Tag Archives: blog challenge

Day Thirteen: Sum of the Parts

Day Thirteen of “30 Days of D&D” is Favorite Trap / Puzzle.

I’ve clearly fallen victim to the traps of life and distractions since I’m a few days behind. Time to fix this! Sleep? Who needs sleep?

Favorite trap… you mean, other than the mimic chest to catch the greedy PC who loots the bodies and the treasure in the middle of a battle?

I’m going to extend “trap” to “potentially harmful terrain features” rather than the by-the-book definition. One of my favorite moments involved a dungeon with conduits of power pumping magical energies into something deep below.

I used some of a Dungeon Tiles set, and found a long straight one, with a hall maybe six squares wide. Two rows of four pillars filled the space, each with enough room to maneuver between them.

I figured this would make for a narrow chokepoint that might force the players to be in a little danger… especially when one or two of the columns randomly flared with damaging magical energy, zapping anyone around it. A d8 roll would tell me which pillars to flare, keeping it random and chaotic.

It didn’t all go the way I planned. The players used smart tactics to minimize their exposure to the area effect, and they tore down the monsters in the encounter quite easily.

The best moment came when the Tiefling cleric studied those pillars.

“Ok… I know I don’t have a prehensile tail, but… can I maybe wrap my tail around a pillar and use Arcana and my skill with magic to maybe channel the energy into something harmful? I know it’ll hurt me some…”

Uhh, YES. Gimme a roll…

I’m not saying it was an effective trap, just a fun one.

Puzzles on the other hand… I’ve included a few along the way. I gave one of my players the equivalent of a cryptoquiz, where a message was scrambled by using a simple cipher using a special font full of strange runes.

In the course of running a few campaigns over the years, I’ve always wanted to include a puzzle item related to a major quest, where the players start finding pieces with little to no explanation other than whatever they get from Arcana or History checks and such…

Some of these would do nicely.

And then more of the bad guys end up having these things which are clearly connected, and some bad guys are searching for the pieces lost deep in ancient ruins and flooded dungeons, or taken by tribes of feral, cannibal gnomes…

Of course, the idea is that piecing the puzzle together is the key to stopping the Big Bad and the evil plan that threatens the realm. Players being players, I suppose it could also be the key to becoming the Big Bad and threatening the realm.

By the way, if you haven’t seen this or don’t really know what D&D is about, this video explains it really well. Also, if you’re looking for a way to explain D&D to a newbie, or to try to convince your religious friend that you’re not summoning demons in the basement, this might help:

Day Twelve: I’ve Got Options

With the word “dungeons” as a part of literally the name of the game, it’s surprising how easily these can be forgotten. I know that, for me, if my players are going to have to explore one, it needs to matter.

It’s day twelve of 30 Days of D&D, and the topic is Favorite Dungeon Type or Location.

Video games like Skyrim are awesome for the quality of the sandbox the player is placed in. I remember hearing that as soon as you finished the tutorial / intro, you faced an unstated choice:  Follow the road to the next storyline quest location, or wander in whatever direction you liked, exploring the region and its assorted scenic points.

D&D can be like that. Some DMs prepare that way, sprinkling the setting with a whole lot of everything else that’s going on in the world. I think that’s a good component of a game, especially if you’re trying to maintain a sandbox style or at least feel.

At my best, I keep a few of those parts of the world at the ready in a computer file or hard copy folder, just in case the players decide their current plan isn’t as interesting as some bit of news or rumor they hear, or some random clue they find in the wild.

On the one hand, I don’t want them to feel like they’re on rails in any way–“You can only go east because, um… reasons.” Namely, because that’s where the thing I prepared is on the map. (I did have to admit that to a group of players once. Didn’t like it.)

That said, I also don’t mind if they end up mysteriously coming across the orc cave I’ve prepared, regardless of whether they turned north toward the mountains or east into the forest. It feels natural and unexpected, because I haven’t tied myself down to “this dungeon exists at this partiuclar spot, period dot, end of story.”

Even more than location, what matters to me about dungeons is purpose. Every dungeon or mini-dungeon I build is meant to have some kind of meaningful end result.

I don’t remember what, but something powerful and BAD happened at that altar, carving a deep ditch through the stone.

Maybe it’s finding out more information about a bigger threat to the region or discovering an item necessary for the Big Bad’s ultimate evil plan.

Maybe it’s a plot twist or even a low-scale moral conundrum. Those goblins you thought were a threat? They’re actually in trouble, oppressed by the kobolds who moved in with the young dragon they serve, or deceived by their newfound friend, the hag. This sort of thing has led to some great role-playing and even a few recurring NPCs of an unusual variety.

Ancient Ghost
A picture card I made for an ancient ghostly NPC the players had to deal with in order to enter a key structure within a ruined city…

Maybe it’s just some object of great power, the knowledge and details of which have been lost to time. I don’t know why, but I always love the “ruins of the ancient, more advanced civilization” background to a dungeon, with objects that exude strange powers, interact with the players in various ways (usually bad), or reveal secrets about the world on a much larger scale.

I care far less about the location or type than about why it matters for these heroes to stomp through this particular network of tunnels and caverns.

Day Ten: In the Dark

I’m working my way through 30 Days of Dungeons and Dragons, and today’s topic is: Craziest In-Game Experience.

Side note: The concerned reader might ask, “Where did day nine go?” Actually, it was D&D session day, and after that, my brain is usually pretty fried. Additionally, the topic of “Favorite PC you’d like to play” is pretty close to my answer for Favorite PC in day eight. Given the chance, and the DM’s permission if it fit the story or setting, I would play a PC of “the good necromancer.” I wrote my thoughts on that concept, as well as a fantasy fiction scene imagining how it might work out.

Now for day ten!

I’ve enjoyed some really lovely groups, with some excellent role-players and a ton of laughter. Most of the crazy in-game moments happen when villains get slaughtered all too easily, or when players come up with insane requests that I can’t help but agree to.

Despite coming up with some prepared events and ideas of what might happen, a DM is often left feeling in the dark until moments play out, then forced to adapt. On the one hand, that can feel like panic, when everyone looks to you asking, “What happens next?” On the other hand, it creates a wild spontaneity, an energy born of impromptu acting, planning, and adjusting.

The collaborative part of tabletop RPGing is a key component to having a great game. Players who can act out a roll of 1 as well as they describe a roll of 20 are a great boon to my already-taxed mind when trying to keep the action going.

We had a moment where our rogue was trying to withhold some information or mislead a suspicious ruler in a city. Two of the players in this group were fans of rolling certain skill checks and then playing out the result of the roll. “It sucks when you come up with a good speech and then you roll a 1 on your diplomacy check. It feels off… so I’d rather roll, and then I can play it well or poorly based on how my character did.”

Any DM will say, “Yes, please, more power to you.”

So he rolls, gets a decent result, and offers a pretty good effort at giving the ruler what she needs without exposing compromising information. However, before I can respond in character, his buddy the fighter says, “I’m gonna help.”

He rolls a 1 and starts laughing. “Uhh… yeah. So…”  He turns to his friend and whispers as loud as a normal speaking voice, “SHE’S TOTALLY BUYING IT. YOU SHOULD LIE TO HER.”

I think my first lesson concerning how easily a DM’s plans go off the rails came in the first session I ran. We had our 4th Edition characters ready: a dwarf paladin, a couple elf rangers, a halfling rogue, an eladrin warlord, and a half-elf NPC.

I went with “you’re hired as merchant guards for a caravan, on your way down the road when–Bandits!” That first fight went well and got us a little bit used to the combat rules. Of course, the party wanted to chase down the bandits that got away, and maybe find their hideout.

The dwarf paladin’s player starts up this elaborate plan, being all diplomatic and “let’s see if we can work some arrangements out” and “we come in peace.” He rolls well, and my bandits are suspicious but eventually, the party and the bandits are standing around the campfire under the night sky.

Things seem to be going well, though I’m surprised that the players went with parley as the plan.

“So,” the dwarf’s player declares, “as we reach this agreement… the bandits are all human, right?”

Me: “…yes?”

“I attack the fire.”

Me: “…wat”

“It’s night time,” he says. “All of us have darkvision.” (4th Edition was so generous with darkvision.)

“I attack the fire. I want to hit it like a golf swing, just–you know, catching the main logs and throwing the embers up into the bandit leader’s face… but ultimately, I want to scatter the fire to where it’s no longer giving off that light.”

Me: “… roll, I guess.”

Two short rounds of combat later, cue the Final Fantasy victory music, because those bandits literally didn’t see what was coming for them.

And that’s when I learned what I was in for if I was going to keep DMing.

And that’s also when I decided I loved being on that end of the table, behind the screen, in the dark.

Day Eight: Never Again (again)

For the last week, I’ve been working my way through this lovely “30 Days of D&D” series:

Today’s topic is Favorite PC of your own.

I don’t often get the chance to play characters. Since I started playing D&D, I’ve been the DM for six different groups.

I’ve played a dreaded DMPC in a few of those, and very quickly learned how terrible that idea can be. I had two chances to make a character and play through a short session, once as part of playtest materials when 5E was still in the works, and once as part of a new group at the local library. I also created a fun character for a Pathfinder game that had to stop soon after it started.

Point being, many times, my NPCs are characters in the world who I would love to play as PCs if given the chance. My favorite character that I actually played as a PC was one I made to round out a small party for an intro session with my two sons, giving them a feel for their characters’ powers and skills.

We explored the first half of “Death House” from Curse of Strahd, and I played Assyla, a warlock haunted by her tragic past, who spoke with spirits whose voices no one else heard, and fought to ensure no one else suffered the same fate.

The face card I use for Assyla as an NPC. Face cards are amazing for building NPC recognition from your players.

Given an Old One style pact, twisted spells made the most sense (stuff like Arms of Hadar and Dissonant Whispers). I gave her a creepy way of talking where she repeated the last few words of anything she said, but in a raspy hiss like it came from a strangled throat (strangled throat).

I also arranged the role-play traits I felt would best suit her:

A person with no trust in divine beings, who refuses to be a victim or allow others to be victimized. “The gods won’t help us, so we must help ourselves (help ourselves). Rest assured, we won’t let anyone hurt you (hurt you).

She was chaotic good – not beholden to some laws or moral ideology, but certainly willing to sacrifice on behalf of others.

Even so, her flaw was assuming the worst in people–that, and the whole “talking to spirits” thing. As an NPC (or briefly as the DM PC to round out the party for my kids’ intro to playing 5E), she served as an unreliable voice that could give the party misleading “insight.”

The ‘haunted one’ background in Strahd includes another key component – a harrowing event that set the character on their path into some form of darkness. For Assyla, that was the day her entire village was slaughtered before her eyes. However, when the shadowy beast found her, it froze and stared at her for a moment before calmly walking away, never to return.

One day, in fiction or in a campaign, Assyla will have her time in the spotlight… but for now, she’ll appear as an NPC, providing heroes the questionable wisdom of those beyond the grave (beyond the grave).

Day Three: Lawful Stupid

Today’s 30 Days of D&D challenge is:

Favorite PC class.

Leaving aside previous editions, 5th Ed already gives a number of strong options. I can see lots of interesting uses for bards (I even had an annoying NPC bard sing a mocking song about the heroes in the party I DM for). Rogues are fun, especially when it’s not the chaotic neutral, steal-everything-in-sight type. Sorcerers bring rolls on the Wild Magic Surge table, making for some cinematic and/or hilarious moments in-game. Warlocks offer so many story-laden options depending on where they get their powers.

Despite all that, I decided upon Paladins as my favorite.

Not exactly a paladin, since this comes from LOTRO… but he looks the part

Those who have played editions prior to 4th coined the phrase “Lawful Stupid” regarding paladins because back then, pallies had to be bastions of virtue and morality… which often turned into some ridiculous moments where a paladin refused to go along with the party’s plan OR engaged in a foolish plan of their own, all because “I have to be Lawful Good or else I lose the source of my power!”

I mean, they DID have a lot of restrictions. From Wikipedia:

Typical tenets of the Paladin code are as follows (though many variants exist):

  • A Paladin must be of Lawful Good alignment.

  • A Paladin may never willfully commit an Evil act.

  • A Paladin cannot associate with any character who persistently commits acts which would cause the Paladin him/herself to Fall – notably Evil creatures.

  • A Paladin must remain truthful and forthright at all times.

  • A Paladin must give fair warning and due quarter to enemies.

  • A Paladin holds stealth, subterfuge, attack from the rear, missile weapons and especially poison as weapons of last resort.

That might lead to conflicts with the rogue, for example:

“Not only will I not slit the sleeping orc’s throat, but I will fight you if you try to do so.”

“Oh by all the gods, who invited this dolt on the quest?”

Now, I admit, there are a lot of storytelling options connected with keeping in good ties with the Divine in order to drop those holy smites on the forces of evil. Players might lose their alignments or their class powers and be forced to make atonement for their evil ways. Or they could just go evil and find… “other” sources of power.

4th Edition said, “Hey, you know what? Evil paladins are a thing.” It makes sense in a way. If the gods can give you holy power, certainly the EVIL gods (or neutral gods) can likewise grant their power to their servants. One of the first players in a campaign I DM’d was a dwarf paladin of nature, and he was awesome.

5th Edition took it further and said, “You know what? Some paladins champion an ideal or virtue. You want to play the brooding edgelord with a past who is out for vengeance? Why not make that your oath which gives you power? You want to play that atheist paladin? Why not?”

Again, the point is broadening the story options, not restricting, so I feel like it works.

On top of that, Mike Mearls (one of the big names in D&D design) put out a video saying that classes like paladin and warlock don’t have to stay on good terms with their power source (divine beings or powerful supernatural entities, respectively), so that does away with much of the “lawful stupid” problem of the past.

This step, I disagree with, as I feel like it divorces the character and their power from the story aspect which explains their existence… but to each table and player their own.

“Do you have a moment to hear about the Dark Lord and his gift for you?”
Totally a paladin, guys… it’s fine.

Since the newer editions opened up more options, I see interesting or compelling story backgrounds that fit the class. It’s a very close competition with some of the others, but if forced to choose only one class, my PC will be a paladin.

Day Two: Haunted by the Past

Throughout June, I’m working my way through a 30-day Dungeons & Dragons challenge.

Day Two: Favorite PC Race

When I started writing my first campaign, with the advent of 4th edition, I had no idea what was new or different about the content provided in the core rulebooks. To me, it all just seemed like wonderful opportunities for world-building and plot hooks.

The race of Tiefling caught my eye in a special way, before I found out that it was the first time they were offered as a player race.

Most of the Tieflings in 4th Ed were described as the progeny of a fallen empire that tried to gain power from demons and therefore had a demonic influence in their bloodline. They looked like horned devils, with glowing eyes, sharp teeth, red skin, and all the stereotypical details minus a pitchfork. In general, their reputation suffered as a result–they were described as outsiders, feared or hated since many of the “goodly” races might presume the demonic influence still affected these humanoids.

What a perfect opportunity for some underdogs out to prove themselves, or some angry citizens tired of being mistreated!

I’ve had a few players make tiefling characters in games I’ve run, and I’ve introduced a few tiefling NPCs along the way as villains or victims (or both). I even got to play a tiefling PC of my own, albeit in a Pathfinder game run by some friends.

I love fun or interesting characters, regardless of race, though I struggle to accept or fit some of the more obscure ones into my homebrew setting. That said, if I had to choose just one PC race, tiefling edges past the others.

Day 1: Gimme a Roll

A few months ago, I saw a lovely 30-day Dungeons & Dragons challenge slip across my feed, and I thought it would be a great way to share one of my favorite hobbies.

Dungeons & Dragons is an oft-misunderstood game. Some folks think it involves sweaty guys in cloaks swinging foam swords in the park. Others figure it’s a bunch of sweaty man-children in someone’s basement playing pretend instead of growing up. A good many religious people are certain it’s a tool of the devil to lure the unsuspecting into hell.

Come to think of it, that last one sounds like the spark of a campaign.

Here’s the challenge I’ll be attempting:

Day One: How did I get started?

I grew up in a conservative home where we were led to believe that games like Dungeons & Dragons started with actual witchcraft and ended with suicide when someone’s character died. The 80s were an interesting time, and we didn’t have the Internet… so when church leaders started declaring the dangers of these “satanic” role-playing games, the faithful listened and believed.

As a result, I didn’t pick up the books until 2008, when D&D 4th Edition came out. I was deployed and looking for something to do. As I looked through the material in the core books, I wrote what I thought would be a fun story for some characters to play through. A friend wanted to host a game night when I got back, so I volunteered to run the game.

Six of us sat around the table, starting off in a very basic and likely familiar setting:

“So… you’re all guarding a merchant’s caravan, rolling through woods infested with bandits–when all of a sudden, an arrow streaks across the thick grass near the trail and buries itself into the side of the wagon with a thok! Roll for initiative!”

That first night, I had no idea what I was doing… but I knew I wanted to do it more.

Next: Fave PC Race

Elements of Critique: Plan

I’m about to go to overseas with the military, and I don’t think I’m going to find a writers’ group like the one I’m leaving here. Perhaps you can relate to not finding a good group where you are.

What’s stopping me from starting my own group? Fear of a challenge I’ve never tried before? Fear based in lack of experience? Worry that I wouldn’t know where to start?

After the A to Z and the two add-ons, I’ve covered the essentials for how to critique. The only question I can think to answer now is, “How do I run a critique group?”  It’s simple once I have a plan.

f42e7-p

To answer that question, I’ll steal from the guidelines used at the lovely group I attend. This is a starting point; these can be altered to suit whatever an in-person group needs, and can easily be adapted for an online group.

1. We set up a monthly date. Ours is the fourth Tuesday of every month. A monthly group means I’m not always critiquing or writing a submission. It’s manageable for me. Your mileage may vary.

2. We say submit up to 1200 words a week before the meeting. Setting that limit helps ensure we can all read the submissions even if we have busy lives. We’re pretty flexible about it; I usually submit a longer piece with a 1200-word spot marked so that if someone is willing to critique more, they can.

3. We have a standard format for submission. This seems nitpicky, but there’s a reason “A” is all about appearance. I got a comment from someone judging a competition, stating that the vast majority of submissions were disqualified because people failed to follow the guidelines on format. Ours is: header with last name/title on left, page number on right. First page upper left has name, address, email, and word count. The whole submission must be Times New Roman, double spaced.

4. Our guidelines restate that we should submit a week ahead, but they leave room for late submissions and encourage participants to come offer critique even if they didn’t submit anything that month. Everyone’s input is valuable.

5. We normally submit by email, but we’re trying out a Facebook group where everyone can “submit” by uploading their document to the group’s page. That way the documents don’t get lost in the shuffle of email.

6. Our group usually has five to eight participants. Eight borders on too many for our two hour meeting to cover well. We aim for a short 15-minute social time at the beginning, followed by 15 minutes of critique per submission. We actually use a timer visible for the whole group to keep everyone on track. When there’s time, we read a short portion of each entry (perhaps a page or two at most). Then we go around the room for critique.

7. Our guidelines reinforce what’s expected when your submission is being read and critiqued. Don’t cringe; no one’s out to hurt anyone. Don’t jump in to explain or defend (since we’ll never get the chance to explain our slant or ideas to an editor). Don’t apologize for what’s written. Listen fully; take what you need and leave the rest.

8. After each person’s piece is critiqued and read, they receive hard copies with comments and highlights, or they receive an email with an electronic document marked with comments and highlights.

That’s all there is to it. Seems easy, right?

It is. It doesn’t take much, it doesn’t require some amazing author or insightful editor to organize. All anyone needs is a host, a location, and some willing writers.

Adapting this to an online group is even easier: no need for a host or locale. A group could agree on a monthly timeline and submit critiques back-and-forth via email, or use an online chat feature like Google Hangouts to share together while geographically separated. And if all attempts at forming a group fail, there are online pages like Scribophile which are all about building community while getting and giving useful critique.

But this covers the basic framework. I can’t say enough good things about how beneficial a critique group has been for my own writing. I feel like a critique group evangelist when I meet other writers, and I have to tone it down so I don’t scare them off.

Perhaps you know of a group that runs differently in some key way. I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

And that’s all, folks. Everything anyone needs to at least kick off a group of their own and begin offering meaningful critiques. Thanks so much for accompanying me on this month-long journey and providing encouragement along the way. The feedback has been valuable to me beyond the power of words to convey. If there’s any question or concern not covered, shoot me a comment and I’ll be happy to respond with my take on it.

So with that, farewell. What are you doing reading blogs anyway?

There’s writing to get done!

Elements of Critique: Quotation Marks

There’s an arguably crude joke about the Oxford comma (the one that you may have been taught does or does not go before ‘and’ within a list of items).

Consider the difference:

“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK, and Stalin to the party.”
vs
“The Secret Service agents brought the strippers, JFK and Stalin to the party.”

Maybe JFK and Stalin have a more colorful history than I knew.

Punctuation matters. But so does point-of-view, which is why that got the ‘P’ slot in this A to Z list. So today, I’ll focus on Quotation Marks (and other punctuation).

It’s my blog. I can cheat.

Quotation mark rules are easy to follow, but the marks are easy to miss, judging by the critiques I’ve done thus far. I watch for marks at the start and end of the quote, and I check whether the marks enclose required punctuation such as a comma, period, or question mark at the end of a phrase or sentence. And if the quote includes the speaker reciting a quote, then single quotation marks surround that recited quote within the double quotation marks.

There is one case where a question mark might not be enclosed in the quotation marks. If the speaker is asking a question using a quote, the question mark belongs outside the quote. For example:

“Did God really say, ‘If you eat the fruit, you shall die’?”

The fact that the first example I can think of is from Satan might be a clue that it’s easier to simply avoid this structure if at all possible.

Another note, with quote marks, is that you don’t have to end a paragraph with a quotation mark if the next paragraph starts with the same speaker speaking. The next paragraph starts with a quotation mark, and a quotation mark goes at the end of the speech, however many paragraphs it lasts.

Also, I look for new paragraphs to start with each new speaker. Having multiple speakers in one paragraph, even with proper punctuation, is a nightmare to the reader.

Enough about quotation marks; on to commas!

I started with a comma joke, and mentioned the Oxford comma. This is an example where either way is considered correct depending on the style required by whoever the writing is for. If it’s being submitted to an editor or publisher who wants it a certain way, then of course follow that guidance. Otherwise, I look for clarity or lack thereof, and critique as needed.

Comma overuse is the most common issue. Some of us probably learned to include commas wherever there might be a verbal pause. This can lead to some clunky writing. For me, commas separate clauses in a sentence, identify amplifying phrases, and establish lists of related items.

“She went to the store, but it was closed.” Separated clauses (independent first, dependent second)

“When writing, as with many creative endeavors, originality is of paramount importance.” Amplifying information phrase

“When he saw her, he waved to get her attention, but, shocked by the frustration on her face, he cowered.” Stuff like this just needs to be split into two sentences.

Shorter sentences with less modifiers read clearer than long, winding structures full of elaborate phrases. Those are things I look for in critique.

One special case of punctuation peril is the semi-colon. Sometimes we try to use them because they are often neglected, and it’s a nice change from the mundane. Contrary to what I often see, semi-colons only join two related independent clauses. That means if the semi-colon is removed, two complete sentences remain.

Both the independence and the relationship of the clauses matter. Wrong use looks like this:

“I try to use semi-colons sometimes; a neglected form of punctuation. It makes my writing look flashy and trendy; not mundane or mainstream.” In this case the problem is the latter phrases are not independent clauses.

“Sometimes I try new things in order to be creative; the semi-colon is a neglected form of punctuation.” The relationship is off here. I see this problem in fiction where two unrelated bits of description are thrown together with a semi-colon, like pulling ingredients out of the cabinet and throwing two at random into the pot, hoping for a good meal.

Semi-colons are a special kind of punctuation. They are almost never a case of must; we only use these when we should.

Finally, there is the ellipsis, those three dots symbolizing an omission of words from a quote. This can be in the middle, showing skipped words, or at the end of the quote, showing that the original quote goes on further but is not reproduced in the writing at hand.

Right example: “Four score and seven years ago…”
Wrong example: “I was reading Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, and… ugh, history is so boring.”
They aren’t designed or intended to be used as a symbol for lost train of thought, or walking into the middle of a conversation, or awkward pauses, or suggestive questions, and so on. Writers sometimes do this, and even get away with it. But that’s not the purpose of this punctuation mark, so I critique it. Misuse might draw unwanted attention (read: rejection) from prospective readers and editors.

You can quote me on it, so long as you use quotation marks properly.

Elements of Critique: Leads

I often joke about frustrating circumstances with my kids (or my fellow Airmen), claiming in a gruff Drill Instructor voice that their suffering “builds character.”

Oddly enough, that’s a truth about the relationship between plot and (at the very least) the Lead character in a piece of fiction. Stories are essentially about characters and how they change – or not – in response to events thrown their way.

What should one look for in a lead character? They usually have to be relatable and interesting. Relatable doesn’t mean that in order to read the tale of an assassin, I have to have killed someone in the past, of course. Relatable in this case means communicating to the reader a sense of who this main character is, whether through thoughts, powerful actions, or displays of emotion. I need something I can connect with, something from which to draw insight.

And I’m of the opinion that the lead must not only be relatable but interesting. I was going to say “likeable” except I think that’s not quite true and I always wonder whether the word has an ‘e’ before the ‘-able’ suffix. (Merriam-Webster shows it as a variant of ‘likable’ so I guess it’s OK either way.)

I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast the other day that discussed what readers look for in a lead character. They did such a good job that I’m simply going to summarize their point while providing the link.

When creating a lead character, a writer has three tools to utilize to secure reader interest: sympathy, competency, and proactivity.

Some of the writing books I’ve read claim we should go for sympathy. Paint the lead as an underdog, or show what a nice person they are, and readers will take the bait. Everyone roots for the little guy and the selfless hero or heroine. When Harry Potter gets treated like garbage at the start of the series, we immediately want to see him succeed. We’re invested.

But what if I want a lead who isn’t the nice guy? Let’s go back to that assassin earlier. Assassins are notoriously low on the sympathy totem pole. But they can be very interesting characters to read about, more likely than not because they’re competent.

Think of James Bond. He’s not particularly sympathetic. In a way, neither is he very proactive. Almost any Bond movie consists of him being called in to fix a problem and respond to whatever the villain is doing. It’s rarely Bond initiating the action. So why do we watch? Because his competency slider is turned up off the charts, and that makes it oh so fun to see how he handles all the twists and curves thrown at him.

The other option to consider is proactivity, and for this I’ll point to Heath Ledger’s rendition of the Joker in The Dark Knight. I know, the Joker wasn’t the lead. But he’s a good example to point out what this looks like.

Joker isn’t reliably competent as he carries out his schemes. In fact, many of them fall apart even if Batman doesn’t directly stop them. But the Joker does make a point of doing things (in fact, that’s one of his speeches explaining his motivation), and the things he does are so crazy and so unique that they hold the viewer’s interest. “What is that guy up to?” We just have to know. So we watch to see how things unfold, even though this guy isn’t super competent, and certainly gets no sympathy.

As they say in the podcast, the trick (and the part to consider in critique) is considering how to adjust the story to the lead character based on these qualities. A sympathetic but often-incompetent character might at least try really hard to do the right thing. Think Spider-Man trying to figure out how to be a super-hero. Or they might be the underdog carried along by the proactivity and competence of those around them, like early Harry Potter.

The more sliders get turned up, the more the story needs outside conflict to keep interest going. When we’re watching Superman, who is sympathetic, proactive, and competent all rolled into one, we need some serious external conflict thrown at him that a different type of lead character wouldn’t require.

So, to sum up, when I look at the Lead, I try to see how the writer has used those tools. Am I supposed to like this character? Should I be impressed by them? And then I consider whether the conflict appears tuned appropriately to the qualities of the lead. Keeping all this in mind helps me point out where something doesn’t seem to fit quite right, or where something works well.

I recently had a couple chapters reviewed by a professional editor, and one comment spoke to this: “The lead character is sympathetic. I like her, I’m rooting for her.”

The idea of someone waving a little “Lyllithe” flag pleases me greatly. It’s what we all want for our leads when terrible burdens and crushing trials beat them down in our stories. And we know that’s going to happen.

It has to. That’s what builds character.