D&D - Characterization

Summary of this month’s movie:

Here come the spoilers! Our story begins with bard Edgin and barbarian Holga in an arctic prison. Standing before a parole council, Edgin recalls the events that led to their imprisonment, aka the backstory. He and Holga, along with three others, attempted to steal an artifact to resurrect Edgin's wife, who'd been killed by disciples of a Red Wizard years before. He and Holga were captured, but the others got away. After the backstory, the pair make a daring escape from the prison and learn one of their comrades, Forge, who has been taking care of Edgin’s daughter Kira, is now a lord. But Forge has convinced Kira that Edgin's greed led to his arrest. Another of their comrades, Sofina, is a Red Wizard, and together, she and Forge orchestrated Edgin and Holga's imprisonment.

Sofina attempts to kill Edgin and Holga, but they escape and decide to rob Forge's vault and bring Kira home during the upcoming High Sun Games. But they still need the artifact to prove their innocence to Kira and resurrect Edgin's wife. Edgin and Holga track down their third comrade, Simon, a terrible sorcerer, and he suggests also recruiting Doric, a druid. Doric infiltrates the castle as a fly and finds the vault has magical defenses Simon can’t disable but Simon believes a magic helm could. They learn the Helm is with a paladin named Xenk. With the help of a teleportation staff obtained from Holga's halfling ex-husband, they find the relic but are attacked by Sofina’s assassins. Xenk helps the group escape from the assassins and an obese red dragon before departing.

Simon has trouble mastering the Helm's power, so they use the staff to enter the vault during the games. However, the group is captured and forced to participate in the games. Luckily, they escape on a boat Forge has loaded with the treasure and rescue Kira from Forge. But they realize Sofina plans to turn the crowd at the games into an undead army the Red Wizards can control. The group returns, transporting Forge's stolen riches out of the boat with the teleportation staff and spreading them across the city by hot-air balloon, drawing people out of the stadium before Sofina's spell takes effect. They defeat Sofina, but Holga is fatally injured. Edgin uses the tablet to bring Holga back to life, accepting that he wanted to bring back his wife only for his own sake while Holga had become a true part of their family. In a final scene, Forge stands before the parole council, where he spectacularly fails to escape as Edgin and Holga did at the beginning.

Carly: Okay this movie was so fun. I play tabletop RPGs and there were lots of fun easter eggs and moments throughout. It was a nice and funny movie. I really enjoyed it. I loved the silliness and the casting was really good. Mostly, I loved what they did with Xenk and how they made fun of the noble Knight tropes. Paladins are often honorable dorks, and they really dug into the hilarity of that. I’ve been needing a solid adventure comedy, and this scratched that itch. I feel like fun movies like this, that are actually well done, are becoming few and far between. It definitely felt modern and good.

Jeni: Yes, I noticed a lot of the little nods to the DnD game, and as they introduced the characters, I kept thinking about the character sheet you use to create new characters, especially because I know a lot of authors who use something similar. Because that’s just how my brain works now haha. But I really enjoyed this movie. It’s a good fantasy adventure, which we just don’t get much of anymore, and they did a great job of making the cast more diverse than we would have seen in similar movies in, say, the 80s and 90s (looking at you, Willow). I also really liked that the story plays with a lot of standard high fantasy tropes in a way that makes the story feel fresher and more modern as well. For example, I wasn’t super surprised that Forge was a villain, but it was nicely done that we learn that so early in the story. Like, it’s not a big reveal that comes in the second half of the movie. The cast was great, the story was fun, and I just really enjoyed it. I think any fantasy fan would like it, whether they’ve played DnD or other tabletop RPGs or not. So, what’s something this movie does well that authors can use in their writing?

Carly: Characterization. With such a big cast, it can be difficult to make sure everyone is equally engaging and also is distinct enough. And like Jeni said, D&D has a very distinctive character sheet and process for creating your character, and it is very similar to how authors create characters. I’ve often given authors the advice of using it to help them create their characters. Anyway, when you have a lot of characters, especially in a multi-POV it can be difficult to make them distinct and unique people that your readers will care about. But I was engaged with all of these characters. Even if they can be tropey, you connect with them. Like Jeni said, we know that Forge is going to be a villain, yet he’s still engaging and fun. Each of the characters has their own backstory, their own journey, their own growth. Edgin is our lead and his story is the main thrust of the plot, but each character has their own story arc that helps push the narrative, even in smaller ways. A classic D&D party is made up of very different characters that each bring something to the table. And a cast of characters in your book is no different. This shows us how different people add different things to a narrative, and that they should all be imperative to the story.

Jeni: Okay so I mentioned tropes before, and I wanted to go into that more as it relates specifically to the characterization. DnD characters really pull from high fantasy tropes that had already been well-established before the game was created and then expands on that. They outline classes –which in this movie we have a bard, a barbarian, a rogue, a sorcerer, a druid, a paladin, and a wizard as the main cast–and race, which is not about skin color but about the fantasy ancestry of the character. For example, Doric is a tiefling, which is a bit of an unusual fantasy race for a druid. Tieflings are half human and half devil and so not normally associated with druids, who are stereotypically tree-hugging peace-lovers because they have an affinity with nature. Making Doric a druid adds a softness to a character that would typically be frightening to the other races in their world. The other characters break the mold in similar ways. Holga is a barbarian and what I really love about her is that she has this amazing relationship with Kira but it doesn’t really soften her. She has such a severe personality, even with her friends, but she’s still a really great mother figure. Even Edgin, who is arguably the tropiest of the protagonists, plays with those tropes. On the surface, he’s this cocky, happy-go-lucky bard, this charming man who’s been used to things going his way. But we find that he’s fully embraced his “mediocre white man” status and uses his failures as motivation. He even calls himself “the champion of failures” in a rousing speech at the dark moment. I wrote down a quote from that speech: “we must never stop failing because the minute we do, we’ve failed.” Because it’s true and also it makes me laugh. Anyway. The best way to use tropes when it comes to characters is to decide which ways the characters will meet the reader’s expectations based on the tropes you use and how to subvert other tropes to surprise the reader. We did a whole episode on tropes where we touch on how tropes impact characters but don’t go super deep, so I do recommend going back and listening to Episode 9 about Parasite to learn more about tropes overall.

Carly: Okay so, let’s get into how you make a character in D&D, because I know you all want to play a game with me, so I’m going to walk you through it. The basis of character creation is picking a race and class (don’t get me started on how old-fashioned and out of touch some of these terms are. It shouldn’t be race, but whatever, I’ll move on for now). This feeds into the type of person they are going to be, the powers/abilities they will have. But the next step is even more important, and that is picking their background. This is basically another way to give them abilities, but it is more about where your character came from and how that influences who they are. The cool thing about this is that it then leads into all the other choices you make because your character’s background dictates who they have become, just like in life and in writing! In D&D choosing your background then lets you choose your character’s personality, ideals, flaws, and bonds. These are four categories that you choose that will help you to know how to play a character, how they will react in any given confrontation. And it is a great way to think about how to create the characters in your book. We discussed this a lot in our Goal, Motivation, and Conflict episode, once you know what your character wants and why they want it, you know how they’ll react to certain stimuli. So personality, ideals, flaws, and bonds, these are the most important part of character creation when it comes to who your character is. It is about figuring out what your character believes in (even if they are wrong), what flaws hold them back (and make them relatable), who they care about/what their relationships are like, and how that all comes together to show their personality. A tip I often give is that a character’s relationships show who they are. Who we like, why we like them, who we hate, why we hate them, and what we will do for and within our relationships shows who a person is better than anything else. Okay so we see this in the movie a lot. Let’s go with Edgin on this one. He’s a funny and charismatic personality. But his ideals are complex. He was originally typically noble, but then slowly his ideals shifted to taking care of his family and the people around him. He is focused on supporting those he loves (including the adventuring party). His flaws are that he’s cocky and afraid of other people being honorable. And his bonds run extremely deep. His love for his daughter, his love for his dead wife, his love for Holga, and his belief in Simon. These bonds dictate who he is and the choices he makes, like bringing Holga back to life. These characterizations form who he is and how he acts throughout the movie. So ask yourself: what are your character’s personality, ideals, flaws, and bonds?

Jeni: So when you're writing and creating a character, you have so many different tools at your disposal to help you show that characterization on the page. The biggest ones are physical description, mannerisms, and reactions. You also have interiority if you are using that character as a narrator. In terms of physical description, think about what you are showing the reader about this character through their physical appearance. So for example, Holga is very muscly, and her hair is always up and back in a way that suggests a clan or Viking-esque ancestry. She doesn't worry about being quote-unquote pretty. Simon is similar. You tend to think of a sorcerer as looking like Gandalf, like this old man with a long beard, but instead Simon is young. He's this skinny kid, and it really goes along with this idea of him being inexperienced and not really knowing how to access his magic. So, just really think about what you can show about their personality through what they look like. With mannerisms, these are the way a character speaks, how they move their body, how they hold themselves, all of those things that make up how they express themselves externally. This is all simulating nonverbal communication since that isn’t inherent on the page. How do you use these to show the reader who that character is, what's important to them, how they perceive themselves and their place in the world, kind of all of those things? Doric, for example, has a tendency to withdraw, almost like she’s skittish. This goes back to her distrust of humans. You can almost see her physically withdrawing, again going back to that dark moment where she's like “I can't believe I trusted you guys.” In this story, we don't have one particular POV character, which is common in high fantasy, but in a written story when you have a POV character, you're also going to get to see their interiority. Interiority is their thoughts, their emotions, their internal visceral responses or body language responses that only they would know about, so like sweating or you know hot or cold parts of their bodies or something along those lines. Those are all things that count as interiority because it's only something that you know if you get the character’s perspective on what's happening. So, these are all tools to put the information on the page and really build up what your character is like because the alternative is just having long paragraphs of exposition that tell us what the character is like instead of showing us through their actions, their reactions, all of that stuff.

Carly: Okay so the next thing is how they interact with other characters and the world around them. As I mentioned earlier, our relationships show who we are and what we care about. How your character interacts with the other characters defines them. A story is all about the interactions between your characters and the world, it is a push and pull of actions and responses. So on a basic level you want to show who your character is by how they interact with the world, the space, and the people that fill your pages. Ask yourself, how would my character respond to another character that represents their emotional wound? Giving them that person to come up against is going to show us their wound more accurately than telling us ever could. Let’s take Holga as an example. She cares for Kira deeply, and is constantly trying to keep everyone safe. But she cares about Kira more than anyone else. She even goes to see her ex-husband in order to make progress on saving her. Her interactions with her ex show how much she cares for Kira, and still cares for her ex. She hates seeing him happy, but she is happy for him too. And the fact that he found someone else shows her that her inability to move on is what is keeping her from having her own family. And then we see how she interacts with Edgin. She tolerates his charisma, rolls her eyes at it, but she also implicitly trusts him to pull it off. It shows the depths of their relationship and how much they’ve been through together. Now we get to objects and how they interact with the world around them. There is this small moment where Holga and Edgin are escaping and she sees an ax that she likes. She asks questions about it, compliments it, and when they escape she takes it. Edgin immediately knows that she is going to want to go get oil to take care of the blade. This small moment shows the depth of their relationship, what she finds intriguing, and gives us a side to her character. Small interactions with objects can show who your character is by showing us what they focus on, why it would catch their interest, and how it makes them react or feel. Do they walk into a room and feel the need to touch the plants, seeing how they are growing? Maybe they are a druid or someone that is more comfortable outside and in nature. Small interactions show our tendencies and give you another tool to make big declarations about your characters with a simple sentence.

Jeni: I want to talk about backstory and GMC. Backstory is everything that happened to a character before the story on the page begins. It's really important for named characters to have some backstory. This makes them feel like real people because real people have a past, and it also helps you build up their character traits. GMC stands for goal, motivation, and conflict and is related to backstory in that their backstory is partially what helps create their motivation, the drive behind all of their actions and reactions. What's tricky about GMC and backstory is that only a certain amount of it can be on the page. You can't have the entire backstory shown on the page, or it gets really information heavy and slows down the story. Getting this balance right is something that I see a lot in my editing, as I’m sure you do, Carly. So, how much backstory we get on the page will really depend on how much we need to know about a particular character to understand their place in the story. So, for example, we see the most of Elgin’s backstory on the page, so to speak, in the movie. We learn about his wife, about when he arrested the red wizard whose disciples killed his wife, about Holga helping to raise Kira, all of those kinds of things. These are all integral to the story that’s currently being told. We need to know about what happened previously with Forge and Sofina to understand the context of the current story. The other characters’ backstories are less important to the main story, but we still need some understanding of their pasts so their actions and reactions feel grounded. Simon gives us information about Doric's past, that humans betrayed her and her people. Holga talks about her past in her conversation with her ex-husband and some with Elgin so we can see why Elgin and Kira are so important to her. These backstories don’t just tell us about the characters’ pasts–they tell us why the characters are the way they are now, and that is part of what gives the characters agency to affect change. And that’s important to even secondary characters. Similar with GMC, we only need to see their goal and their motivation and the conflict as it applies to what's happening in the story so we don't necessarily need to know every single goal that they've ever had. We just need to know the things that are important to what we're seeing happen in the story. I do just want to point out we talked about GMC in episode 34 which was about The Birdcage so I recommend going back and listening to that for more in-depth information about GMC. We also did an episode about agency. That’s our Princess Bride episode!

Carly: That’s a great point, and a great plug for previous episodes. Good job. Okay so a few other elements go into characterization (as well as other things that I’m not remembering to mention). Basically, everything in your story can show who your character is and help to bring out their many facets. But that’s not helpful, because that’s too much. So I’m going to narrow this down to a few remaining elements and how you can use those to reinforce who your character is. Setting is another topic we’ve talked about before, because we’ve been doing this podcast for years and also everything intersects anyway. Where you put your character and the types of setting can reflect your character. Are they a fish out of water type? Then the setting would be very opposed to who they are and in that way it will reinforce the reader’s image of who the character is. When Doric is in town she looks uncomfortable. Part of this is being surrounded by humans, but also she is more comfortable in nature. Meanwhile, showing Edgin in a crowded tavern is going to show how easy it is for him to interact with others and manipulate those around him. Mood can also reinforce this by reflecting your main character’s internal state. A gothic horror is going to show the darkness within a character whereas in this movie the humor and levity reflect Edgin’s nature. And finally the voice or narrator very much reinforce who your characters are. If the character is your point-of-view (POV) character, their voice is going to show us who they are. We talk about this a lot in our episode on voice. But how a character talks is an exact reflection of their personality. In fact, voice is basically a synonym for personality. It is about picking word choices and internal observations to show who your character is. I’m not going to get into voice too much here, because it is a whole other episode, but it is a very important aspect of characterization. Now it gets really interesting when it comes to characters that aren’t your POV character. All the observations the POV character makes about the other characters is a reflection on both of them. How we view others shows who they are as well as who we are. Our observations are colored by our personality, and nothing is truer with a POV character. Now, if you have a narrator that isn’t a character, you need to use their voice and their opinions to show what they think of the characters. You show that through their narration and judgments. Basically, you have a ton of tools at your disposal to show who your character is. Characterization is incredibly important to your story, so make them real, three-dimensional, and compelling!

Next month, we are watching the animated movie, Nimona, based on the graphic novel.
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