It’s NaNoWriMo, and I want to talk about how Fate Aspects can help you flesh out your characters and plan your stories. I know there’s a huge temptation to fall down on one side or the other of Team Pantser, and Team Plotter, but whether you identify as an outliner, or as a discovery writer, Aspects are a unique tool to get a handle on your story and characters. For the Pantsers in the audience, like myself, it can be one way to outline without spoiling the thrill of discovery for yourself. Today I’ll talk about how to use Aspects to flesh out characters. I’ll talk about using Aspects to flesh out your plot in a future post.
What Are Aspects?
For those of you who write, but don’t roleplay (why not?), an Aspect is a short, pithy, punchy phrase that describes a character, a scene, an object, a situation, really anything that might need a description. They are the free-form equivalent of the more hard-and-fast attributes, merits and flaws from other RPGs. An Aspect could be a beloved object, a witty catchphrase, a relationship, an attitude, an event that shaped the character’s life, most anything that you might wish to define about a character. I’ll be using the example Dresden Files Character Sheet and Phases Worksheet from the Dresden Files RPG by Evil Hat Productions, to illustrate how to use Aspects to flesh out a character. Though I’ve linked to the complete file, you only need to look at the first worksheet to understand the idea.
Character Sketch Notebook
Many writers keep a Character Sketch Notebook. They get an idea for a character, write up a brief vignette, or short story from the character’s perspective, or in the character’s voice (I find it helpful to write these character sketches in first person, although I rarely write the finished story in first person). Then, when it comes time to write a story, they simply grab a handful of characters from the notebook and ask themselves how these characters might interact with each other. As well, if you find that your story is in need of a character, you can simply look back in your ever-growing roster of characters and grab one.
Aspects can help you create a Character Sketch Notebook. They can also be useful if you have a specific story in mind, and need to populate it with characters. To do this, print out a blank character phases worksheet (the first sheet in the file) and start filling in the backstory for the amazing characters you have in your head, and using the worksheet, make them even more interesting and conflicted. Then, you can write that brief vignette from the character’s perspective to further refine their voice.
A character’s High Concept is their defining character concept. It’s the way you would briefly describe someone to someone else who’s never met them. Oh, she’s a Smartass Cop Mom, or he’s a Deranged Killer Janitor. The key here is brevity. Aspects are supposed to be pithy so that they give you a jumping off point for inspiration, but are short enough that they are memorable. When writing your story, you’ll remember that the mother who is a cop is also a smartass, and you’ll give her sarcastic and witty things to say.
The character’s Trouble Aspect is perhaps the most important feature of the character, for the simple reason that stories thrive on conflicted characters. A Trouble Aspect is the single most chaotic element of the character’s life. It could be that they have been Looking For Love In All the Wrong Places, or it could be that they Can’t Find the Answer at the Bottom of a Bottle. It also could be they’re Wanted For Questioning in regard to a recent murder. Make it punchy, and as I like to say, dial it up to 11. Don’t settle for In Trouble with the Mob. Make it specific: Don Vito Wants me Dead. Now you have not only a problem for the character, but an antagonist to put a face on that problem.
The other Aspects are Phase Aspects, and represent pieces of the character’s backstory. Background tells us where the character comes from. Rising Conflict tells us how the character started getting involved with the crazy events that will unfold in the story. The Story is the character’s first solo adventure. Guest Star describes an adventure the character had with another character, and Guest Star Redux is that again, with a different character. At the end of each Phase, simply derive an Aspect — the way you did with High Concept and Trouble — from each of the backstory Phases.
If you were going to play an actual game of the Fate RPG with these characters, there would be some further mechanical considerations (like passing the sheets around the table for other players to contribute to), but for the purpose of creative writing, it is sufficient to fill in the worksheet as a means of getting to know your characters by asking questions about them, thinking about their history, and capturing their salient details in punchy Aspects.
Aspects, Tropes, and Cliches
Don’t worry about tropes or cliches when writing Aspects. Aspects usually evoke common archetypes and stereotypes in storytelling. As you write, the Aspects will grow as characters become more fully realized on the page. Throughout the course of a game of the Fate RPG, Aspects are changed all the time. Nothing is permanent about a character, and you are not beholden to the Aspects that are written down for the character. Part of discovery writing is letting the characters tell you what their story is. Aspects are simply a springboard into that story. If an Aspect mutates, or no longer fits, rewrite it.