For a long time I’ve had a problem with characterization. My main characters are rich and complex, but many of my minor characters have been flat and lacking in the texture, quirks, contradiction, and struggles that make a character come to life. Worse yet, many of them were coming out the same. There were several simple archetypes that just kept repeating themselves over and over again.
Now, I play table-top role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and Vampire the Masquerade. Each of those gaming systems has a specific way of thinking about characters and their essential traits, and some of them, particularly Vampire the Masquerade, has a process by which you take a simple character concept and flesh it out to something much more complex. Normally, with these systems people choose what traits their characters are going to have in order to match their character concept. The simple act of asking questions like, “How perceptive is my character? How intimidating is she? What does she know about etiquette?” can help reveal a character’s hidden depths.
There is another way of approaching these gaming systems however. Sometimes people roll each stat randomly. I have heard stories about games where people, using a Dungeons and Dragons system, used dice to randomly determine each of their character’s core traits (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma). In one example this resulted in a character that started out wanting to be one thing that he was wildly unsuited to be. Eventually, over the course of the game, this character learned and grew until he found a path that was right for him.
Well, all of these thoughts and pieces of information rolled around in my subconscious until one day I suddenly had an idea. I was going to use dice to push myself out of my rut. I was going to use random chance as a basis for character creation.
My first attempt at this was to pull together a giant list of 639 character traits (all numbered) and use dice to randomly select a set of three traits to use as the basis of a character. To select each trait I rolled a ten-sided dice three times, each roll was a different digit of the number (if I got an impossible result, then I just re-rolled it). Sometimes this worked great, and sometimes the character trait sets were boring, so I got in the habit of rolling up three different sets of trait and selecting the best fit for each character. (This was used to create the character of Yuna in “Tala and Death’s Embrace.”)
That worked all right, but I wanted something more nuanced. I wanted something that could spur me to create characters that had even stronger personalities and distinct ways of interacting. So, on my next attempt I made a list of twelve personality trait spectrums that I could rank each character on, with a focus on traits that drive behavior, such as how outgoing a person is, competitiveness, perceptiveness, kindness, flirtatiousness, confidence, carefulness, and joviality. Then I used a ten-sided dice to randomly determine where the character fell on each of these spectrums, with a one meaning they had essentially none of the trait and a ten meaning they had it as strongly as possible.
This worked great! Some characters came out in the middle for everything, and others gravitated to extremes. Rationalizing the unique, and sometimes contradictory, mixtures of character traits quickly gave birth to interesting and complex characters. Suddenly I had Jomo who is outgoing, funny, and a bit competitive, but who is not very observant or nice. He wants to be the center of attention and doesn’t worry too much how he gets there. He is joined in the center of attention by Cai, who is also very outgoing and funny, but much kinder. Cai is both the life of the party and a peacemaker, a useful person to have at any social gathering. Then there is Inna who is usually quiet, but when she says something it is sharp and opinionated. And Nysa, who is talented and she knows it, but would rather fit into a group than dominate it. When Nysa says something, it is likely to be devastatingly funny. I was suddenly able to write dialogue scenes where all of these characters interacted with each other. It was more dynamic and alive than any minor character dialogue I’d ever written — an unparalleled success! (This is in a work that is not yet published, if people are interested I may post an excerpt.)
The next variation on using dice was created specifically for working with fairy tales. Some fairy tales can have a lot of minor characters and I got tired of deciding their gender, sexual orientation, and race. Honestly, making snap choices about which identities minor characters shared with me and which they didn’t got kinda weird after a while. So I decided to roll those traits randomly and only change them when it was necessary for the plot or to avoid reinforcing a stereotype.
Of course, there are times when I needed to choose these traits (for main character, for plot, in order to develop story themes), but deciding these things for minor characters where these traits didn’t affect the storyline felt contrived. I wanted to create a diverse world of minor characters and my conscious mind was over thinking it. If it doesn’t directly affect the story, why should I personally choose that for all of these minor characters? Why risk letting my unconscious mind recreate biases and stereotypes? Why not use dice in a system weighted toward diverse representation?
So I put gender and sexual orientation on a 1-10 spectrum. If I needed more clarification I used a dice to answer yes or no questions (low numbers are a no and high numbers are a yes). Race/ethnicity gets more tricky with this, but yes/no questions can handle a lot. “Is this person from the same ethnic group that is the dominant group for this region? Are they mixed race? Were they born in this region? Are their ancestors from this region?” The trick is to ask good questions and be aware of how the questions are skewing things.
So far this has produced interesting results. Randomness is more clumpy than many people expect. In one case I was rolling up the genders of four siblings and their four mentors. I kept rolling women. This felt very fairy tale like, so I decided to make them all (except for my genderqueer main character) women, even though I hadn’t planned this in the beginning. On the other side of things, I went through a period where most of the bandits and soldiers I rolled genders for ended up as men. I had to intervene and change a few to women and genderqueers to balance out my representation.
Overall, my experiments with dice have been very promising and I am eager to experiment further, branching out into world creation by using dice to determine the distribution of natural resources and the goals of political factions. The early results of this are promising (I will be posting an article on this soon). With a little ingenuity and some lists (I love making lists!), dice are quickly becoming a versatile tool for adding random inspirational complexity into the characters and worlds I create. I hope that they will be a good tool for you too!
Do you have any stories of using dice for character and world creation? If so, please share them!