As I’ve been working on my latest short story for the past few weeks, I realized I needed some way to get a better handle on the characters I’m working with. Although they’ve lived in my head for a while, I still only know these characters in broad terms. I don’t mind having blank spaces in the characters’ lives for those time when the plot demands an interesting surprise, but I feel at this point I have a little too many blank spaces. While brainstorming ideas on how to flesh out the characters without taking too much time away from writing, I came up with what I’m refering to as the Descriptors system (if gaming has taught me anything it’s to give systems a name for easy reference).
To start with, write the High Concept, the overall descriptor of the character, something broad enough to give you lots of material to work with, and focused enough that it’s easy to understand who this character is. Example: Troll Enforcer to Queen Ingeborg; Suburban Vampire Mom.
Next, write one Advantage (something that gives the character’s life a definite edge), one Complication (something that throws a curveball at the character’s life), and one Hindrance (something that truly hinders the character’s life). These descriptors should be punchy statements that flesh out the High Concept while introducing drama and plot twists. Example: (A) The Sickest Skateboard in All of New York; (C) Always Late to Every Flight; (H) Breathing Water is Killing Me.
Lastly, write five Details, short statements that describe seemingly trivial things about the character that gives them depth and uniqueness. Example: Former Eagle Boy Scout; Gearhead; Underground Skate Zine Publisher; Big Box Bargain Hunter; 21st Century Earth History.
Bonus: the system works just as well to describe pretty much anything you want, not just characters. You could use it to describe a ship, a planet, an alien race, a monster, an organization, etc.
This system isn’t complex, nor is it new. It’s basically a relabeling of the character creation section of Dancing Lights Press’ Lighthouse Roleplaying System, with extra inspiration from Evil Hat Production’s Fate Core/Fate Accelerated System. It should come as no surprise, considering that both systems prioritize game mechanics based on descriptive storytelling.
Using the Descriptors system I was able to quickly sketch my story’s characters and get a better idea of what makes them tick, which has made outlining the rest of the story easier, and gotten me back to writing at a more effective pace.