by Kristen Hall-Geisler, Collaborative Editor
Often when we’re writing fiction—or at least when I’m writing fiction—I come up with a few main characters, a setting, and a plot. I know what kind of story I want to tell, so I dig right in. It doesn’t take long before I realize my characters are lacking something. Depth? Motivation? A certain je ne sais quoi? There are many ways to flesh out feeble characters on the page, like interviewing them or writing a mini biography for them.
But I like to turn to my hobby of tabletop role-playing games. Yup, the nerdy kind with dice.
In particular, the most recent Star Wars games from Fantasy Flight Games have a quick and easy way of creating characters—far easier than most role-playing games. And the basics apply to all characters, not just laser-gun wielding, spaceship-flying, sci-fi types.
First, you choose the basics of your character: Human or wookie? Jedi or smuggler? You as an author will probably have these basics down as well. You know whether the character is male or female (or anywhere on the gender spectrum), maybe what job they have, and what their goal is in your novel.
The next part of character creation in the Star Wars system is to pin down Characteristics: Brawn, Agility, Intellect, Cunning, Willpower, and Presence. In the game, you only get a certain number of points to spend across these attributes. As an author, give yourself, say, fifteen points and think about how your character moves through your novel or short story. Is she well-rounded, neither excellent nor terrible at anything? Is she all brains (Intellect) but unable to open a pickle jar (Brawn)? Does she command attention as soon as she walks in a room (Presence) but fall for every guy with a motorcycle jacket and cigarette dangling from his lip (Willpower)?
Giving numbers to these aspects of your character can be revealing. You can even note how the scores might change as your character changes through the story's arc. Maybe she gets burned a few times and earns more willpower in the process. Or maybe she starts doing CrossFit to boost her brawn, and that new physical strength translates to the rest of her life.
After that, the Star Wars game system allows your character to get really good at some things, like negotiation or leadership. Many of these won’t directly translate to your novel—Astrogation, for example, really only applies to sci-fi—but each skill is tied to a characteristic. Think of skills your character might have that are related to a high Cunning score. Maybe he’s the one who comes up with the scheme for the heist. Maybe he uses the ins and outs of corporate hierarchy and manners to be an effective whistleblower. Maybe he’s a straight-up liar.
Alternately, there are skills that will be related to your character’s low scores too. A low score in Agility would obviously make your character clumsy. But maybe that lack of coordination means he’s a terrible driver. Or maybe it’s an interior agility he lacks; maybe he doesn’t adapt to new situations well or is rigid in the face of change.
If you’d like to give it a try, check out the Fantasy Flight Star Wars Edge of the Empire character sheet. Again, it won’t apply across the board to all genres, but it can break you out of a character-creation rut no matter what you’re working on.
Kristen Hall-Geisler has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, and playing games like Dungeons & Dragons for twice that long. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in the New York Times, Popular Science, and Mental Floss, she edited Kip Ault's forthcoming book on evolution, Do Elephants Have Knees?, and she carries a three-sided die in her bag at all times because you never know when you might need to make a roll.