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For the past week or so, I have been writing up articles on getting immersed in your characters, making better characters to work well in the party, and utilizing music in your game.  But, there was a big point missed: How do you make an interesting character?

I can’t exactly tell you that.  You see, there is no EXACT formula to making an interesting character.  The path is varied in direction, but is fraught with perils the whole way… from clichés to the pitfalls of carbon copying past characters, to even making a character that really, honestly, can’t function.  An interesting character has that je ne se quois, that indefinable SOMETHING that makes them memorable.   There is, however, a formula you can follow.

Step One: Don’t Worry About A Name Yet. I’m serious.  Don’t.  You see, in a game we have the chance to build the character, and then let what we choose as we make the character decide certain key terms of the name.  Margaret Weis was talking about the brainstorming sessions that the creative team attended when coming up with the Companions of the Lance, from the wildly popular Dragonlance series.  When coming up with the characters of the Majere twins, they came up with the characteristics of the men, calling them Caring-man (Caramon) and Wasting-man (Raistlin).  So don’t worry about the name just yet…

Step Two: Get a Good Concept. No character will ever, ever, ever be interesting without an underlying concept.  This is actually harder, and simpler, than it seems.  A good concept need not be longer than one sentence.  Much like a business, if you cannot describe your character in about one sentence, you are over-complicating things.  Sometimes, even four or five well-chosen words can do it.  What is important is one thing here, though: Consistency.  Don’t half-ass it.  If you are going to play a cliché, play a cliché.  If you are going to break the mold, blow it to pieces.

Step Three: Make The Numbers Work For You. I touched on this in my post Knowing Your Role, or Do Your Damn Job! Each game gives some leeway for customization of your character, and you should take these opportunities to reinforce your character concept using them.  If you have decided to play a traditional samurai warrior, do not just focus on your combat abilities; take some points (or ranks, or levels, etc.) in calligraphy, haiku, Go or even flower arranging.  These were all considered high arts in Japan, and were part and parcel of courtly life.  You are still staying to the concept of Traditional Samurai, but you have also given that third dimension.  Doing this will quite often also give your GM a chance to let you shine someplace OTHER than the battlefield.

Along with this comes another point I want to bring up.  You can’t do EVERYTHING as well as EVERYONE else.  If you play the wizard, you cannot be as good in melee combat as the fighter.  And you shouldn’t be.  Read the Knowing Your Role post that I linked to above.  You may even pull of being the Jack of All Trades, but you should never be able to do it all as well as the specialist.  This is just being fair to the others and, in all honesty, being more realistic.

Step Four: Making Your Mark. When you equip your character, it is your chance to really put small spins and hooks into the game.  Let us say that your character is the great-grandson of a World War II veteran of the European Theater.  Handed down through your family was been a Colt 1911A pistol, given to your grandfather by your great-grandfather.  It was given to you on your twenty-first birthday.  To you it is the most prized possession your character could ever have.  Describe it in detail.  Talking about the nick in the slide that came from a Nazi combat knife during a fight your great-grandfather had in France during the Occupation.  Or about how the grip seems to feel just perfect in your palm, like your great-grandfather said it fit his palm.  Chances are, your GM will use that kind of information in game.

Step Five:  Backstory. I could do an entire post on how to make a good backstory.  Too often people half-ass this and miss out on a chance to get their character more fully involved in the storyline of the game.  There are a couple of points I want to touch on, though.

First: No one has a perfect life.  This was a point brought up by my friend Katy.  No one’s life is drama-free.  You may have been a farmboy from nowheresville, but what drive you to the road?  Luke Skywalker was a farmboy, and the gruesome murder of his Aunt and Uncle drove him on the path that would take him to rebuild the Jedi Order.  Rand Al’Thor was a simple villager whose village was set upon by ghastly creatures of nightmare… looking for him!  So what drove you to become an adventurer?

Second: Don’t make everything clear-cut and tidied.  If you leave some jagged, hanging ends, it will give a GM a chance to latch on, and maybe use it later in the game.  What about that village girl you had a short relationship with, and you left suddenly when you marched off on adventures, leaving her wondering if you are alive or dead, maybe pining after you.  Or even worse, jilted and enraged, leaving her to plot her revenge.  After all, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  What about that younger brother who idolized you?  You left him at home, or in the care of other family members or friends while you took to the road.  What would he be like three years later, all grown up and possibly in search of his lost brother?

Third: Whatever you do, do not make the mistake of making your character seem perfect.  Perfect people are boring.  Look at Superman.  He always knows the right thing to do, never struggles with much in the way of moral dilemmas or deciding what course to take.  In short… he’s boring as hell.  But look at Batman, always struggling with his own morality, with having his own rules challenged time and again.  Should he really let the Joker fall the forty stories to the ground?  Or should he knock the madman out and turn him over to the cops, knowing full well that the Clown Prince will most likely return to plague him again?  Even Frank Castle, the Punisher, is not a perfect person.  But at the same time, watching him struggle with his own morality (or lack thereof) makes him an interesting character.

Fourth and Finally: I cannot stress this enough: Don’t give in to the temptation to carbon copy another history.  Whether you wrote it for another character, or lift it from a comic book, novel, video game, fanfiction, newspaper article, bubblegum wrapper… whatever!  Don’t.  Do.  It.  You are cheating yourself.  You are shortchanging your character.  You may not be the best writer.  You may not be the best planner.  But you will never get better if you don’t keep trying.  You can take bits and pieces and inspiration from other sources, but make them your own, in your own ways.

Step Five: Physical Description. A lot of players overlook this step.  They think they can just plug some appropriate numbers and words in, and that does it.  Once again, shortchanging.  Physical description is a chance to flesh out some details of your character.  Why does he have a savage, ragged scar running down the left side of his face?  Is he tall and lanky?  Short and stocky?  Massively built, or just plain ripped?  Is he overweight, or does she have a slight limp?  Why?  This ties in with backstory, and gives you a chance to make your character stand out.  Raistlin Majere is remembered for his white hair, gold skin and hourglass eyes, which tied in to what happened to him during the Test of High Sorcery.  Count Rugen, from the Princess Bride, is remembered as being the six-fingered man that killed Inigo’s father.  Use this as a chance to add another facet.

Step Six: Personality. This is not a chance to delve deeply into the psyche of your character, but more of a chance to give him or her small quirks of personality and mood that makes them memorable.  Drizzt Do’Urden, for instance, has a facet of his personality that makes him into a savage being he calls the Hunter.  Jarlaxle is an incorrigible flirt and fop, given to being outrageous just for the sake of shock value.  Give your character a couple little twists.  Maybe he hates a certain class or race for some imagined slight.  Maybe he has a vendetta against people of a certain nation.  Whatever you do, do not let these quirks cause problems at the table.  Ever.  This is a chance to have fun.  Maybe if your character hates all wizards, he and the wizard in the party have a rivalry going to see who racks up the most kills each time there is a battle, with your character always striving to outdo the wizard and prove his superiority.  But never should it cause actual strife at the table.

Step Seven: Name. Yes, now you can give your character a name.  Chances are, by now you have come up with some ideas.  Bounce them off your fellow players for an honest opinion, or even your GM.  Names can reflect so many things.  Pick up a baby name book, or use one of the dozens of baby name websites to look some up.  Some of the sites even have built in search engines where you can type in keywords you would like the name to associate to.

And there you have it.  Now as you can see, it is not as easy and yet easier, than it seems.  It is very easy to get caught up in making a good, interesting, believable character for your game.  There is no hard and fast formula to make this happen, just some steps you can follow.

What do you think?

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3 Comments

  1. A bit on the carbon copying backstory from another source:

    Draw inspiration from the character you want to play as. If you really would like to insert your favorite character from a book/comic/anime/movie/etc. into a given world that you think would do well, then make sure you fully understand that character first. Adapt the backstory to fit, draw inspiration from it, and then fully understand that character’s personality, emotions, and motives before you play. A friend of mine played Juri from Revolutionary Girl Utena in a D&D game once and she did it well. She is a dedicated fan of the series and understands all of the characters quite well, Juri most of all because that’s her favorite character. She herself is rather like Juri. When you fully understand a character and play it well, people will remember how well you did for years to come.

  2. Another note:

    Something that I tend to do when creating a character. If I have a lack of inspiration as to what I want to be, or I have some vague idea of what I want to play, then I start looking for pictures in my own collection from the internet or on various websites (DeviantArt is a good one) until I find something that strikes me. I’ll flip through pictures and narrow it down to a handful before looking closely at each one until one of those pictures looks back at me and says “Me. You’re going to be me today.” It’s a good jumping point to start from if you already have some vague ideas but can’t quite get the details down.

  3. This is the only part of tabletop roleplaying I’ve really had the opportunity to thoroughly enjoy.

    I’m sure I annoyed my GMs with the overabundant enthusiasm, pages of personal history and sketches to flesh out the visuals.

    It’d be a nice change to get to USE one of them sometime.


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