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The Creative Process

Posted by , 04 January 2009 · 597 views

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the character creation process through my eyes. This certainly isn't meant as a how-to or character creation guide because everyone's creative process is certainly going to be different. This is simply a description of the specific journey I took to create my most recent character, Silver's Hammer. I intend to lay all my secrets out on the table with this one, in the hopes that this is interesting to someone.

Silver's Hammer started, obviously, with the realization that I could never create Merle Silver for the FPL. Merle is a concept character I created for the Shallow Guild of Bleak Sunrise. His methodical brand of magic is too slow and ponderous to ever put him into the FPL directly, but I really wanted to emphasize the potency of his abilities. Merle's creation was a direct reaction to watching a show called "Fullmetal Alchemist" and observing how the concept of "Alchemy" was repeatedly abused in that show, becoming a basic catchall for any generic magic effect the writers wanted to achieve. Transfiguration, Thaumaturgy, Ritual Casting, Combat Magic, it all got lumped under the same banner. While this gave the show some "kewl fitez" it really had no connection to what I personally think of when I envision alchemy. I think of Goethe's Faust, or of Roger Bacon with his mortar and pestle, studiously developing the protoscience that would eventually become chemistry. I began to think a modern alchemist of any substantial quality would have to have a good deal of scientific background, in chemistry and organic chemistry, in particle physics, but also in magical disciplines like enchantment, transmutation, and potion making. I needed a name for this art, one that would distance it from the concept of "Alchemy" because I didn't want it to be associated with that television show. Thus, Chemancy was born.
There are several short pieces of prewriting that helped me flesh out the basic concept, why Merle is useful the the Shallow Guild, because as a scientist he's able to address problems in a way that nobody else can. Merle's personality was infused with a healthy dose of Dr. Julius Sumner Miller who was a brilliant man but as a caricature of a physicist is something of the anti-Oppenheimer: wildly passionate, hands dirty up to the elbows, and quite possibly mad. I needed to demonstrate Merle's absolutely potent and dangerous power, but the nature of his science is such that he wouldn't survive in an FPL fight. I knew I was going to introduce Vincent eventually, (for story reasons I think the Shallow Guild needs a "regular guy" to provide a foil for all the supernatural activity- a role the character Chakos played in the original Shallow Guild,) but I needed something else first. Silver's Hammer is the first step in the exploration of the Halja Bell storyline, which will eventually delve into some darker parts of Guild History, including the loss of an old Guild Brother, and its existence puts the Shallow Guild at constant risk of both exposure and annihilation (which, in Guild terms, are weighed as equal dangers.)
The original idea for Silver's Hammer was simply called "Push;" a weapon to push the Halja out of the physical plane and into the Arcanus Obliques. I started toying with different ideas for this weapon- what would it be? An old idea from my earlier FPL days got me thinking about Maxwell's Demon, and how I had always wanted to make "The Demon Maxwell" as an FPL character but hadn't fleshed out the idea much beyond the pun-name and a possible tenuous connection to hot/cold powers. When my brain put the names "Maxwell" and "Silver" together, I knew I had a winner. (For those not up on their rock history, Maxwell's Silver Hammer is quite possibly the strangest Beatles song ever written.)
The next step was writing a bio, which is always the first thing I do for a character. I finished a rough draft of the bio and went pic hunting. For as much as veteran creators (including myself) stress that the writing and concept should take precedence over the picture, it is always essential to find a good picture. I have a huge stash on my hard drive from times when I'm bored and I'll spend half an hour pic-hunting, just saving random stuff I come across online, but in this instance I already knew what picture I wanted to use. For all the clamor about stealing art, I actually find it more ethical to use images from professional artists, as those artists have been paid for their work and maintain online portfolios with the foreknowledge that some schmuck (me) might take that work and use it to represent his own character in a rollplaying game. The specific image for Silver's Hammer comes from Frazier Irving's cover for DC Comics Klarion #2. (Frazer Irving is an incredible artist who has worked with some of comics biggest talent, including my favorite writer: Grant Morrsion.) For me, having the exact image I plan to use, cropped and resized, at the top of the word document as I type, is a huge key to writing, and often contributes in interesting and unexpected ways to the final product.
The powers selection process inevitably involves quite a bit of waffling for me. Typically, I have one power that I know I want. Every single FPL character I've ever created focuses on one particular specific power, with everything else built around that ability to refine, augment, or otherwise facilitate the use of that specific power. In this case, I knew I wanted Polymorph to be the central focus. What I typically do is construct four or five power setups and then pick which one has the best "feel." I'm a huge believer in the connotations certain powers carry, and I can't tell you how many times I've killed a strong power setup in my own characters because, for example, a mental defense doesn't "fit" the theme of what I'm working with. Specifically with Silver's Hammer, because my intention was to show Merle Silver's amazing craftsmanship, I dropped the body stat to weak and gave the character Superior Energy Body. I wanted to show that everything that this character is, physically, was crafted by this careful artisan. There were lots of ways I could go with the remaining points, but I knew a functional power, like a movement power or skill, would detract from the Polymorph. I wanted a power with a wide range of possible interpretations, and an effective but fairly nebulous definition. Empathy was the perfect choice.
After the bio is written and the powers are selected, I decide how I want to play the character. This isn't a finished product, but it gives me a body of work to reference and allows a consistent basis for the character. Without exception the bio is typically the most revised part of a character for me, and by contrast the personality description is usually set in stone from the first draft. The personality description is a gateway from the bio to the powers, and a pivotal transition point. It is also where "show don't tell" counts the most. In this instance I wanted to showcase the rest of the Shallow Guild cast, and Samas has always fascinated me- he's Lucien meets Alucard, and thematically his studious nature helps provide both contrast and transition- we go from Merle's excited technobabble to Samas' dispassionate analysis, which helps sets up the other Guild members who aren't quite so observant. The interview-style character sheet is an old FPL standby, and allows me, in this case, to highlight a few other Shallow Guild characters. With each subsequent power description, I tried to pepper a little of that speaking character's flavor into the sheet. Brag begins with a non-sequitur about food, naturally, and St. Crispin displays a hint of the reverence that a truly great hunter feels for his prey. An underplayed note that I really enjoyed was Brag's summation on demonic sulfur- his goblin nose detects a flaw that even Samas has missed, but as usual Brag draws the wrong conclusion from it.
At this point I was pretty happy with the character, posted it on the Shallow Guild board and went to bed.
In the morning, nobody had responded, but with a rereading I discovered that I hated the bio section, and that it didn't work with the rest of the character. I consulted ThreeDark, who in addition to being a living database for all things mythological, is an oldschool FPL vet who I can trust to be candid. He confirmed my fears, that the bio needed a complete overhaul. I rewrote the bio and posted it on the FPL Character Analysis board, where other FPLers noted, among other things, an inconsistency in explaining the character's basic reason for existing. I needed a line within the character itself that mentioned the Halja Bell's physical invulnerability. Otherwise, a reader would have to read the prewriting post to understand what was going on. (Dealing with criticism can be tricky. While I tend to favor the critiques that address specific lines or sections rather than blanket comments or blind speculation on how voters will respond, I think it is important to welcome and consider all comments. In the end, though, you've got to trust your own instincts.) After a few more small edits I felt the character was ready for prime time, and Silver's Hammer became an FPL contender.

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