the author’s talking about.”

Opinion Pieces

Perhaps you feel strongly about the use of fireworks. Set your opinions against the account of the day your box of fireworks exploded, or support them with statistics on fireworks sales, how many injuries are reported each 4th. of July or Halloween, what it costs the local police department to patrol the streets on those nights, or share your memory of the first time you held a sparkler.

If you’re writing about the “small” personal occurrence — a move, your first pet — put it in a context that gives the reader insight to both the small moment and the wider perspective.

Details draw the reader in, generalizations keep them out. Be specific. Avoid using abstract expressions and phrases such as “the best day of my life”, “my happiest moment as a parent”, “I’d never known greater grief” to describe emotions of love, loss, anger, joy, satisfaction, etc. Make these emotions real and immediate by noting specifics and details that draw the reader into the experience, rather than just setting them aside as observers. The old “seduction not instruction” rule — showing rather than telling — makes for a more compelling essay, as it does almost any piece of writing.

Personal Essays and Craft

While personal essays allows for the use of many fictional craft elements — dialogue, setting, point of view, characterization – if you use facts to anchor your piece or as a springboard for your opinions, you need to double-check them for accuracy. One factual error can prevent the reader from believing much else that you have to say.

Here are some guidelines to help you write essays that strike a chord with the reader.

  • Personal essays by definition contain a personal perspective. You should be there. Watch your construction. If every sentence begins “I”, you need to rephrase to provide a better rhythm and pace to your piece.
  • No extra points for the number of facts you include. Academic essays contain more facts than opinion, personal essays contain more opinion than facts. But ensure the facts you use are accurate. Check names, spellings, numbers. Two sources of confirmation are better than one.
  • Make connections. If you’re writing about a global theme (poverty, unemployment, child abuse) bring the subject closer to home by relating it to specific, individual examples. If you’re writing about more mundane subjects (left-hand turn signals, the search for the best French Fries, your daughter’s graduation) again, set your views against a wider backdrop or perspective so the reader can relate to it.
  • Writing essays in a great way to get your opinions off your chest, but avoid philosophical rants which make no connection to your reader’s experience. Again, keep it personal while relating to a wider world.
  • The hook is the device you use to get your reader’s attention. It’s the doorway through which you welcome and orient them to the piece. Try using:
    • A question. (“When was the last time you went without a meal?”)
    • A quotation from someone famous or something you’ve read/overhead. (“Be careful” were the last words my father said to me each time I left the house.)
    • A strong statement that your essay will either support or dispute. (“If you eat enough cabbage, you’ll never get cancer.”)
    • A metaphor. (“The starlings in my back garden are the small boys in the playground, impressing each other with their new-found swear words. The crows all belong to the same biker gang. You need to know their secret sign to join their club.”)
    • A description of a person or setting. (“Michael once mowed the lawns around Municipal Hall wearing a frilly apron, high heels and nylons, with a pillow stuffed under his sweater so he looked pregnant. And it wasn’t even Halloween.”)
  • Write as evocatively as possible. Employ all the senses. Using sight comes naturally to most writers; push harder to convey ideas and images through sound, taste, touch, and hearing.
  • Think of your essay as a camera lens. You might start by describing a fine detail (your personal experience or perspective, a specific moment in the narrative), then open up the lens to take in the wide view (the general/global backdrop), then close the piece by narrowing back to the fine detail. Or go the other way. Start with the wide view, focus in, then open up to the wide view again.
  • Take your ideas from wherever you can. Note your reactions to everything, pursue passing preoccupations and distractions, consider what makes you, glad, angry, passionate in what you read, see and hear. Mine your own past for incidents, images, lessons and epiphanies.
  • In a personal essay you have the freedom to think what you like on a subject, but your reader should go away with a good idea of why you feel that way.

Personal Essay Markets

A range of markets are hungry for submissions of personal essays. The US print magazine Newsweek carries one a week and pays $1,000; its Canadian equivalent, Macleans, publishes “Over To You”. The CBC am radio program This Morning regularly airs “First Person Singular”, and I’m sure the public radio stations in other countries have spots for them, too. Writers Digest has recently taken its print essay Chronicle online, and pays $100!

Don’t overlook smaller, less high profile markets. Many consumer and commercial magazines publish essays, as do organization and business newsletters. Most local and regional newspapers carry essays on their op-ed pages, and more and more literary websites include them.

Before you submit essays, you should first check writers’ guidelines for word length and the range of topics the market considers. You don’t need to query; send the complete piece, and include an SASE and/or the required return information. You might consider multiply submitting essays to non-competing markets (publications whose distribution areas do not overlap), but do mention to the editors that you’re doing this. Individual publication guidelines will often tell you if this is acceptable.

Many forms of writing require authors to keep themselves out of the story. Writing personal essays and opinion pieces allow you to have your say, and guarantees you an audience who’s willing to listen.

Lois J. Peterson has published essays in a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Her piece The Road to Basra is currently online at Eclectica. She is coordinator of the Surrey Creative Writing Program in British Columbia, and has recently published ’101 Writing Exercises To Get You Started and Keep You Going’.

Explaining the unreliable narrator

An unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator that for some reason has a compromised point-of-view. In all stories with a first-person narrator, the narrator serves as a filter for the events. What the narrator does not know or observe cannot be explained to the reader. Usually, however, the reader trusts that the narrator is knowledgeable and truthful enough to give them an accurate representation of the story. In the case of an unreliable narrator (sometimes called a fallible narrator), the reader has reason not to trust what the narrator is saying.

The narrator may be unreliable for many reasons. Some of the typical scenarios are:

  • The narrator may be of a dramatically different age than the people in the story, such as a child attempting to explain adult actions
  • The narrator may have prejudices about race, class or gender
  • The narrator may have low intelligence
  • The narrator may suffer from hallucinations or dementia
  • The narrator may have a personality flaw such as pathological lying or narcissism
  • The narrator may be trying to make a point that is contrary to the actions of the story or be attempting to libel one of the characters due to a grudge

Whatever flaw the narrator has, at some point the reader will realize that the narrator’s interpretation of the events cannot be fully trusted and will begin to form their own opinions about the events and motivations within the story. Some readers will be put off by this approach. Stories depend on the willing suspension of disbelief, and readers can be pulled out of the story when they realize the narrator cannot be trusted. This is why telling a tale from this viewpoint can be problematic. There is a fine line between distrusting the narrator and distrusting the writer.

When done badly, a story written from this point-of-view can be viewed as manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. When successful, however, the results can be powerful and fascinating. Some of the greatest works of the twentieth century used unreliable narrators. Some examples of books with unreliable narrators include: