Dungeons and Drafts
The cover of every Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons book proudly calls it “the world’s greatest role-playing game,” and while that part’s subjective, it’s certainly the most popular. D&D has seen a resurgence in popularity lately, and if you haven’t played it yourself, you’ve probably seen it make an appearance on Stranger Things or something similar. It’s often described as “collaborative storytelling,” a process by which everyone involved contributes something towards making a (hopefully) cohesive narrative.
And that narrative is valuable, not just because it reminds you of a fun time you had with your friends, but for what it teaches you about narratives in general. Namely, that they’re spun from a combination of every book, movie and video game you’ve ever consumed, with a heaping portion of empty space on the side. That’s not a bad thing, to clarify. One of the great tricks of writing is that if you combine enough inspirations into a small enough space, they merge into a Cronenbergian mess that literary critics call “original.” You don’t even need to do this consciously––the inspirations are already in your head, influencing the things you create without you knowing it.
Just to be clear, I’m not encouraging plagiarism. But an inspiration is a really good starting point. Just like artists use visual references for poses and anatomy, we can use textual references to get an idea of what––or who––we’re writing. This is especially valuable for characters. Say you want to include a ruthless businessman in your next novel (or D&D game). You could work from the ground up, deciding their backstory, how they made their fortune, and what they’re willing to do to protect it. Or, you could start from a template. Like Mr. Burns.
Mr. Burns is a greedy, decadent 104-year-old billionaire from The Simpsons. He was born wealthy, and intends never to die (but if he did, it would be wealthily), and he has 34(!) seasons of material to draw inspiration from. These 34 seasons mean that Mr. Burns has, statistically, been in every possible situation, and that gives you a pretty good idea of how this guy responds to different events. You now have a template for a consistent character that you can (and should) tweak to suit your own needs. And don’t feel bad about this; Mr. Burns was based on somebody else, too. Of course, you could always look for some real-world inspiration for your remorseless capitalist, but you’d have to look pretty hard.
This is especially helpful if you’re on a time crunch. You’ve got a D&D game scheduled for the weekend, but nothing planned. Or, you’ve got a fiction workshop due on Monday. A couple strong character templates interacting with each other is all you need to get things started. Maybe a headline-hungry reporter is digging into the billionaire’s sketchy records. Perhaps a local property owned by a stubborn-but-lovable local is in danger of being annexed by Burns’ company. Who knows? Not every story has to be character-driven, but at the very least casting strong characters with conflicting motivations will get the gears turning in your head. The character template is a handy tool to have when writing; it’s not applicable to everything, and it won’t make or break your story, but it’s nice to have in your back pocket. I know it’s personally helped me out of one or two instances of writer’s block, and hopefully it can do the same for you.