How to ask the right questions, know when to roll the dice, and decide when to invoke the word of God
One of the problems that writers often run into is when they’re world-building, plotting, and character-creating, is finding the answers to every foreseeable question ever. Which is your main character’s dominant hand? When were they born? Did someone get pregnant from unprotected sex? Who dies in this horrific event that didn’t happen in canon? What race is this random side character? You get the picture.
You can answer all of these questions on your own, and if they’re important, you absolutely should. But when it doesn’t matter, when you don’t care, or if you’re unsure, sometimes randomization can help. Randomization takes out bias. Or, conversely, a roll of the dice can clarify the direction that you actually want to go.
The two of us use randomization a lot. Not just in our fanfiction, but in our original works as well. We do it for everything from character birthdays to ethnicity to who a background character might end up with to who lives and who dies. Randomization is a nifty tool if you know how to use it.
In this meta, we’re going to go over when and how to randomize.
A note: there are major spoilers for some of our fanfic and minor spoilers for some of our original fiction. If you want to know what those spoilers are, please feel free to message us.
When is it a good time to randomize?
Randomization is best done in the planning stages. It’s not something you want to do halfway through the story (although you can, if you discover you need to – we certainly have!), but it’s best done early on, when you’re still world-building, plotting, and creating your characters.
Say you’re creating a fantasy world. You know you have three countries that are going to be your primary focus. But does the world have more nations? You might not know the answer to that. In which case, it might be time to randomize.
It can also be used in character creation. Sure, you’ve got your main characters and you know what their main traits are, but do you know when their birthdays are? Or other seemingly unimportant details that may end up being important later, like religion, physical characteristics, or taste in entertainment. This is especially important when you’re dealing with secondary characters who may not be as fully fleshed in your mind when you’re in the character creation phase. Because seriously, unconscious bias will come into play here. The number of books and stories we read where the only characters are the ethnicity of the author is staggering. This is especially problematic when it comes to creating accurate representation. Randomization can solve this. Want to write a story about 5 friends who kick ass and take names? You can literally randomize every major trait – age, gender, sexuality, race, religion, skillset… you name it. You don’t have to randomize everything if you have a vision, but you should randomize things that “don’t matter” like the doctor or the secretary or the janitor. Randomization can remove stereotypes and bias. It’s colorblind casting but for the author.
You also can choose ranges within which to randomize – for example, if said story is about 5 teenagers, your range can be 14-18. You are definitely not required to use all possible options while randomizing.
Then there’s randomization when you develop your plot. Say you’re writing a romance. You know your main characters will end up together. But what about your secondary characters? Your main characters’ best friends/siblings are going to end up meeting. Do they hook up? Are they interested? Believe it or not, Prim and Bing getting together in Floriography was entirely randomized. (Floriography has since been turned into an original work, The Language of Flowers – but we kept said randomized relationship.)
Another thing – in a romance, you know your main characters will end up together and you may know how they get there. But what if you don’t? You can randomize where they have their dates (using both typical and atypical choices such as a restaurant or a monster truck rally), other events that might interfere, and various other beats in your plotting.
Or the biggie… who dies in a major event? Plot Armor is lovely. The trio in Let Me Fly has Plot Armor. (We are not killing our trio, stop asking!) But everyone else… nope… no Plot Armor. That meant when Johanna Mason failed her rolls to survive the flu, she died. We love Johanna. Love her. She’s a blast to write. But she wasn’t crucial to the story we wanted to tell, so she died. The same is true for a lot of other people in our stories. Some deaths we’ve planned. But some that happened ended up changing the story… we’re looking at you, Third Quarter Quell deaths in Let Me Fly. Don’t think we don’t see you. Justice for Justus, indeed!
So yeah. Randomization can completely change your plot and understanding of the characters. It can even help you out of an “I don’t know what to do!” slump.
You want to go wild with the randomization? Go to TV Tropes and pick a list of tropes that would make up a main character. Pick a list of villain tropes. Pick a list of plot tropes, romance tropes, whatever. Number them all, shove them into a list, use a randomizer, and pick ten of them. Congratulations, you now have the outline for a short story. Think this doesn’t work?
Well… here goes.
We went to TV Tropes Character pages first to get our protagonists and antagonist. And this is what we picked.
Sounds fun, right? I bet you can start imagining stories that could fit these tropes already.
We ran these through the randomizer and got the following:
A Gentleman Thief and a Big Beautiful Woman Wake Up in a Room on a spaceship wearing matching rings. The door opens to reveal a notorious Space Pirate who congratulates them on their Accidental Marriage. Unfortunately they won’t be able to enjoy the honeymoon Mwah-ha-ha-ha! While they are making their escape, they end up someplace where they have to truly pretend to be newlyweds and they realize that somehow along the way they’ve Become the Mask and are truly in love. YAY!
Sure it’s pretty rough and there are some parts missing, but it’s an absolutely viable plot… and I’m fairly certain I’ve seen something like this before. This is a great way to get out of a writing slump or even your comfort zone.
It’s all about asking questions and deciding if you know the answer, if the answer is necessary, and what the possible answers can be.
How do you randomize?
Randomization isn’t always as easy as rolling a die or flipping a coin. Sometimes it takes creating spreadsheets or lists, while other times it involves understanding probability and percentages.
For example, say you’re writing a fantasy novel that features swordplay. Knowing if someone is left or right handed is actually plot-relevant. However, fifty percent of the population isn’t left handed. Here, Wikipedia is your friend. Knowing the percentages will help you know what numbers to use.
Another common time to do randomization is pregnancy. Depending on what method of birth control and/or pregnancy prevention your characters are using, you can research the failure rates. For example, when figuring out if Katniss was going to get pregnant during the arc of Brand New Breeze (second arc of Let Me Fly), we looked up the failure rate for the rhythm method and applied it to each menstrual cycle she had – which, by the way, the length and duration of her menstrual cycle was also randomized. She did okay for the first few months, and then all of a sudden, right around the time that the three of them got married (which was not randomized), she got pregnant.
That opened up a whole slew of other randomizations, including: did the egg implant? Did she have a miscarriage? Was she carrying twins? Who was the father? Was the baby a boy or a girl? What were its eye color, skin color, and hair color (based off of the parents and what was genetically possible)? How difficult was the pregnancy? When exactly did she give birth? How long was the labor? How difficult was the labor? What time was the child born? What were its length and weight?
You notice that was a lot of questions. But they came in order. The first question that got asked was: did she get pregnant? The rhythm method is one of the least reliable forms of birth control. Without proper medical data, Katniss was guessing, which increased her chances. According to the Mayo Clinic, thirteen out of every one hundred women get pregnant. Because of other reasons, we upped it to twenty percent for Katniss.
Using random.org, we rolled on a 1 to 100 scale for each menstrual cycle, with a roll of 81 or higher being a pregnancy. Katniss did not get pregnant on her first two; she did on her third.
After conception, there are two primary hurdles to a pregnancy. The first is implantation. Many fertilized embryos never implant. The numbers change based off of the age of the mother, the health of the mother, and other environmental conditions, but it’s estimated that at least 30% of fertilized embryos never implant. So Katniss got randomized on that with a roll of 30 or below being a failed implantation. She rolled higher.
Then there’s the risk of miscarriage, which, considering Katniss’s environment, health, and activity levels, we gave her a flat 30% chance of miscarriage. Again, she did not miscarry.
Then it was just answering a lot of yes/no questions and looking up pregnancy-related details. Did you know that the chance of twins is about 10%? Identical twins is 1%, so the other 9% are fraternal. If there are fraternal twins, they can have different fathers.
We didn’t roll for anything higher than twins because the chances of Katniss surviving a pregnancy with triplets or more with no medicine are extremely low, and that’s if she even got pregnant with more than two babies at once – which is highly unlikely. We did not roll for Katniss dying in pregnancy. That was us invoking the word of God.
But wait, you ask. Didn’t Katniss have a chance of dying?
And you would be correct if this were the real world and not words on a page, Katniss would absolutely have a chance of dying in pregnancy. However, that was a direction we were not interested in exploring, and that’s when invoking the word of God becomes necessary. You have to know what you are comfortable writing as an author. Not everyone wants to write a pregnancy, so they might say, “Nope! This unprotected sex did not result in a pregnancy!” While others, like us, will occasionally roll for this – while other times we’re like “Nope!” Trust us, we’ve totally noped Katniss getting pregnant… random.org has it in for her, I swear!
Some people might’ve said “oh hell no, I’m not dealing with a pregnancy in this story” and that’s perfectly fine. They wouldn’t even have rolled for it. It depends on what you’re willing to do as a writer. But often that’s something that randomization can help you with… knowing your own mind. Because oftentimes people don’t know where to go next because they have choice paralysis… randomization can help solve that problem.
So when do you invoke the word of God?
Well, here’s a secret. The two of us invoked the word of God when it came to both of the Hunger Games in Let Me Fly.
For the 74th Games, the original randomized winner was the girl from Three. Unfortunately, that did not work with our plot. Three was too far from our group for Cressida and her group to flee from there and conceivably make it to our characters, which was a plot point we wanted to happen. So we rerolled with an eye toward what would work, and Taylor, the girl from District Eight, won.
For the 75th Games, the initial randomized winner was the woman from Eight, and – having plotted the 74th Games – we realized that the Capitol really wouldn’t be okay with back-to-back winners from an outlying semi-rebellious district. So we rerolled and got Chaff. (By the way, some of the side characters – the infant for instance – had zero chance of making it out of the bloodbath alive, and each other character had a percentage for what their chances of winning were based on their age, skill, and other factors, and we used a 1-100 scale for randomization.)
However, there was another thing that happened that basically has colored our plot from the moment that it happened.
Justus came in second.
The six-year-old kid only had a two percent chance of being picked at any specific time. But he came in second. And we took that and ran with it.
That is how randomization can end up creating plot for your story, and also why you want to do it fairly early on. If your outline changes, you may need to do it later. Or if you’re a pantser. But if you’re a plotter, you’ll want all your ducks in a row before you get started.
In reality, randomization is all about asking questions and figuring out probabilities. And sometimes the questions can tell you which way you want to go – and you end up answering the question itself without randomization ever coming into play. Or the randomization tells you which choice you wanted… something you often know by your reaction to the choice you rolled. (If you groan at something you roll, it is probably a choice you’ll want to override.)
Remember that you are not bound by your randomization. If you absolutely hate something that randomized and can’t figure out how to make it work, throw it out! It’s still giving you valuable information, because it’s telling you something about where you don’t want the story to go.
Sometimes it’s even fun to work with the hard things, the complicated things, the stuff you never expected to roll. Making something surprising work is a challenge – and a way to grow as an author. But if you can’t or don’t want to, you can always toss your randomization.
So why would you want to randomize?
One of the downfalls of being a writer is that you know everything about your story. Where it’s going, the relationships, everything. Randomization creates that feeling of wonder that you experience when doing something new. It allows you to brainstorm, and it can force you down paths you might not otherwise have chosen to take.
The two of us were very hesitant about pairing up Prim and Bing in Floriography (later The Language of Flowers). They were the siblings of our main characters, they were seven or eight years apart in age, they lived a good four, five hour drive away from each other, they’d just met… and would they even want to be together? We asked the question on a whim. And then we rolled it. And then we ran with it. And it’s become one of our favorite pairings ever.
We would’ve never paired the two together if it weren’t for the randomization.
We’ve even done this when writing whole fics… like we didn’t know what we wanted to write, just that we wanted to play in a particular fandom. So we rolled what characters we were going to play with. This is how we ended up with a Darcy/Tony/Sif threesome because Why Not?
We also do this with original fiction all the time. As stated above, it deals with the unconscious bias that we carry in regards to racism, sexism, and a whole slew of other -isms/-phobias. It can also help shape directions where you might take a story. Like our Adeniyi Siblings Series… we initially had all of the siblings paired with white characters… but then (thankfully) we realized the serious Unfortunate Implications… so we broke out the randomizer. Other than Paige (who we’d already written her story). All three of the other siblings’ significant others changed, and it made our series better in the long run.
In addition to removing bias and answering questions, randomization can be fun. Even if you never incorporate what you’ve randomized, you’ve got these little details, special things that you know about the character or the plot or the world. We can tell you EVERYTHING that Katniss and Prim hunted and gathered in Damaged, Broken, and Unhinged. We can tell you every single character who got sick from the flu in Let Me Fly. This is information that none of you need, but gosh darn it it was fun to find out, and it colored how we wrote the story even if the specifics never made it on the page.
As we’ve hopefully explained, randomization can be a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. But like any tool, it’s about knowing when and how to use it. We recommend using it to answer questions. Develop plots and even plot twists. And most importantly, remove unconscious bias.
Now if you’ll excuse us, we have a Gentleman Thief and a Big Beautiful Woman demanding that their story be written.
Until next time!