Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Art of the Expy: Moving Characters Between Settings

Salutations my curious congregation, and let me open with an apology for my recent absence this week. I needed to take some space for my mental health, and things are getting steady again, and I would like to thank you for your patience.

So anyway, today I want to talk about expies. There's a link there to the TVTropes article, but if you don't want to be on a wiki walk for the next four hours I'll give you the tl;dr here: It's short for exported character. Basically, if you see a character in more than one setting, they're expied. And I do it a lot.

Content Warnings: The usual healthy dose of irreverence, and probably swearing. Also, the recycling of characters. The horror.

So expies. There are two major ways to do this:

First, some characters are planar-hopping. In this case, the character is literally the same character and remembers what happened in the other story.

Second, you just assume it's a different version of this character that's in this other setting and they have always been there and just belong there.

I usually run with the second. You don't have to specify to your reader which it is you're doing, but you should know because it's going to make a difference in your character's presentation.

For me, Rhys is a big one. He was 8-Cell in the Nimbus Mysteries, and ran the radio station in Torchlighters. He's still the same anti-social conspiracy theorist in both settings, but there are some major differences, too.

In the Nimbus books, 8-Cell is a hacker. His paranoia is ramped up to 11. He, like many of the people you probably know that spend way too much time on the computer (and if you read this and take it as a personal attack probably you yourself), has an incredibly messy work station that he rarely leaves and as a result it's covered in empty soda cans, food stains and cigarette butts. He was in one book, briefly, to help out Augury.

In Torchlighters, he's a professional. He has a smooth voice and talks to the city over the radio. He's bound and determined to get the news out there even if management doesn't want him to. His parts of the story are funny, limited to a couple of paragraphs each, and start off every chapter.

In both settings he has long hair, glasses, red eyes and lavender hair. He likes to wear a hood (and I know that's because he has a stupid hair that sticks up no matter what he does, and because--at least in the Nimbus books--he lines it with aluminium foil). He is a conspiracy theorist and takes it pretty seriously. And these things are pretty core to who he is, no matter what kind of setting he's in.

You might have already caught on that certain details about him are going to change depending on what the setting is and his role in the story. See, the story always comes first. So you can't assume the Rhys you're looking at now is going to be the same one he was in another book.

I'm going to do an exercise right now and I want you to pick one of your own characters and do it with me. We're going to go step by step and move that character into another setting.

Step One: Figure Out Their Essence

In the romance genre there are these concepts, essence and identity. Essence being who the character really is deep down and identity being the mask they show the world based on the society they are in. The person they try to be.

The essence of a character isn't going to change. But their identity will.

Rhys's essence is that of a man who knows there is something deeper going on and will not stop until he's figured out what it is and exposed it to the world. And it doesn't matter if people think he's crazy, he's going to do it anyway, because he knows now and he has to.

Who is your character, deep down? What motivates them? If your answer is something like 'magic', then that character doesn't belong in a setting without magic unless you can come up with something else to replace it. Figure out what your character is about first and foremost.

Step Two: Figure Out the Essence of  the Setting You are Moving Them To

The Nimbus Mysteries are cyberpunk. That means grime and paranoia.  That means the good guys aren't lawful and that means a lot of the time they're going to have to hide. In a cramped and grimy world, that translates to a Rhys who knows there's something rotten underneath the surface but knows he has to keep himself hidden to keep himself safe while he susses it out.

It's a modern setting, so the aluminium foil in his hood makes perfect sense and is a good shorthand for the special kind of paranoid he is. He's a shut in. He usually is. Spends too much time on the computer. Because it's a modern setting there are dyes and contacts, and even splicing you can get to give yourself an unnatural hair or eye color.

In Torchlighters, however, aluminium foil is not said to protect your brain from probing and there are no computers, so what's a boy to do? Well, Torchlighters at its core is about demonology and the zeitgeist of the 1920's while being powered by literal demons or demonic energies.

Our boy Rhys likes his hair purple and his eyes red, and the easiest way to do that is to make him half-planar. And so he's a cambion. He has no fear of the big bad government sending some kind of biotech to track him down, so he speaks on the radio in the open even if management intervenes a lot. Not having been crushed beneath the heal of a crapsack world makes him a slightly more outgoing person, but he still doesn't want to be outside particularly and after all he has a broadcast to do.

He changes to fit the setting.

So let's take a minute to consider him as a D&D character. This isn't something I've ever done with him before, but it's the kind of setting most of you are probably familiar with and a good touch stone. Take a second yourself to pick a setting to move your character into and think about that setting.

D&D is sword and sorcery fantasy. It feels like a pseudo-medieval world, often with modern morality because you're playing this game with other people that grew up in the modern era and wouldn't have context for what things were like back in the day. There is magic. It's a big deal.

And the characters in D&D are split between PCs and NPCs. For the sake of argument I'll run him through both.

Step Three: Match the Character to the Setting

There are already a lot of non-human species that could potentially have purple hair and I like the flavor of Rhys having demonic blood so we're going to make him a tiefling. Which means physically he's probably going to have a weird skin color to match that pretty purple hair of his. We'll go with a pale blue.

Who he is as a person is a man who knows something is up and wants to expose it to the world. He also doesn't like being around people. That sounds an awful lot like a wizard to me. So he's a tiefling wizard.

Step Four: Match the Character to their Role in the Story

As an NPC he probably has a quest fort he PCs because he doesn't want to leave his tower and they look like they're strong enough to get his notes to the Master Wizard in the big city.

As a PC it's a little bit harder. Now this is the part where I take a step aside to mention, I have a bucket of characters that I know really well and will just throw in as NPCs in anything. Rhys is one of those. So I'm always prepared to use him as a supporting character or a quest-giver. I do not usually use these characters as protagonists.

But if I were to play him as a PC, obviously he'd have to leave his tower, and that's going to bring out a whole other side of him. You see, Rhys is clever, but he has to be pulled out of his comfort zone to show it. He's the kind of guy that will kick over a barrel to break your chase and then hide in another one once he's turned a corner. In a modern setting, he'd totally use a can of spray and a lighter to make a makeshift flamethrower. He wouldn't think to do any of this from inside his own home.

He changes when he becomes the focus. Being that clever as a supporting character would put him in the way of the protagonists. He needs to stay in his lane. But if he is the focus of the story that flips the switch a little bit and makes him more capable and more willing to push forward.

Protagonists make things happen. Every character has the potential to do that but whether or not they should depends on where they fall in the story.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

P.S. You can read about Rhys in Torchlighters. He's not a protagonist but he's in there and he's kind of funny so it might be worth checking out? /stops trying to sell you things

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