Finding Your Muse: Inspiration in Character Building
When it comes to any project, getting started can be the most daunting task (or at least feel that way); something about overcoming the inertia of the project and then keeping the ball rolling, and whatnot. Whenever I find myself ever in a bind creatively, I try to think on a Muse to keep me going. A Muse can be anything that gets you inspired to be productive. In the case of character building in role-playing games, there is an endless supply of Muses available for everybody; you just need to know where to find them. You can find inspiration to craft a character from . . .
Films and Televion
Personally, I have always had a fascination and love for cinema; so, naturally, one of my sources of inspiration is what gets put up on the silver (or small) screen. Films and television shows present a massive catalogue of characters rich in background, personality and exploits to entertain audiences; but those same characters can serve as aspirations of idealized behavior. While not all characters are to be held up as role models (re: villains and scoundrels), they can be memorable for their own reasons and serve as a source of creative inspiration. The direction you take depends on what you are trying to accomplish: are you trying to copy the character? Improve upon him or her? Or are you just looking for the start of something altogether new?
If you go with trying to emulate an existent character, I highly recommend putting a spin/twist on the established character to make your character yours, and not just a pale imitation. An example of an on-screen character being a new twist on an established one is from Joss Whedon’s Firefly. The character of Malcolm Reynolds can be considered an imitation of the Star Wars character Han Solo. Both are scoundrels who are captains of their space ship, take on mercenary work to keep going, and become part of a rebellion. Whedon’s change is that the rebellion lost and with it so does Malcolm lose his faith; which is another change as Han was not very spiritual to begin with. Even with these changes, we can see how the two characters are essentially the same; but we also get a chance to see some nuanced change that allows them to be independent and distinct from one another.
Using an established character of a television show or movie as a baseline and then adding onto that character is very similar to imitating one, as described a moment ago. The key difference is that you are attempting to add something to the character that was not already there, rather than change one or more aspects into another. Innovating a character is best when applied to more archetypal or especially underdeveloped characters. So Mal isn’t really an innovation off of Han, because Han is a fully-developed character. The character of Gary the Stormtrooper from Robot Chicken however is a more defined (for comedic effect) version of a generic Stormtrooper from Star Wars.
Another great source for inspiration in character design is literature. Whether it is novels, comics, or poetry, literature is a deep pool of potential for developing characters. Pretty much everything I said above about film and television applies to literature as well. The biggest difference is that literature is a much more personalized interpretation from the audience than with film or television; you envision the characters how you feel bests fits them and you hear their voice. This provides more ground for your own innovation or alternative spin on the character.
Religion and Spirituality
Faith is an uplifting and inspiring force. Historically, religion has inspired artists and authors to craft masterpieces the world over; it stands to reason that one can find inspiration for character creation from faith as well. Even the iconography and institutions of religion can be grounds for players to design and build characters around. Personally, I do not have much experience with drawing inspiration from spirituality; the most I have gotten is from the historical impact and context of religion for certain characters and design.
At some point in our lives, there has been a person we knew (or knew of) that motivated us in some manner to be better and do better things. We can look to those individuals as well for inspiration in building characters. All of the standard techniques (already mentioned above) apply. Another way we can pay homage to our role models is to base the character’s appearance on the real-life person. I know of one group that enjoys “casting” real actors as various NPCs in the campaign; even if the NPC is only there for a session or two and is just a minor character in the story. Another way most players make their very first character is to incorporate elements of themselves into their characters. A very natural manner to create a character, but it is still taking aspects of real life and building off of that to create something fictional.
All forms of media have the potential for players to draw inspiration and create interesting and vibrant characters; music is no different. Ever since Akira Kurosawa popularized the use of theme music in films for characters, film makers and composers have been utilizing the same techniques to help convey certain tones and aspects of character through the use of non-sourced music. In that vein, you can craft a character inspired from the tones or themes of songs or other musical pieces. For me, I prefer music that invokes a visual for me to grasp; no matter if it the songwriter’s intention or not. Ironically, I don’t always go to music to draw up a character, but I do listen to it whenever I need to focus on writing and that includes coming up with characters.
As part of the background of writing this article, I asked a player what was their inspiration for their character in a campaign and they completely surprised me with their answer. They said that since the campaign was going to be about playing vampires in a contemporary time, they looked at the themes and aspects of being a vampire in the modern era and decided that the character needed to have a sense of age around them. This laid out the groundwork for them to build upon everything about the character: background, the character’s age, their capabilities, personality, everything.
The point of that anecdote is that the actual setting and campaign can be a major source of inspiration for character creation. In fact, I would argue that the benchmark of a well designed setting is how evocative it is and how easily one can envision a character inhabiting that world. So I started asking myself, what settings inspire me? Well, two settings in particular come to mind when I think of visually stimulating worlds that inspire me: Cyberpunk and Iron Kingdoms.
Cyberpunk is set in the future wherein technology is even more ubiquitous than by today’s standards. Cybernetics is also much more common and functional; everyone is a cyborg to one extent or another. Crime is rampant and corrupt officials can get away with corporate espionage and even murder. For me, I almost always see myself wanting to play a young punk of some sort; a gangster wannabe or otherwise two-bit hoodlum who gets caught up in the deadly machinations beyond his ken. He or she is just skilled enough to be useful, but still expendable; it makes for an interesting and challenging character for any campaign.
Privateer Press’s Iron Kingdoms (IK) setting is a steampunk world at war. If it’s not the jingoistic Khadoran army marching from the north, then it is the militant and zealous forces of the Protectorate of Menoth coming in from the south. The world is “in the last hour before the apocalypse;” there is always someone seeking to end the world and a group of individuals bent on thwarting the scheme at the last possible moment. Walking automatons called steamjacks march to war in the way tanks rush the battlefields of yesteryear. I quickly envision bounty hunters and sell-swords because of the opportunity to travel and explore the setting as well as provide a good excuse for adventure. Another iconographic character I always see myself wanting to play in the IK is a mechanik and ‘jack marshal; someone who works on and commands steamjacks.
And another . . . shameless plug
When it comes to character building, it’s not a matter of if you will find the inspiration to make the character but when. You will find something that gets you motivated to create. There are endless options; who am I to claim that the above are the only ones out there for everyone to seek out. Find what helps you craft that character for your next campaign, and enjoy.