Building Character

November 15, 2019

Originally published by Town Crier: The Puritan

Building Character


Kelly A. Dorgan

Christmas 1981.

I unwrapped a gift that changed everything. The box wasn’t jewel-encrusted gold, but it mesmerized me. A jade dragon decorated the amethyst lid with topaz lettering, proclaiming “Dungeons & Dragons.” What captivated me most of all washer, the woman on the cover. She held a flaming sphere in one hand, a torch in the other. Her eyes locked on the looming dragon, its teeth bared, its body poised to strike. Blonde and classically beautiful, she whispered to me about women who face their foes without flinching.

Despite coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, I had been exposed to powerful women in my personal life. They kept branches of our family from falling and decaying. They held important positions, enacting crucial responsibilities. The books I read presented a stark contrast to the world in front of me.

I devoured the words ofJ.R.R. Tolkien,C.S. Lewis, andStephen R. Donaldson, and in reading their tales, I discovered my love of the fantastic and magical. Sadly, I rarely saw women and girls in these pages, no matter how hard I searched. Female characters were often simplistically rendered—if they were rendered at all. Occasionally, I caught glimpses of fascinating women and girls, but they got shoved to the margins of the story. Or worse, they existed to be raped, captured, or wounded so that the main characters, flawed men, could become the heroes they were destined to be.

With each book, my hunger for female characters grew.


Back in 1981, I cradled the cardboard box in front of our Christmas tree. Once I cracked it open, I found dice, their shapes peculiar, and booklets full of instructions about how to enter a strange new world. But that lid was the best part. The woman on the front hooked me, her eyes flashing, her stance defiant. She didn’t cower behind her hands as an attacker rushed her. She didn’t scramble to flee danger. She didn’t scream desperately for a male savior. She prepared to fight the monster.

This nameless, fictitious woman burrowed inside me, and, repeatedly, I gave birth to her over three decades.

Today, I store my original manuals in an ancient trunk, and when I open the lid, it screeches like an oldLich. Now a woman in my fifties, I extract the manuals from beneath tangled layers of forgotten things, and I flip through the pages, breathing them in. Instantly, the exhilaration returns, and I feel that familiar thrill of my character at her inception. I never played male characters in D&D. Perhaps that’s because my fellow campaigners were largely a bunch of boys—men in my later RPG days. Or perhaps because I’d already been inundated with tales of men.

I birthed strong warriors, women armed to the teeth and decked out in armor, like Athena springing from my head over and over. I dressed my Drow thief in black leather, my Paladin in pristine plate, and my spellcasters in jewel-toned robes. But, first and foremost, my females were fighters.


In high school, I escaped invisibility and inadequacy with marathon sessions of D&D. At the beginning of one campaign, I rolled dice to create Sahasi and Sensai, gestating them in a single night. The firstborn, Sahasi, became my beloved Paladin. Lawful good, she ran undaunted into battle and vigilantly guarded her virginity, as I did mine. Never satisfied with one feminine incarnation, I played two characters in each campaign throughout my teens, twenties, and thirties. They were always women who, while loyal to one another, often stood at odds. Sahasi represented my yearning for honor and valor. The monk, Sensai, on the other hand, was a filthy-mouthed femme who unleashed sarcasm along with her throwing stars, and she taunted the Paladin with raunchy tales of her sexual conquests. She bucked against social restraints and fought oppressors (like that one Red Dragon!), bare-fisted if necessary. While Sahasi remained behind armor, unscarred but burdened, Sensai lived freer and traveled lighter, risking her body and life.

My characters bickered with one another about as much as they fought orcs, ogres, and dragons. Looking back, I see how creations like Sahasi and Sensai helped me explore and reformulate social scripts, particularly those used to control girls’ sexual identities and behaviors. Within me, I was growing into a young woman who wanted to keep my virginity, not for moral reasons, but because it wasmine.

Playing D&D allowed me to perform femininity in various forms and helped me fill in the narrative holes in my life, holes left by a male-dominated world. In imaginary lands, I wielded swords instead of pleasant smiles, the kind expected of Southern girls like me. I punched enemies instead of giggling when they, uninvited, touched my body. And I stretched scripts for females that prescribed narrow sexual behaviors, ultimately, helping me to confront artificial binaries like the Virgin-Whore.

Creating characters allowed me to build my character. Telling their stories allowed me to tell my own.


Before being a professor and writer, I was a Paladin, a Monk, a Fighter-Thief, and a Ranger-Cleric. I was Sahasi, Sensai, Sylverin, and Emerold. I was a rebel, a do-gooder, and a recluse-outcast. I was vigilantly virginal and sexually adventurous. Playing all of these fantastic, fierce women transformed me into one in real life.