“Listen, listen, you’re thinking too hard here,” said my gamemaster. “All you gotta do—listen—just make a character.”
At the time, it didn’t feel like I was thinking too hard. This was nothing like writing. For years my characters lived in the safety and sanctity of my composition notebooks, where they went on adventures influenced by whatever video game I’d last finished. I loved them dearly in spite of how embarrassed I was whenever they came up.
And none of them would work for this game.
For the first time, rules constrained the characters I could make—and I wouldn’t be fully in control of where they ended up.
The prospect was very stressful. Awash in options, I asked for something easy, and settled on playing a barbarian.
When it came time for us to roll stats—a time honored tradition as fun as it is risky—I was confident I’d do well. With three dice in my hand I felt unbeatably lucky.
Until I rolled. I got two great stats, three okay ones, and one so low none of my friends could remember seeing a character with it.
My barbarian was going to be awful at something. None of my private characters were awful at anything. Frustrated, I decided that I’d put that stat in intelligence. You didn’t need to be smart if you liked to swing big axes. A basic backstory soon followed—she was a feral girl, raised by wolves and only recently resocialized, and she really liked to hit things.
Not much of a backstory, as you can see. The first few sessions came and went in relative boredom, because I hadn’t made a character. I’d made a stat sheet.
That game fizzled out after a few sessions. Outside of dungeons and mercenary missions we had little to do and less reason to interact. I found a second group shortly thereafter, and when I told that GM about what happened, he dispensed the sage advice above.
It hit me then that good roleplay characters aren’t far off from good book characters: they’ve got to have something they’re after. “Hitting things” didn’t count, but “revenge against the lord who taxed my village to starvation” is much better. Wants, needs, these things elevated the numbers on my sheet. Now that massive strength score represented years of training, now that wisdom represented things my barbarian had learned from nature.
So what did my barbarian want?
Well, despite her feral origins she was speaking Common and knew how to dress herself, so someone must have taken her in. A nomadic tribe of ice wizards sounded rad—but what did they think of her, and what did she think of them?
I decided that they’d been kind to her, for the most part, but never accepting. I decided that, more than anything, she wanted to impress the people who adopted her. That led to her long term goal: slay a beast so large and fearsome that her clanmates would have to respect her.
And from there she grew. If she cared what people thought of her, then wanted to be liked; she was a sweetheart when she wasn’t knee-deep in orc blood. Though she wasn’t the brightest, and sometimes that got her into trouble, she always meant well and believed the best of people.
When this second game started up, I was more excited than I was afraid.
Except—I hadn’t accounted for other players.
In the very first session our kobold wizard thought it’d be hilarious to put her and the party crusader into one bed while they were sleeping, and to slip wedding rings onto their fingers. My barbarian, being as sweet and naive as she was, happily went along with it when she awoke; the crusader, unwilling to break an oath he did not remember making, also went along with it.
And so the two of them ended up married.
It wasn’t something I would’ve come up with, not by a long shot—but it turned out better than I could have hoped. Katya’s husband, Solomon, now provided a constant stream of the support she’d lacked with her tribe. In return she encouraged him to track down the sorcerer that had gotten him kicked out of his order. As they adventured together they came to rely on another more and more. Long after the kobold admitted what he’d done, the two of them decided to stay together.
And it’s these interactions where characters really shine—where goals become quests, and a campaign becomes something more.
When I began to write The Tiger’s Daughter years later, the process began nothing like it had within the notebooks. I started with an interesting Roman skeleton I’d seen on tumblr, one with a prosthetic eye. The moment I saw it I knew there was a character seed there.
And so I asked myself—what did she want? And what price had she paid to get it? Piece by piece her story fell into place, but it wasn’t until I let her interact with people that I discovered who she was.
She was more interested in hunting than talking to people, she loved and feared her mother even as a grown woman, she spoke to her horse.
And above all—she wanted to return to her great love.
And, when I came to a pivotal moment halfway through the book, one which she’d gotten herself into and I didn’t plan for—I embraced it, as I’d embraced Katya’s marriage. The story that grew from there was as heartrending as it was beautiful, and I knew I’d made the right decision.
I won’t say that Katya the Barbarian influenced Barsalai Shefali, because the line isn’t as straight as that. Still—both of them were born the same way, and I think that’s got to count for something.
Top image: Community, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” (2014)
K. Arsenault Rivera is the author of the The Tiger’s Daughter, available now from Tor Books.