How to create great characters


Any player or GM participating in a role-playing campaign should strive to know as much about their characters as the character would know about themselves.

If you want to portray a three-dimensional person who has a life all of their own you will need a really good idea of who they are, what events shaped them, how their past informs their outlook on life, and why they want whatever it is they’re after. This goes for PCs and NPCs alike: don’t cheap your hard-working players by giving them transparent NPCs to interact with. A pause while you struggle to make up an answer to an unexpected question can interrupt the flow of a game.

Two-dimensional characters often come about from an outline such as this:

David was born in 1965. He discovered he was a wizard at the age of 13, and since then has been studying really hard. He is now a really powerful wizard. He lives in San Francisco.

What? Is that it? David’s whole life revolves around him being a wizard? Has he no family, friends, rivals, enemies, pets, favourite foods, lovers, overdue books at the library, or any other influence which could turn him from a dull set of facts into a living, breathing person?

You might be making  a powerful wizard living in San Francisco, but he’s also a human being. Well, he is for the purposes of this example. Here’s a shortish checklist of things a human being generally knows about himself*:

  • Birthdate of himself, his parents, his siblings, long-term partners and friends.
  • The schools he attended.
  • What pets he or his friends / family had.
  • How popular he was at school, and whether or not he’s still in touch with school friends.
  • His employment history.
  • When and where he met his best friends and / or lovers.
  • Their names (usually, although it speaks volumes about a character who can’t list his lovers).
  • What he likes and dislikes (from food and drink, through to holiday locations, political viewpoints, and “certain kinds of people”).
  • Date of death of anyone important (a parent, a sibling, a best friend).
  • Hobbies.

That is your starting point for a human being. If your character is from another race, he’ll know just as much about himself, as well as facts pertinent to his race’s culture – he may not know what “school” is, but his race might follow a rigid path of indentured servitude or military service, about which he’d know just as much as a human does about their school days.

If your character is an amnesiac, you still need to know these things. Your character may still have enemies, but he is unaware of them. He may be up to his eyeballs in debt, and not know. But you, his creator, must know, unless he’s a PC and your GM is willing to do all the graft for you.

Once you have the bare bones, layer in what makes your character stand out from the crowd. What makes him the hero, the antagonist, the ally, or the Tin Dog? What makes him get his arse off the sofa / rock / grassy knoll and get involved in a story? Much of this comes from the world the game is set in: If your world is contemporary London with Vampires, did a Vampire kill his sister? If your world is a distant planet with spleen-sucking aliens, did he witness a spleen being sucked and get so terrified that he’s acting purely in self-defence? Has he been living a dual life, or has this taken over his life? Is he in contact with his world, or has he been removed (or removed himself) from it?

Since stepping off the path of dull, normal life, who has he met? Has anyone taught him what he now knows? Has he teamed up with others who seek the same goals? Is he still with them? If not, why not? Has his new life utterly changed his personality? Was he an easy-going guy before dog-faced beetles chewed his father’s head off? Have new-found powers made him overconfident, or does the new playing field scare him to death?

I mentioned earlier that your characters are after something. This is vital. Without desire, they won’t move forward.

All your characters must want something.

All your characters must need something.

What they want and what they need are two different things.

So let’s look at David the San Francisco wizard. Let’s say we now know what school he attended, what happened to his parents, who mentored him in magic, and all those other great facts. Instead of a couple of lines we now have two or three pages of background (or more – don’t be shy now). With all these facts you’ll have a better idea of the kind of guy he is – trust me, you will. How he’s dealt with enemies in the past will inform how he deals with them in your campaign. Does he hurl fireballs, or does he retreat to the library and research his foe? Is he too prone to losing his temper, or is he such a perfectionist that enemies run unchecked while his nose is in a book?

What does he want?

Why does he do what he does? Does he want to become all-powerful, or does he want revenge? Does he want to protect those unable to defend themselves, or does he want to rule the world? Does he seek to cure his wife from a Lich’s curse, or does he want to become a Lich himself? If he doesn’t want something, he won’t strive for it, much as if you don’t want money you won’t bother turning up to work every day.

What does he need?

Oh yeah. Now we’re down to the guts of it. What is it that your character needs, that he’s unaware of? What would truly solve his problems? He may want revenge, but maybe what he needs is closure, and revenge won’t give it to him. Maybe he wants to find that cure, but what he needs is to recognise and accept that even his power can’t achieve everything. Perhaps he wants to protect the defenceless, but he needs someone to make him feel protected.

What he wants and what he needs should conflict one-another. And the moment you give him either, his story is over, unless you can replace one want or need with another want or need. Remember that if you want a character to last a whole campaign.

Why is he here?

In writing terms, this is called The Crucible.  To put it simply, what keeps characters together needs to be stronger than what might pull them apart, or your PCs might all spin off into heroic loners and refuse to cooperate with the rest of the group. Like any good crucible, your characters might want to escape it, but the process might fundamentally change them.

GMs, don’t railroad your players. The key is to make your crucible so pervasive that the PCs want to solve the problem: Han Solo doesn’t want to fight the Empire, but he’s getting paid, and develops a soft spot for Leia, so he goes along; Frodo could sit back and decide the One Ring isn’t his problem, but the Shire is in danger, and if he doesn’t join the Fellowship he won’t have anywhere to eat his Second Breakfast; Sarah Connor’s hunter is not going to stop unless she makes it stop, or she will die.

Not all crucibles need to be so life-or-death. It could simply be a character’s day job to be involved, or he might be a decent guy who’d love to help out and is led by his own moral code.

It may seem like a lot of preparation work, but once your character is thrust into the game, you’ll feel ready to put him through the wringer!

*Herself, or any other gender you are making.

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