Back in late February or early March, Holly Lisle’s books came to my attention – I’m no longer sure how, but it was probably a Twitter link to her blog. Several of her e-books sounded interesting, so I passed the information on to Johnn, who surprised me in late March by giving me several of them for my Birthday.
By sheer coincidence, the eBook that we both started with was the “Create A Character” Clinic. Why Johnn chose that, I don’t know, but I can speak as to why it was the first of the eBooks that I read. I have read several books on the subject of character creation, and this was an excellent way to measure just how useful her books were going to be, and how much of the content would be redundant repetition of material that I had already read and digested.
To cut a much longer story short, the create-a-character clinic was excellent – but limited. It completely fulfilled its brief of explaining how to make characters for a work of fiction plausible and rounded, and how to communicate their nature to the audience by means of dialogue and description with massive blocks of ex-cathedra narrative by the author. Even better, most of the advice would function just as superbly when applied by a GM in a game context.
There was only one area where it fell short: Aliens. Non-humans of all shapes and sizes.
The limitations of television budgeting ensured that the aliens on Star Trek: The Next Generation were obviously humans in rubber masks and makeup, and many of the stories suffered somewhat in credibility as a result in my eyes – “not another rubber forehead!” I though to myself on a number of occasions.
Applying Holly’s book to the creation of non-humans – whether it be in fiction or within a game – will result in characters wearing the metaphoric equivalent of rubber forehead appliances. Superficially alien, but no different when and where it matters.
This article is intended to plug that gap.
How Alien Should Aliens Be?
I want to start by looking briefly at a very tricky subject. This is by no means intended to be the last word or definitive answer to the question that the heading above raises – just a starting point.
It is obviously desirable for any given aliens to be distinctly non-human in some respect – they aren’t human and their thinking should reflect that. What’s more, like a stack of dominos falling, one substantial difference should have knock-on effects. A change in the psychology of a species should be reflected in their culture, laws, social interactions, architecture, diet and anything else about the society. Not to mention how they will interact with members of other societies!
There’s no need to go into extensive detail on how to perform this type of extrapolation, because that is the subject of one of the most popular articles here at Campaign Mastery, my 4-part Distilled Cultural Essence. At the same time, it is desirable to make the Aliens as human as possible; the audience – whether they are players or readers – are all going to be human and have to relate to the Aliens.
There is clearly a conflict here, a huge grey area that is bounded by “too much” and “not enough”, between “too alien” and “too human”.
Complicating the situation is that neither GM nor author can afford to expend vast amounts of exposition in communicating the differences and uniqueness; we don’t want to spend time on generalities, we want to deal with specific individuals.
We need to be able to hit the highlights and leave the fine details to be filled in only as they become relevant; we don’t have sufficient tolerance to accommodate a lecture on sociology.
It follows that the best description is some single significant divergence from the human norm, and a mention of one or two of the repercussions that are blindingly obvious. So long as every detail that gets mentioned thereafter is consistent, and any variations from what the audience might expect gets referred back to that major variation, it’s sufficient for the author/GM to have all the details without inflicting them on the reader/audience.
Which brings us to two further questions: How to diverge from the human norm, and how to do so significantly – without completely alienating the results from the reader/audience?
The Hierarchy Of Non-human Needs
The foundation stone of the Clinic is Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs, a deceptively simple architecture layering one category of personal need above another. The concept is that you will do what you have to do to satisfy the needs of a given layer except compromise the needs of a lower layer.
What’s more, by choosing an item from within these categories at random, you can determine the driving need that motivates your character – you just have to draw a narrative line between the fulfillment of that need and the actions you desire your character to make, or analyze a situation that the character encounters in the context of that need to get some idea of how the character will feel about it.
It works marvelously well for humans, and abysmally for non-humans – because the non-humans will have a substantially different hierarchy of needs.
But that’s the solution to the problem posed at the end of the preceding section: Change an element of the hierarchy. Changing that element immediately makes a substantial difference to the aliens, their philosophy, society, etc, but only changing ONE element keeps the whole thing manageable – and enables the audience/player to relate to the resulting species.
Not just a rubber forehead
It might seem that this solution is on a par with the “rubber foreheads” of which I have been so disparaging, but I would disagree with that assessment. This isn’t simply a cosmetic change, but a fundamental difference to the way the society thinks and what its members value. To a human standard, the resulting characters could technically be considered insane.
I should probably also add that at the start of the series, the “forehead appliance” was at the cutting edge of what could be achieved on a TV budget with physical makeup. Babylon-5 raised my – and most other people’s – expectations and standards, and it is only when judged by those standards that STTNG fell short in the makeup and costuming of its aliens.
Exemplars and Misfits
When dealing with an alien culture, there are two types of representative that the GM needs to present – exemplars and misfits. The misfit displays individuality within the alien culture, while the exemplar provides a context and basis for comparison.
And yet, every character that is encountered should be an individual; this is another contradiction that the author/GM must resolve.
The most obvious solution is for the one being to embody both – the misfit whose need is to reform himself. This is so obvious a solution that it cannot be used at every turn, or it will become a cliché. So the creator of an alien species must look for alternatives which can be used in preference, reserving this obvious answer as a fallback position.
One of the most-frequently used alternatives comes in the form of the briefing, or narrative introduction. Someone, reading from or summarizing a “file” of compiled information on the race, acquaints the protagonists with a generic profile from which every individual will diverge, however slightly.
Another solution is the ridicule of an enemy. In my Shards Of Divinity campaign, the Player Characters have yet to encounter an Elf, never mind encounter Elvish Society. Both events, they know, lie in their future. At the current time, they are possessed of some “common knowledge” imparted ex-cathedra in the campaign briefing, one PC has a couple of insights concerning the Elves in human pre-history, but the most practical information they have comes from the disparagement of an enemy of the race – who nevertheless embodies many of the very traits he disparages. By any measure, this is a misfit with respect to the society he represents, and quite intentionally so on his part; but those very efforts illuminate aspects of his parent society.
There are other answers, but each GM or author should develop his own approaches.
From The General to the Individual
Holly’s book deals with character construction in a logical way, given a common frame of reference. From needs it moves on to character through work and play; this is followed by past, present and future; then friends, enemies, and lovers; life and death; Culture, Religion and Education; and finally, Moral Stance.
When dealing with a non-human race, I would recommend changing that sequence to give the ramifications of the change in Needs for the society an opportunity to permeate the various aspects of the character.
My recommended sequence of approach is:
- Culture, Religion, and Education (page 51)
- Friends, Enemies, and Lovers (Racial, not personal) (page 42)
- Past, Present and Future (Societal, not personal) (page 29)
- Moral Stance (Societal, not personal) (page 57)
These are all things that need to be understood about the culture in general before the impact of the individual’s unique circumstances on his personality, actions, and choices can be assessed.
There is a logical flow to the decisions that have to be made, a logical order to the order in which the dominos are lined up. For example:
- You can’t decide a character’s choice of and approach to his employment until you know what occupations are open to the character, and how they are regarded.
- How they are regarded will also impact on the character’s past choices and present circumstances.
- You can’t decide this information on occupations until you know who the race’s friends and enemies are, and the history of the conflicts in their past and present. This can also impact on occupation and attitudes, and will certainly impact on the culture’s morality.
At every stage of the character development process, the creator needs to document two things: what is the exemplar (however broadly defined you have to keep it), i.e. what is normal for this race; and what are the Individual Character’s choices and attitudes and history in this respect.
Once these foundations are known, the remainder of character development can proceed in the normal way. Pick the aspects of the character’s life that are most important to them – it might be their work, or their hobbies, or their wife, or a personal rivalry, or a fear of mortality, or a shameful past, or whatever. Identify the appropriate section of the character development clinic, and work through the questions posed therein. Then do the next most important, and so on.
Through Dungeons Deep
It’s worth noting in passing that one of the most vivid memories I have of “Through Dungeons Deep” was showing how the personality of a traditional dragon derived from postulating a couple of needs that were not in the area that would be expected of a human. Of course, I took it further by thinking about why that need was where it was, but even without that, I have to admit that the approach I have described here has been directly inspired by what I read in Plamendon’s book.
A Partial Example
This article would hardly be complete without at least a partial example. And, since I havn’t talked about them very much in these pages, I’m going to pick Dwarves.
Starting with the hierarchy of needs, we need to either move or insert something. I’ll give the Dwarves a new sense/ability – Commune With Earth – as a blanket label for all the things they are supposed to be able to do from the Player’s Handbook / Fantasy Literature. This is a spiritual connection with the Earth and the spaces beneath the surface.
Having labeled the difference between Dwarves and Humans, it’s time to translate it into one or more societal needs.
At the most fundamental level, we can place the need to periodically renew this bond with the Earth. To make things interesting, I’m going to replace Sex/Procreation with this sense. That means that marriage and children are no longer vital needs – implying that Dwarves have some other means of reproduction.
Replacing the sex drive with this experience suggests that the experience is a sensual one, and that such communing gives the Dwarf great pleasure. It also implies that this communing is somehow bound up with that alternative to children.
Perhaps Dwarves don’t have children, but instead dig the next generation, quite literally, from the rock that they tunnel through.
That means that they have no need for there to be more than one gender – but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Satisfying this need is clearly a dangerous undertaking in and of itself. Mining is hardly safe at the best of times; aside from the dangers of bad air and pockets of explosive gasses, there is the ever-present danger of rock falls. Add to that the threat posed by many of the creatures with whom Dwarves share their underground domain, and safety seems well satisfied.
The latter danger would certainly justify the usual martial society that is usually associated with Dwarves.
And yet, all this seems so pedestrian. Dwarves are supposed to be better at this stuff than humans; presumably, their innate communion with the earth gives them advantages that humans lack, which in turn eases the environmental dangers.
To compensate, we need to introduce a new danger, one that is also mitigated by but that results from, this new Sense. Perhaps there are parts of the Earth that are inherently “bad places” – pits of corruption and evil, hiding places of pure abstract villainy, even connections with the Abyssal planes. Certainly, the common belief in my Shards Of Divinity campaign is that the Heavens are hidden amongst the clouds, while the planes of Hell are deep underground, like the Pits of Tartarus.
Make these “dark places” seductive, as Devils and Demons are often described as being, capable of corrupting the Dwarves and turning them malicious and twisted, and the danger posed fits our needs perfectly. I keep thinking of the Cave/Tree in “The Empire Strikes Back” – a place that is strong in the “Dark Side”.
As an aside, this makes a dandy explanation for the differences between Drow and Elves – the first living Underground, and the latter living above ground. But that’s neither here nor there in this discussion.
Finally, it seems reasonable to suppose that Dwarves would feel uneasy whenever they could not feel the Earth’s presence beneath their feet – crossing rope bridges or sitting on flying carpets, or simply ascending a staircase above ground level. They would prefer to sleep in a root cellar than on the first floor of an Inn!
Love and Belonging
If the Dwarves have only one gender, they would inevitably see themselves as Married to the Earth. There would undoubtedly be at least one, and possibly several, manhood rituals in a Dwarves’ life that revolve around this perception. Fidelity would be to the Earth itself.
This stratum of the Hierarchy Of Needs is all about knowing we are cared about and caring about others, to quote the Clinic e-book. How could that relate to our new Sense?
We may consider it anthropomorphizing, but if the Dwarves see themselves as having this sort of relationship with the Earth, it is surely not a great leap to imagine that they would consider the Earth as an equal, and Dwarvish Society would be an extended family. Perhaps there are some variations in interpretation and awareness of the Sense and this is the distinction between one Dwarvish Clan and another. Certainly, the Earth would be the central connection binding Dwarvish Society together.
Being forcibly divorced from the Clan could operate as an interdiction of one or more nuances of the Earth Sense; in extreme cases, even a repudiation and denial by the Earth itself.
The Earth has long been associated with a number of personality traits, many of which are also associated with typical Dwarvish peoples in Fantasy Games. “Salt Of The Earth”, “Down To Earth”, and so on – I don’t want to go too deeply into this because it was already covered under “The Rock” in part one of my incomplete series, “We All Have Our Roles To Play: A Functional Perspective On Personality Archetypes” (which I hope to get back to, Real Soon Now).
I bring this up to pose another of those mind-twisting suggestions that my players have come to expect: What if, instead of viewing the Earth as a feminine – something that agriculture and fertility ritual have imposed apon human societies – Dwarves saw it as a masculine, a father figure? All children try to emulate their father. (Mischievous Grin)
Of course, if Dwarves are truly mono-gendered, they probably wouldn’t have any basis for gender distinctions when it came to the Earth; it would be both Father and Mother, and human gender distinctions would be considered anthropomorphization of the worst sort!
This is one of the hardest terms to describe! One of the few flaws with Holly’s e-book is in satisfying the need to define the term. My dictionary doesn’t help much, either.
Try this definition on for size: “Actualization is the process of treating ambitions and desires beyond the needs of health and welfare as if they were needs of health and welfare”.
We all have these ambitions and desires; and if we satisfy them, they are immediately replaced with new ones. The big ones are fame, fortune, power, and authority. Some societies may well add sanctimony to that list. I personally would add Liberty, the right to pursue happiness, intellectual freedom, and freedom of speech to the list. But that’s just me.
How can actualization connect with the postulated new Sense? Well, so far we’ve treated this new sense as pretty much a blanket deal, the same for every Dwarf (with a possible distinction along clan lines). But one of the big needs for such a sense to actually provide all the abilities that Dwarves enjoy in D&D and related games, and in fantasy fiction in general, would be discrimination – the ability to tell one kind of rock from another, one kind of mineral from another, and so on. What if these different minerals actually evoked different emotional responses?
Suddenly, the fact that Dwarves are never associated with Sulphur mines – or Salt mines, for that matter – starts to make more sense. And if the refinement or purification of such resources amplifies or concentrates those emotional responses, then other aspects of Dwarven descriptions start to take on new meaning. Their weapons are usually described as being iron, for example – perhaps there is a tactile pleasure that derives from handling steel, that other materials don’t provide?
Gold and Platinum, of course, are the only two metals that are found in pure form in nature. Everything else – even Silver – is more frequently found as an Alloy. It follows that these two noble metals, and the various gemstones, would provide the most “pure” responses. Mining a vein of Gold might well be the equivalent of a Minister hearing the voice of God.
In fact, it’s possible to go further – Gemstones have long been held to have magical properties; a little expansion along those lines and it would be possible to evolve an entire technology that is based on Gemstones that would be completely unique to this culture!
Wrapping up the example
I could continue on to actual character development of an individual from this society, refining and expanding on the concepts and ideas already incorporated, but I think the point is made; this process has evolved a view of Dwarves that is radically different from anything that I have ever seen or heard of. And yet, it is both strangely compelling and true to the ideas presented in the sourcebooks.
From this foundation, I would employ the techniques discussed in Distilled Cultural Essence to expand on the culture, coupled with the development strategy outlined in this article; then I could turn my attention to the creation of a number of individuals and the ever-present question of how to present an exemplar to the players in whatever game this was destined to be used in.
The Character Development Clinic
Holly Lisle’s eBook is an excellent resource for GMs and players and writers in general. You can buy it here or by clicking on the cover image above. The current price is $9.95 for the PDF version and $19.95 for a printed version from Lulu, and it’s definitely worth the price of admission.