Rolling Up Characters – let the random in.

So I’ve been thinking about henchmen recently. This came about because I was writing one. Or rather, I wasn’t writing one; I was typing the words “30s, well-built” into the pilot script of this strange 6-part crime drama I’m doing for the BBC. This was a guy standing guard over something for the antagonist (sorry, I can’t be more specific than that). I typed the words and was about to move on when I realised that, at some point, an actor would be cast to play this character and I would have to direct this actor and I’d probably need more up my sleeve than “he’s your age and he looks like you”.

This thought led me on to another which is that characters like this (and incidental boyfriends, bartenders, acquaintances of major characters, all the women in “True Detective”) are all too prevalent in screenwriting. They’re people who are necessary to the plot and so we write them as exactly what we need them to be and no more and we move on with the action and we rarely stop to realise how much better our stories would be if we wrote these characters differently.

Because we’re not meant to be writing plot, we’re meant to be writing story and story comes from character. It’s easy to forget that when we’re bombarded by screenwriting manuals that emphasise structure, and notes from the development people who’ve inhaled those manuals and are obsessed with act breaks and inciting incidents and whether characters are “likeable” (ugh).

But real people don’t fulfil functions in a story so easily. Real people are awkward but, if you let them be awkward, they’ll send your story in some interesting directions or, at the very least, make the damn thing a bit more textured.

I’ve lately been toying with a new way of generating these minor characters, a way that allows them to be born outside of the story and thereby forces the story to morph itself to accommodate them. This idea came from my recently renewed interest in table top role-playing games (Dungeons and Dragons, Call Of Cthulhu etc – my own peculiar mid-life crisis). These games all begin with character creation and those characters’ attributes are largely defined by dice rolls. It turns out that those dice throw up some pretty interesting results.

So let’s take my heavy (30s, well-built). First up, let’s give him a name. I’m going with Duncan because… Because I am, there’s really no foolproof system for naming people. Now I’m grabbing percentile dice (that’s two ten-sided dice, one displaying tens, one displaying units – you can get them from games shops or online or you can use an online generator like THIS ONE, in which you can just roll a d100 to get percentages) . First up, let’s get Duncan’s real age. He’s a heavy, working for our bad guy, so he’s going to be somewhere between 20 and 60, I reckon. There might be some clever maths to determine how many dice of what kind you can roll to get a result within those parameters but I’m a writer, not Brian Cox, so I’m just going to roll the d10s (that’s ten-sided dice for those of you with a life) until I get a result between 20 and 60… And I roll a 56. Duncan is 56 years old. This is already interesting because he’s older than I imagined, but we’ll see where it leads…

Now let’s get some attributes. I’m going to go with the RPG stalwarts: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Intelligence, Appearance, Size and Education. These attributes vary between games, and there are always dice rolls for other things too, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want Duncan to be a fucking Chaotic-Evil Half-Elf so I’m going to tailor the possibilities to the world of this story.

So Strength: I roll a 50. Bear in mind these are all scores out of a hundred, so Duncan the heavy isn’t as strong as I would necessarily expect. He’s probably about as strong as I am and no one is hiring me to beat people up…

Dexterity gets a 55. He’s not that quick on his feet either. Right now, I fancy my chances against Duncan in a fight.

Intelligence: 65. Okay, interesting. So Duncan the heavy is not as good at fighting as I was expecting, but he is a little smarter than the average henchman…

The Constitution roll yields a 75. Duncan is pretty fit and healthy, way above average. This story has a rural setting so I’m thinking Duncan is an outdoors type; maybe as a younger man he did manual labour and maybe he’s not as strong as he was but he still likes the fresh air and the sun on his skin.

Appearance is 35. Oh Duncan, you ain’t pretty. But maybe that’s because you’ve been in more than your fair share of fights; a busted nose, some scarring, cauliflower ears. Maybe Duncan used to be stronger and faster than he is now. Maybe that intelligence score suggests that Duncan realised that fighting was a young man’s game and got out before it go the better of him.

Size gets a 70. Now it’s up to me to decide whether he’s tall or fat or both (if it was muscle, his strength score would have been higher). I’m going to go with tall because that goes better with him being fit and healthy and it fits nicely with the picture I’m building in my head of an outdoorsman.

The last attribute is Education. Duncan gets another 50 on this. That’s dead on average for a character roll, but it’s above average within the company he keeps in this story and it’s high for hired muscle. He didn’t go to university but he probably got an A-level or some kind of post-16 qualification. In the company that Duncan keeps, this makes him a  stone fucking genius. That’s interesting…

So my 30’s, well-built dude has become a relatively intelligent 56-year-old who got an education and who likes spending time outdoors, who was maybe a fighter when he was younger, and who is considered pretty smart by the people he works with. So Duncan wasn’t just hired for his muscle. Sure, he may be prepared to be brutal when required but maybe his advice is also sought on occasion? Maybe he actually has an opinion on what he’s asked to do. Maybe he even has a better idea sometimes… Perhaps he was a soldier once, or a cop… (Oh my God, he’s Mike from Breaking Bad, isn’t he?!)

And thus a character is born. There’s loads of room to flesh Duncan out, obviously, either by taking these numbers as a jumping-off point or by digging deeper into any particular role-playing game system to roll up more attributes and skills. This is only one way to do it and, even if you hate the idea of rolling dice, at least this points up the notion that these characters can and should be fleshed out. I wasn’t going to do very much with Duncan as a character before this but now I can see several other places in the story where he could function and even a couple of aspects of the story that he now changes just by being in them.

Implemented in more detail, the dice could throw up some really interesting possibilites; what if your lead investigator rolls up a crazy-low intelligence score? What if your hero is in a wheelchair, or can’t drive a car, or is brilliant at languages or origami?

What I like most about the dice is that they circumvent my natural instincts at character creation and force me to adapt my characters and stories to their random whims. I think most writers could benefit from changing things up a bit.

And now that I’m thinking about it, the hero in that movie idea I’m knocking around could maybe use a little dice-work…

INFODUMP No.1

I’m posting the first of the INFODUMP newsletters here, to give a vague idea of what they’ll be like. You can subscribe to the letter here

The formatting on this version may be a little screwed, due to the translation from the TinyLetter template.


Hello and welcome to the first INFODUMP. Just a reminder that you can unsubscribe to this at any time. Anything bad that happens to you immediately thereafter will be purely coincidental.

Steven Johnson wrote a book called Where Good Ideas Come From, which he summarises in a brilliant TED talk here.

That book gave me the idea for this newsletter (this is actually quite meta, which you’ll realise after you read the book). In a nutshell, the more things we’re interested in -the more hobbies we have; the wider we cast the net of our attention- the more creative we become.

Johnson talks about the role of coffee houses in the Enlightenment and how, aside from the part played by coffee itself, they became a melting pot of ideas because people from different disciplines and walks of life came together and exchanged experiences and knowledge. Social media and the internet are one big coffee house. Or lots of little ones. Either way, it’s worth sitting at a different table occasionally.

05 Walk with Soames

Saul Leiter was a New York photographer who was one of the earliest exponents of colour in street photography. His work is truly extraordinary and is worth several minutes or hours of your time. There’s a decent selection of his photographs at Lens Culture and a really great book, the text of which is in French but the colour reproductions are beautiful. Saul was a fashion photographer by trade and his street photography was only discovered just before he died. There’s a documentary called In No Great Hurry that follows him around New York and has him talking about his work and that’s a great way to spend a couple of hours too.

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The Strange is a tabletop role-playing game set across a series of alternate universes, known as “recursions”. What this basically means is that you can start off in the “real world” of The Strange and then take your characters through a portal into Dungeons and Dragons or Call of Cthulhu or Traveller or Paranoia and amend the rules of those games on the fly, thanks to some amazing work that The Strange’s creator, Monte Cook, has done in authoring a translation system that makes any other game world work within The Strange’s game syntax.

I’m super-interested in role-playing games at the moment. This may be the world’s nerdiest mid-life crisis but I’m also connecting it to work in a really interesting way – I’m going to write a post for the website over the next week or so about character creation in role-playing games and the amazing effects it can have on story if you apply the same methods to fiction.

What’s next? Oh! Rave Coffee will deliver the most amazing coffee from all over the worldm roasted at their place in Cirencester, to your door overnight. It’s about £13 for a kilo, which is super-cheap considering how great their stuff is. Anyway, it’s alway worth knowing about good coffee.

Roko’s Basilisk is a thing. I can’t talk about it on here for reasons that will become clear (or, frankly, not) when you read the article. If you do read the article, however, it will be too late for you not to know this and it may be better not to know. The choice is yours. I’d like to write a film about it but that just seems like it would be asking for trouble…

If you want to read something nicer, try The Pool, the new web venture by Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne. It’s a magazine site for women by women and it’s the best designed thing online bar none. It only launched yesterday but already loads has been written about its functionality and design so I won’t retread that ground here. What I would highlight, though, is the tone of the site; it’s smart and witty but there’s no snark there and that’s very unusual on such sites. In a Huff Post interview today, Lauren said that when they got together, she and Sam decided that instead of moaning about the state of online media, they’d build the thing they were missing and they’ve really done that.

I’m on the waiting list for Proton Mail, an encrypted email system developed at CERN, which looks like it might become a thing. I don’t have any great secrets to protect but, given that email is the electronic equivalent of writing on a postcard and given the recent shenanigans at Sony, it may well be that it’s not just NSA whistleblowers and spies who’ll need encryption soon.

You should TOTALLY check out the Dunno app for your Mac, iPhone and iPad. It’s been invaluable in writing this – anytime you think of something you want to know more about, you tap it into Dunno and it creates a list of these things with the associated web searches and links which are then synced to all your devices. It’s basically like a next-gem note-taker or to do list.

This letter is already way longer than I expected it to be, possibly because I haven’t yet got the hang of brevity – it’ll happen. I’ll leave you with some stuff to listen to. There’s an album coming out in June by Aero Flynn, which is amazing and you can hear some bits of it HERE. There’s a new San Fermin album coming out next month but, if you don’t already have it, their debut is RIDICULOUSLY good and you must own it immediately.

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And of course there’s the new Sweet Billy Pilgrim album, Motorcade Amnesiacs out next month too and you can listen to the first song released on it by clicking HERE.

I’m done typing now. Let me know if any of this stuff was useful or interesting. If it was, let other people know about it too. They can sign up for the letter at juliansimpson.uk. I’m going to post this letter on the site too, as a one-off just so people can get an idea of what to expect a shorter version of next time. I’m pretty sure by issue 3, this will just be a title saying “some shit i like” and a bunch of links…

Fuck it, send.