I’ve been experimenting with a useful technique for quickly creating characters, borrowing a few tricks from roleplaying games. I started using this approach with The Mechanical Crown, as the book is crammed full of characters and I needed a way to immediately define their behaviour, speech pattern and attitudes.
Previously I’ve concentrated on backstory and motivation to define characters. When those two things collide with the story setting, that’s when you get the emergence of interesting characters. The amount of detail in a character’s backstory can vary and while it informs where they’re coming from, it doesn’t always illuminate where they are right now. Two characters can have very similar backstories but end up being very different people, just as twins with a similar upbringing still develop distinct personalities.
When I was writing A Day of Faces I tended to explore the characters as I went along, uncovering their richness as I went. This worked because ADoF has a relatively small cast, but even then I recognised that my serialised, weekly publishing approach required something more immediate. To achieve character consistency I needed something to help me get inside a character’s head more quickly.
That’s when I considered using roleplaying character systems to generate a shorthand for each character which would help inform their behaviour and responses. The challenge was to find a system which wasn’t overly game-focused, as that tends towards a level of moral pre-judgement and direct action that I wanted to avoid. I was looking for something attitudinal and wanted to avoid overly-simplistic tropes.
The classic Dungeons & Dragons alignment matrix looks something like this:
This matrix interacts well with the systems of a D&D game but is overly simplistic for prose fiction, where you don’t have the random factor of multiple player imaginations colliding. The matrix is inherently moralistic, categorising characters up front as good or evil, lawful or chaotic, before they’ve even done anything. I wanted a more nuanced approach which would provide a foundation without condemning the character to life of CHAOTIC EVIL.
A friend and patron, Michael Miller, introduced me to an alternative system which is also based around a matrix but is designed to be far less reductive. Instead, it defines characters as a series of binary statements. Individually, each of the statements is quite basic but when combined produce a surprisingly nuanced understanding of a character’s mind.
Here’s the matrix:
On each row you need to choose from one of the two options. Is your character selfish or altruistic? There’s room for a spectrum of responses within those binary choices, of course – aggressive can mean many things.
What this does is provide a shorthand so that you can quickly access the character’s attitude and motivation. I find it especially useful when you first introduce a character: it’s a quick way to get to know them, so that you can settle into their personality.
It should be noted that the rows combine in interesting and sometimes almost contradictory ways. What happens when someone is selfish and honourable? What does it mean for someone to be aggressive and restrained?
Whenever I create a new character I quickly produce a matrix for them, highlighting on each row which category they fall into. As an example, here’s a character I recently introduced into my weekly serial The Mechanical Crown:
The character in question is a military leader, who is respected by his team. He gets the job done, is decisive and experienced and not afraid to make difficult decisions, but he’s not a brainless hot-head. When it comes to defining a new character in my head, I can write out a mini-bio as with that previous sentence, but it’s quite difficult to hold that information as I’m writing, especially when juggling multiple characters. Distilling the personality into the matrix converts the information into a form I’m better able to digest.
Examining the table, I can see that the character is most likely a ‘good’ man (altruistic, honourable), who serves others. He’s got a strategic mind (ordered, restrained) and likes to consider situations from all possible angles (inquisitive, sceptic). He won’t act unless he knows exactly what is going on (restrained), but once he’s made a decision there’s no holding him back (aggressive).
The matrix, for all its simplicity, provides a more compelling and nuanced understanding of the character than a one-line bio. Crucially, the matrix has a fuzziness built-in, leaving room for interpretation and development. Although the choices in the matrix are binary, the terms themselves are flexible enough to allow for real human behaviour and inconsistency.
Each character will have a distinctly different matrix, meaning I can quickly tune in to their different personalities. The Mechanical Crown is a third person subjective narrative, which makes it especially useful so that I can recalibrate with each chapter.
One point to note is that the matrix is not set in stone. Characters can and should change and develop over time through your stories, and the matrix can be useful for that as well. After you’ve defined your character’s starting state, consider what you want their matrix to look like by the end of the story.
Don’t feel bound by the matrix, either. There’s huge potential in having characters act against their personality matrix. What happens when the character I outlined above fails to act aggressively and has a moment of passivity, perhaps due to an unprecedented challenge or fear that gives him a crisis of confidence? Immediately, the matrix has helped to illuminate a critical point for the character. Allow those contradictions to serve the story and character development.
Do give it a try – apply the matrix to some of your existing characters to see how they come out, and then use it to develop and define new characters.