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Cross-Medium Characters

We leave Lawiko and travel northeast into the woods, expecting to arrive at our destination in about a day and a half, maybe a bit longer since Garret is dragging along a snoutbear he slayed.

Session 6 – November 24, 2018

Picture this: You're a halfling who has been sent on a mission of utmost importance by your professional organization. Animals have been attacking people passing through the woods and you must put an end to these dangerous beasts. The attacks show no sign of slowing, and each moment that passes could see more innocent lives lost. What do you do?

Drag a bear that's nine times your size on the mission, of course. Because, well, you need to keep yourself fed, and then you can use the remains as bait to lure the vicious animals!

Last week in Two Different Classes of Story, one of the problems I identified with translating a Dungeons & Dragons campaign into a book is the campaign's inconsistent, unrealistic characters. While roleplaying, these kinds of characters aren't necessarily a bad thing! After all, the goal of the game is, first and foremost, to have fun. But readers won't be able to identify with characters who don't feel real, and that's hard to do in a roleplaying setting – we can't all be as talented as the cast of Critical Role.

The hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast summed it up 11 years ago in Season 4 Episode 5: the kind of character that works well in a roleplaying game doesn't necessarily work in a book. I think we can generalize that statement to: the kind of character the works well in one medium won't necessarily work in any other medium.

People are probably most familiar with this translation problem when books are adapted into television shows or movies – Game of Thrones, for example. Many of those characters had to be reworked for the screen, to the chagrin of many devout readers of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Some characters would require adapting with a heavier hand than others. I have a hard time picturing how Glokta, from Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy, would be adapted to the screen, for example. So much of his personality comes out through the interplay of what Glokta thinks compared to what he says. How would you portray a character like that in medium where characters' thoughts aren't readily available?

Going back to translating characters from a roleplaying game to a book, let's use the above example for reference. How does Garret's decision to bring a snoutbear on the mission affect the campaign? How would it affect the book?

For the campaign, he announces that he's got a bear with him. The DM tells us our journey will take longer because we're over-encumbered. Garret can't sleep in an inn because they won't let him bring the bear inside, so he sleeps outside (which he prefers anyway) and has to fight off some wolves in a short combat encounter. The bear enhanced the experience, leading to a fun combat scenario.

/* Side note: The bear actually factored more heavily into a soon-to-unfold scenario with a Benefactor (later dubbed Operation Dropbear), but let's disregard that for now. */

If I were to add this into the book, first I'd need to establish that snoutbears are a native fauna around Lawiko, which slightly increases the worldbuilding learning curve. Then I'd have to explain how Garret transported the bear, because there's no way he could really just drag it behind him. Readers don't like when characters do stupid, pointless things, so I'd need to provide a solid justification for why this is a good plan. There would need to be payoff for this setup, which means I'd have to come up with a realistic and satisfying scene where this bear is used against the Benefactor (I assure you, Operation Dropbear was neither realistic nor satisfying).

I could go on. The point is that it would have added a lot of unnecessary fat to the book, without making it a better book. And the bear is just one example. These kinds of quirky moments happened all throughout the campaign, and while fun at the time, they wouldn't have made for coherent characters in the novel.

Don't take this as criticism of how my friends played those characters! Remember that the whole purpose of the characters is different in-game, and they fulfilled that purpose marvelously. It would be a mistake to assume they'd play them in a way that works for a book, and it'd be unfair to ask that of them. The translation problem works in reverse too: characters that are "realistic" enough for a book would be less fun to play in a game.

That's alright – it just meant more work on my end.

Shaping Up

To get the characters in shape for a book, I identified key aspects based on how my friends played each of them – things like consistent personality beats, actions that had a large effect on the story, and backstory trivia. Keeping those in mind, I started writing. The characters they'd become solidified organically toward the end of the first draft – they still weren't as consistent as I'd like, but it was a discovery written draft, so I knew I'd have to fix a lot in post anyway. For side characters, I kept them almost exactly the same as the campaign, since their main purpose was to move the story along.

Once I wrote the final chapter, it was a matter of working backwards to create a revision guide. I went chapter-by-chapter, in reverse order, meticulously noting every time a character did or said something. As you might expect, the closer I got to the beginning of the book, the more uncharacteristic their actions became. Here's a snippet of the outline from Garret's folder:

You should see Grim's... it dwarfs all the others.
This is about one-third of Garret's outlined points in the 1st draft.

With everyone's outlines in place, I then had to ask the difficult question: "What is this character's story about?"

For some characters, the answer came quite easily; others were harder to pin down. For example, Inac's player did a good job of introducing interpersonal conflict throughout the campaign, so it was easy to use that as the basis for a character arc.

Garret, on the other hand, was very consistent and rule-based throughout the campaign, so it was harder to create an arc for him. As of the second draft, he's still the most static character in An Ocean of Others, but I have a solid arc for him outlined for Book 2 that (cleverly, I think) explains why he's so static in the first book.

After deciding on the main character arcs, I began the arduous task of pruning away outlined points that don't strengthen that arc, while adding new actions that reinforce it. Most of the newly-added points were in the earlier chapters, since a lot of the payoff for their arcs were already in place towards the end. I needed to go back and write the correct setup, making the right promises, so that those payoffs are satisfying.

All of this needed to be done while keeping in mind that I didn't want my friends' characters to be effectively replaced by new characters. I made plenty of changes to each of them, but I wanted to ensure they were still recognizable as the originals. To that end, let's look at what I felt was important to keep before examining what I felt was safe to change.

What I Kept

Personality archetypes

The most important aspect to keep consistent with the original characters was their personality "archetypes." Like I wrote above, we're not talented actors who can infuse each line of dialogue and each action with our characters' personalities; however, there was still something to glean from everyone's "performance." Of course, all of these are my interpretations of how my friends played their characters, and I'm as fallible as anyone. There was no way to avoid coloring each character with my thoughts and ideas. I did my best to stay true to their original intent, but I accept I will have made mistakes.

Inac has a strong sense of morality and an unwillingness to abide the mendacity of the Agency. Garret, always snarky, is concerned with justice and had a strict, personal code of ethics he followed. Dungax throws himself into danger unafraid, always willing to put others' safety above his own. Lorilla is full of empathy and charm, caring toward her friends, but vicious to her enemies. Sentyx has a quiet strength, and values actions above words.

All of these aspects came through during the campaign, so it was a matter of sharpening them up for the book, making them more consistent. The only exception to this was my character, Grim. Since the book is told in first-person from Grim's perspective, I had to take extra liberties when modifying his character. I'll save that for a different post; I don't want this one to be all about him.

Key moments

The next thing I made sure to keep was some key moments that affected the plot. In some ways, it was inevitable that I'd keep these since I'm trying to tell the same story. But I also had to make sure these moments aligned with the characters' "new" solidified personalities. Some of these key moments were out of character, and so required changes.

For example, there was a session where the whole party visited a psychiatric ward and kidnapped one of the patients. (For the record, I don't endorse this behavior; these characters do some pretty awful things in the book.) It made no sense to me that Inac and Dungax would accompany the rest of the party here, especially since in the session they protested the entire time. So for the book, I changed it so Grim, Garret, and Sentyx do this behind their backs and the other two find out later.

Other scenes felt perfectly in-character to me, such as Sentyx foolishly scouting ahead by himself the night before the final mission. Sentyx, thanks to his Skardwarf nature, thinks himself invulnerable, so it made sense that he'd put himself in danger, alone in the middle of the night.

By keeping these moments, I hoped to find a balance between making characters act believably and telling a story that remains true to the original.

Backstories and trivia

Finally, every character had their own backstories and trivia that I wanted to work into their book counterparts' stories as extensively as I could. Some examples:

I already wrote about how Sentyx's "catch phrase" stuck and became the basis for some worldbuilding in Facing Into the Wind. Sentyx's player also named the Old Country and spoke of Sentyx's past serving a tyrant, a detail that will affect the trilogy in profound ways.

Inac's player sent me a detailed backstory, which contained plenty of information I could work into the book – things such as Inac's pendant, the death of his brother, his "dark" magic, and the geography of his homeland.

Garret's character sheet has a backstory the includes his past as a bandit and how he split from them because of a traumatic event. Throughout the campaign, Garret had a particularly gruesome ritual he performed after every battle; it was too gratuitous for the book, but I did use that to inform the traumatic event in his past.

All of these were the glue that connected the book characters to the originals. I slightly altered some backstories, but by keeping what the players wrote it preserved much of the original spirit.

What I Changed

Dungeons & Dragons races/classes

Early on I made the decision to divorce this story from the Dungeons & Dragons world. After all, it was an original setting that our DM created, so it felt pretty safe to change. Luckily, many of the characters were humans, so they didn't require any changes.

Where possible, I used some of the traits of those D&D races/classes to add some more color to the book characters. Lorilla, for example, was a Gnomish Bard, so in the book she has some gnomish playfulness, and she still plays an instrument. Garret was a Halfling Ranger, so he prefers the wilds to the city and still uses a bow as his primary weapon. I also used the characters' classes to determine who can use magic in the story, but I'll save those details for the upcoming post on the magic system.

Unrealistic actions

The snoutbear I wrote about above is a good example of this, but more often these kinds of actions showed up in combat encounters. Things such as Inac climbing atop a giant creature, Garret jumping from tree to tree while in combat, or even characters taking hits without any consequence besides than losing some HP.

This called for rewriting almost every combat scenario so that it played out more "realistically" (as much as fighting giant, writhing monsters can be realistic, anyway). I used some lessons learned watching Brandon Sanderson's BYU lectures as inspiration for how I wanted to change these scenes. In his lectures about action and fight scenes, Sanderson emphasizes how we should lean into the medium's strengths. You don't want to write a blow-by-blow of the action; instead, focus on demonstrating progress and get inside the character's head.

In the campaign, our first fight was against a Benefactor called "Wick". He was essentially a giant blob covered in wood armor that he acquired by "katamari'ing" a bunch of trees. To attack, he unleashed psychic blasts that caused "mental damage" – really, we just lost some HP. We just hit him with swords and arrows until hit hit points dwindled, then killed him with an arrow through a skull he contained in its body. There isn't much sense of progress there, and in the first draft this was pretty much a blow-by-blow.

I changed this to so that the "psychic blasts" instead give a vision from the Benefactor's past. This introduces a psychological element, so Grim is affected by Wick's Aura of Despair and has to overcome that sense of hopelessness to survive. Progress in the fight is demonstrated by the characters becoming increasingly beaten down until death seems imminent. Finally, the characters defeat the monster by making a key realization about the magic system, which allows them to turn around the battle quite decisively.

This works so much better in the second draft than the first. Now, instead of a boring action scene, we have character development, problem solving with the magic system, and a sense of progress. Similar changes were made to all of the other fight scenes to make them more character-oriented.

Dialects and dialogue

Of course, I had to change the dialogue from the original – it would have been impossible to speak in fantasy-book-appropriate dialogue in real-time during the campaign. I figured this was okay, as long as I used the dialogue to let the characters' personalities shine through.

In the campaign, each of our characters came from a different country, so I wanted to use that as well. While writing the new dialogue, I tried to make sure each character had a style of speaking that's distinctive based on what country they're from. This is the most pronounced in Inac's and Sentyx's characters, but hopefully that comes across for the others as well. One piece of feedback I got from beta readers is that I handled this well, so I think I'm on the right track.

NPCs and Benefactors

This post is getting much longer than I intended, so I'll close it out by briefly touching on NPCs (non-player characters, for the uninitiated) and the Benefactors.

During roleplaying sessions, NPCs are generally just there to move the story forward and to give some flavor to the world by providing exposition. These characters range from one-time appearances to the main antagonist of the story. Of course, these all needed to be translated to the book as well.

The main antagonist was, of course, the most challenging to adapt. Great books need great villains after all, so I needed to work out exactly what the antagonist's motivations and plans were. That's one of the key mysteries in the book, so I won't say any more here.

Other NPCs still serve the same purpose as in the roleplaying game, but I had to make sure they were consistent and memorable. In Neil Gaiman's Masterclass, he talks about giving characters "funny hats." I love this metaphor, and now that I've had it explained to me, I can't help but see it in almost every great character. Funny hats don't literally have to be hats – they're just traits that help you distinguish the character from every other character in the story. Distinctive speaking styles, behavioral quirks, remarkable appearances, etc. It's actually quite fun giving characters funny hats, and it really does make the character pop off the page, even if they only appear briefly in the story.

The other way I made side characters more memorable was by consolidating them. Rather than having three different character appear in three parts of the book, I tried to combine all three into one. The benefit to this is twofold: first, there are fewer characters for your reader to remember, and second, it brings the character to life, making it appear as if they've got their own story going on off-page.

Finally, I have to touch on the Benefactors. In the campaign, we were sent on several missions to fight these Benefactors without knowing what they were. We usually got one vision before the fight to provide the monster's backstory, then it was off to the races. "Roll for initiative."

In the book, I wanted to make these true characters, especially because of the implications they have on the main character's arc. Each Benefactor got a brand new backstory that loosely aligned to the visions we got in the campaign, but I tried to give them each a personality and backstory that would realistically (according to internal story logic) result in the Aura they produce. I touched on this a bit in Disgust, but I'll save the finer details of how this Aura and the whole Benefactor magic system works for a later post.

It was important that the reader doesn't just see these Benefactors as "monsters that need a good killing" – that would have felt impersonal and unsatisfying to me. Ultimately, I wanted these monsters to feel like people, because that's what they were until something terrible happened to them. They're victims; the real monster is the one who did this to them.


Phew! That was a lot, and certainly not exhaustive. It makes more sense to me now why, in that same Writing Excuses podcast I linked above, they suggest using the events of the campaign as a "thousand-year history"; it's probably easier to create entirely new characters than to "fix" pre-existing ones. Hopefully this illustrates just how difficult the problem of translating characters from a roleplaying story to a book can be.

But it may not be the most difficult problem.

Next week, I'll discuss how I fixed the pacing and structural problems of the story in order to create a compelling narrative for the novel.