Party Building vs Character Building

How giving your characters ‘stats’ can improve your writing.

Most roll playing games (RPGs) use a party system. So when you begin the game you either form a party, choosing the types of characters you’ll have and what their stats will be, or you play as one character and collect and lose party members as the game progresses.

The purpose of having multiple characters with different stats is so that the player has to figure out how to keep a good balance that will help them defeat enemies, keep his party alive, and progress through as efficiently as possible. Each kind of character or class will have their own specialty and have their own unique abilities.

The party system has a practical purpose in RPGs, but we also see something similar in film and fiction. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings both have iconic casts of character, each with their own roll in the team. There’s the leader (or the hero), the brains, the muscle, the comic relief, and the girl. These stereotypical roles sometimes over lap or appear in slightly altered ways, but they are a good reflection the default band of epic fantasy adventurers.

Military movies or military SF often follow a similar pattern (usually minus the girl). Why is this formula so common? Is there something to building characters the same way we would build a party in a video game?

The danger of comparing your characters to those of RPGs is that you are building off very archetypal characters. But who isn’t? When creating a new character every writer has got to start somewhere. Perfectly unique or original personalities don’t just pop into our heads. I’ve often started from an archetype and fleshed him out just like an artist might start drawing a face by first sketching a simple circle.

The benefit of thinking of your characters as an RPG party is that it will force you to consider their importance to the story. Examine each of your characters as you would when building team for a game. Which ones are the most important or helpful in reaching the end goal? What is their purpose to the plot? If two characters have the same purpose, for example, if two characters are ‘the brains’ then you probably don’t need them both.

Another helpful way to use this comparison is to think of your characters as having stats. This is particularly useful if there is a magic system or your characters are superheroes. Make sure you understand what each character is capable of. Luke Skywalker could only lift little rocks at the beginning of his training but Yoda used the Force to move a whole spacecraft. Why? Because Luke only had 3 out of ten Jedi points where Yoda presumably had about a billion out of ten.

Giving your characters stats will help you remember what they can and cannot do so you won’t accidentally write a Deus ex machina moment and have the fisherman’s son pull off some wicked magic previously only high wizards could manage. We’ve all encountered these moments in fiction where we find ourselves saying “I’m pretty sure that character can’t do that”. It pulls readers out of the narrative and dispels any sense of belief that may have previously been established.

If we think of our characters as having different abilities and stats then we will always know what they are and are not capable of, and how they are able to affect the plot.

Developing an actual stats system for your characters is probably getting into World-Builder’s Disease territory, but it is a helpful tool of reference and a good way to conceptualize the ways in which your characters are interacting with each other and with the plot.

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