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Finding Your Creative Style: An Exercise in Character Development

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This post is part of a series called Creativity: A Game Designer's Guide to Show Business.
Welcome to the Creative Industries!

No sales. No marketing. Just you and your audience. You making awesome stuff, them loving you for it. That is what finding your creative style is all about. It's your first clue as to who you're going to do your best work with and it's how we're going to recognize your work as something worth sharing. In this article, I'll share an important exercise with you which will help you find your creative style.

What Is Your Creative Style?

Your creative style is a curious thing: a strange mix between defining character traits, virtues and vices, all born from your most formative memories and a lifetime of experiences.

It's so tempting to only cast ourselves in our creative career as entirely virtuous characters without blemish. But those flaws and darker moments play as large a role in our creative process and style as the quirky characteristics we're most proud to display "on stage".

Recognizing these defining character traits is something that takes guts and honesty; it starts with chronicling your behaviors under pressure, and how you've dealt with difficult situations, handled challenges and faced down adversity in the past.

Identifying this style, refining it and learning how to use it in your work, enables you to take on bigger and more interesting challenges in your creative career - such as "How do I find the audience that will most appreciate the work I do?" and "How do I find a job where I can practise my craft every day?"

Famous Examples

  • Hunter S. Thompson methodically copied out the Great Gatsby and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms to "experience what it's like to write a great novel" while developing his journalistic chops, first as the sports editor for a small newspaper, later as the enthusiastically unemployable journalist fired by some of America's most illustrious magazines. "Gonzo Journalism" was born. and with it Fear in Loathing in Las Vegas and Rum Diaries.
  • Puppetry was a dead and stale industry! No one serious about show business had anything to do with puppets - fortunately no one told Jim Henson that as he was inventing new techniques and tools during the six years he spent producing WRC-TV's "Sam and Friends". Shy playfulness and an almost gritty stark realism combined to produce an incredible range of expression and environmental commentary, from Sesame Street to Dark Crystal.
  • Childhood storytelling games across the lush English countryside contrast with war-torn Europe and bloody battlefields in the memories of a man known as much for his engrossing philology lectures on Beowulf as his enchanting fiction (born from bedtime stories told to his youngest children). What started with Tom Bombadil and the epic poem of lovers Beren and Luthien would evolve into the world of Middle Earth, realizing  J.R.R Tolkien's wish for a rich and complex (and quintessentially English) mythology.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Dark Crystal, The Lord of the Rings - these iconic projects could only have come from the minds of these distinct individuals.

And we would never have accepted them, let alone built an entire pop culture of fandom and folklore around them, if they came across as anything less than genuine. Authentic to the core, hopes and dreams alongside ruthless honesty and dark truths.

It is possible to create a wholly original production - if you have the guts to be honest with yourself and expose that honesty through your work.

In this article we aim to find that honest creative style and distill it down into one simple "signature" statement (the kind of thing we might use to describe your style to a friend). This serves two main purposes:

  1. It helps you narrow your focus down to those creative projects that will give you the most opportunity to refine your style and develop your craft
  2. Your style connects you to the audience that is most going to appreciate the work you do and support you as your career progresses.

The Business-Practical Reason for "Creative Style" in Showbiz

We fall in love with a signature creative style: a series by our favorite author, a recurring character played by our favorite actor, the new album by our favorite band.

It isn't any one experience (one album, film or book) that makes us fans, any more then it's going to be just one game we follow you for! It is the style of that creative work that we keep coming back to, and it is a style that is wholly and totally unique to that particular author - because it draws heavily from their own experiences and personal perspective on the world.

And it is your style that will attract us to your games. Plural. As in "many". (I.e. more than one!) A career in creative industries means being more than just a one hit wonder.

If we are going to be your audience, then you're in this for keeps. That's part of the deal. We show our support through fan fiction, wearing your T-shirts, buying all your special edition deluxe box sets for our buddies at Christmas time - and in return you keep producing more of the work we're going to love you for.

Sound fair? Good! Through your projects you share your most memorable moments with us, stories to inspire us, something to share with our friends, and we'll support you with our retweets, Facebook likes, article shares, gifts bought, and Let's Plays.

If your Creative Style is well defined then we'll be able to describe your work easily - which means your work has a chance of going viral.

"Marketing", the Vaudeville of Economics: don't you find the whole concept of "viral marketing" and "word of mouth marketing" somewhat silly? For something to "go viral" it is has to be worth sharing, the value has to be so obvious that one friend can say to another friend, "hey, I think you're really going to enjoy this". No one business guru was responsible for the thing that "went viral". But now we've got this "viral marketing" series of acts springing up across the industry - all scripted around a misunderstanding of what people find valuable! What will those wacky vaudevillians think up next?

So, How Do You Find Your Style?

The rest of this article will explain the practical purpose of each of these steps and suggest actions to achieve them:

Step 1: Begin Narrating Your Backstory. In every great biography and behind-the-scenes documentary there seems to be a string of "notable moments" in the artist's background: critical events, chance encounters, formative challenges that shaped that artist's "fate" (i.e. their style). We're going to start looking for clues to your signature creative style in those critical moments that have shaped you into who you are today (knowingly or not).

Step 2: Pattern Match Recurring Character Traits. Our character shows through when we're put on the spot, under pressure, and dealing with challenges that feel bigger than us. These situations also happen to be the most formative moments in our lives. After narrating your backstory it's time to go over it with an investigative eye, spot the patterns of your personality and problem-solving style threading through each story.

Step 3: The Four-Line Character Summary. Before you can do anything with a character at the start of a new narrative you have to summarize their core defining traits, how we're going to recognize them in a crowded scene. The same exact rules apply to recognizing the value of your work in a crowded market - your defining traits need to shine through everything you do! That way we have a chance to discover you!

Step 4: Capturing "You" in a Sentence (Your "Signature Statement"). "If you can't state it simply then you don't understand it well enough." (Probably an Einstein quote, although on the internet it could be anybody). Defining your style simply and succinctly gives you an easy litmus test for choosing between difficult options ("sorry man, that's just not my style of gig"). Don't BS this; this is for you, not your "About" page.

For our purposes your Signature Statement of Creative Style needs to be short, simple, and easy to remember, so that when things get dark and bleak and you've got to make some seriously tough decisions to make, you can fall back on this as a mantra to guide your choices.

These exercises are going to help you figure out who your audience is (people who share your traits) and give you a something to focus on as you develop your act and improve your craft.

Step 1: Begin Narrating Your Backstory

Purpose: Capture and describe the formative moments that have had the biggest impact on you (and are therefore most likely to have shaped your signature style).

A "formative moment" is so memorable that it stands out in your mind as clear as day. It's a situation usually characterised by a challenge or conflict that surprised you (or that you were otherwise unprepared for). You were probably under pressure and had to come up with a creative solution to get through it.

How to Complete This Step

Write down three to five "formative moments" as complete stories, answering the following questions:

  • What was the challenge? (Describe the situation in detail.)
  • What lead up to that moment (why were you in that situation)?
  • Who else was with you?
  • Where were you?
  • How did you solve the problem? (Describe your solution in detail.)
  • What kind of impact did this event have on your life? What impact does it have on you still?

This quote is from J.R.R Tolkein, when describing the creation of The Lord of the Rings:

One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. p.131, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter

Step 2: Pattern Match Character Traits

Purpose: Like a paparazzi detective profiling a sneaky celebrity, investigate the "formative moment' stories you detailed in the previous step for repeating patterns and common traits.

The repeating patterns you're looking for have to do with how you handle prolbems, deal with setbacks and face challenges. This is your problem-solving style, the root of your creative style.

How to Complete This Step

Read through all your stories a few times looking for similar patterns in:

  • Preparation: What do you do prior to taking direct action against a problem/challenge?
  • Direct Action: Exactly what form does that action take? What kinds of actions do you reflexively take?
  • Dealing With Fallout: There will always be some kind of fallout reaction to actions taken; what is your default reaction to processing fallout and feedback?
  • Post-Fallout Choices: Okay, so you've processed reactions to your direct action. You've thought about it...now what do you do? What kind of choices do you make going forward?

A mind-map of all the character traits I picked out when I did this exercise.

Step 3: The Four-Line Character Summary

Purpose: Highlight those aspects of your personality that show through most strongly in all your "formative moments" stories. This is you under pressure, and you at your most honest. You will be at your creative best when solving problems in this signature style that is all you.

How to Complete This Step

Reading through these stories one last time. How would you describe yourself as a character? Give yourself a short, four line biography, the kind of thing you might find printed in the back of a theater show-book or an RPG character sheet.

Example: My Character Bio

  • Vigilante teacher (you need to learn, I need to teach, the current higher education climate is a waste of your money and my time).
  • Hyper-sensitive to business "BS" and social politics (alludes to my dark and mysterious past).
  • Lifelong creative career, grown up between theater and the games industry.
  • A games industry education: every system can be learned, every problem has a solution.

Step 4: Capturing "You" in a Sentence

Purpose: If I'm going to recommend you to a friend I need to be able to quickly describe why she'll like the work you do. It's got to be so easy to say something like:

You're going to love these games, they're cyberpunky with a bit of magic - kind of like a cross between transmetropolitan and neverwhere!

We (your fans) should be able to rattle off a description of your style and your games without even thinking about it - and get it right.

You've experienced this yourself! Your friends and family who know you best recommend a book, a film or a game because they know you'll like it... and when they recommend it to you they describe why they think you'll like it.

How to Complete This Step

Read through that four-line character bio you sketched out in the previous step as if you are someone else (one of your fans, maybe). How would someone else recommend the kind of work you do to a friend?

She's a bit like Oliver Twist meets a 4chan-esque Russian Babushka: super helpful but really rude!

That's your signature statement of creative style!

That's a Wrap, Folks!

Spend some time now, work out exactly what it it is that makes you unique: those traits you want to focus on and explore through all your projects going forward. That way you spend your time exploring things that really interest you, and leave us to spread the word about your games!

There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open...
Martha Graham, Mother of Modern Dance

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