Written by Sarah Yoon
The advice “let your character make his own decisions” or “give him free will” swims across the internet. You want your character to be rounded, relatable, realistic—but attaining organic growth is easier said than done. If you haven’t experienced this level of character liberation, even knowing what you’re even aiming for is difficult.
Free will is easiest to locate in negative examples, where a book prioritizes plot over character. The author organizes her outline and refuses to waver, even when her character’s emotional growth clashes with the plot’s direction. This jarring choice is utilitarian and not organic; your own agenda as author can actually hurt your story instead of helping it.
So what do you do instead? Thankfully, a positive route exists that can help guide you through the process. If you’ve read any of the StoryForge articles from this month, you’ve already guessed it: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D offers more than an entertaining evening; each game is an example of organic storytelling as it encourages active engagement in character free will. It forces you to loosen the reigns and practice storytelling as a team.
Dungeon Master vs. Player Characters
D&D gameplay is the ultimate practice in character free will. Within the game, the Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM) and the players weave a collaborative story. For a clear comparison, you are your own novel’s DM and the D&D players your wild and unruly characters. While you as an author may have difficulty setting your characters free, the DM has no choice. She can hint, push and prod, but the characters will do whatever they want. The game master embraces her lack of control as part of the process:
“You’re not trying to get them to tell a specific story. You want them to make well rounded characters and you want them to understand their character so well that you can throw a situation at them and a good D&D party should go, my character is a priest and a healer, and you have thrown at me this hostage situation…my character is sworn to protect the innocent people, even if it means making certain sacrifices. We’re going to not make as much money…but I have to do this because the safer plan would result in the death of innocents. Right, so this one character knows that they must choose this based on how well they understand themselves.” – Allison Oh
D&D characters come to life. They make their own decisions, informed by character background and personal interests. “They’re their own people with their own wills,” Allison comments. “They make the worst possible decisions and you [think], really? You stabbed the emissary. Great. Now we’re at war.” A complex level of cause and affect arises, where you can’t guess what will happen next. With five people each controlling their own character, the story “takes amazingly strange turns.”
No matter what plot the DM wants to follow, the players must stay true to their characters, responding to situations based off of past relationships, haunting regrets, driving goals, and lessons learned. “From beginning to end is this dance between the person who has the outline and all of the characters as they try to set up scenarios to herd people left and right to this end goal.” As games lengthen and players develop their characters, free will brings the story to life. With D&D, you jump straight in and experience character free will firsthand.
Want to read more? Try out “Discovering Dungeons and Dragons: An Outsider’s View of RPGs” and “Building RPG Worlds from Scratch.”
“The Count’s Daughter” illustration graciously provided by Monica Marie. Discover more of her work on DeviantART!