We have a lot of great talent represented here at the Pen & Cape Society. As part of our mission to promote the genre, we also like to encourage new authors. I’m still in this category myself. So this article, re-purposed from my own site, is here to provide some tips that I’ve found useful, even if my own use of the principles is still somewhat flawed. If you’re still fairly new to writing, you may find some of what follows beneficial.
Once upon a time, I spent every Friday night getting together with my friends to play role-playing games. I started with AD&D, but eventually wound up playing GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System) by Steve Jackson Games. It allowed us to play the standard swords and sorcery games that everyone associates with the hobby, but we were also able to branch out into horror, sci-fi, space opera, and just about anything else we could dream up or find a world book for. It was loads of fun, and I wouldn’t trade my memories of those days, hazy as they are, for anything.
What’s this got to do with being a writer? The answer is two-fold. First, the best role-playing experiences occur when the players and the game master approach the activity as a shared story-telling exercise. The game master basically gives players the “back cover blurb” for the story in the set-up, the players provide the dramatis personae, hopefully with an interesting back story, and they all embark together on a quest to find out how the story unfolds. Players frequently veer away from the pre-determined path the game master envisioned when he created the story framework (an experience any good writer has no doubt shared when his own characters fail to behave as expected) and must adapt on the fly. Good players, on the other hand, must not violate the implied rules in the game master’s setting, like having a street urchin demonstrate knowledge of advanced financial principles. They must work within the framework the game master supplies. So as either a player or a game master, there is opportunity to develop skills that apply to writing stories.
The second half of the answer is more directly linked to the GURPS character creation process. There are no dice involved; the player has a final point value for the character, and all of the attributes, knowledge, and capabilities the character possesses must be paid for out of that budget. The player can gain additional points by purchasing disadvantages which the player agrees to incorporate into his portrayal of the character. The disadvantages limit the capabilities of the character in some way – a painfully shy person won’t be likely to get up and deliver a rousing speech to encourage troops before a battle, for example.
This approach to character creation is fantastic for the budding writer. It encourages him to consider what has brought this particular character to the point of being willing to go out on dangerous missions rather than stay at the local tavern and down a few more ales. That often includes thinking about what character flaws the hero possesses, and why they are a part of the hero’s psychological makeup. In short, a GURPS character is less likely to be a cardboard stand up defined only by a list of skills and a ranking that defines how strong or clever he is; the game system pushes players to build interesting, well-rounded characters.
All very well and good, but what has THAT got to do with the screen shot of the book covers at the top of this article? Well, not everyone has been blessed with a misspent youth wallowing in the intricacies of my favorite role-playing system, especially not with a thoughtful, creative group like the one I played with. Fortunately, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have created the perfect reference works for authors – even if it means their readers, poor devils, may miss out on the experience of the perfect critical hit against the boss during the final fight at the end of a hard fought campaign.
The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes helps an author to select those traits that will make their protagonist, antagonist, or other character memorable. But the work is more than just a listing of “good things” about the character. In addition to excellent advice at the start of the book about framing a character’s motivations, each positive trait gets a detailed treatment. In addition to a basic definition and a list of similar attributes, examples of root causes that might make this trait express itself in a particular individual, and associated behaviors, thoughts, and emotions are all summarized. But of course, even though positive traits can make a character a better person, there are always situations that turn someone’s strengths against them. So the entries also discuss negative aspects of having the trait, situations that may challenge someone defined by it, and traits that may become sources of conflict when the protagonist encounters them in others.
The lesson every writer knows is that no hero is perfect. Everyone possesses less savory character traits as well. This is where The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws comes in. It gives similar advice and examples for some of humanity’s less becoming characteristics. In addition to the points listed above, The Negative Trait Thesaurus also includes brief sections on overcoming the trait when it is a major flaw in the protagonist’s persona, and it must be dealt with in order to resolve the story.
Understanding who your protagonist is in relation to his good and bad points is all well and good, but how do you communicate that to your readers? “Show, don’t tell” is the mantra good writers try to live by, but it can be difficult. It is so easy to fall into the trap of using the same tells over and over again, so that every character in your book who feels afraid for any reason always reacts by hugging themselves or speaking in a shrill voice. The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression helps an author to adapt to the dramatic impulses of the moment within the story by suggesting numerous physical indicators that might serve to tell an observer that a character is in the grip of a given emotion. In addition, internal sensations help the writer get inside the thoughts of a character experiencing the emotion and detail the experience in a very visceral manner, and some possible reactions to the emotion can jog the writer’s creativity when he or she is at a loss for how to move the action forward. The researchers have also included possible signs of someone who has experienced the emotion long-term,or is attempting to suppress it.
Taken together, these volumes are a welcome addition to my library of writer’s tools. I recommend them to you as someone who has benefited from the advice contained in their pages. I have not received any compensation in any form for promoting them. This is simply an endorsement from a satisfied customer. At the very least, treat yourself to the samples on your Kindle, or download the Kindle Reading App on your computer and get the samples that way. You’ll be glad you did.