Enough with the negative articles. Let’s talk about something more fun. At the heart of every role-playing game is a character, usually several. These characters run the gamut, ranging from simple stereotypes (“Rar, orcish barbarian!”) to deep, complex individuals whose players portray them with such conviction that it rivals some of the best screen or stage performances. On the assumption that such characters are the goal of every role-player, how does one go about creating them?
As with many aspects of role-playing, we can turn to the writer’s craft for advice. Almost any exercise to concoct memorable characters in fiction in which one engages applies to the creation of characters for an RPG. Most of this advice is easy to locate on-line, so I’m not going to go through most of it here (sorry!). What I will do is outline how I came up with one of my own “most memorable” characters. It all starts with thievery.
What does that mean? Starting from the premise that every story has already been told in some fashion, every author (and players are indeed authors when it comes to their characters) is a thief. Some are more obvious about it than others. Star Wars is an over-cited example, but that’s because it’s applicable. Lucas stole whole-cloth much of Star Wars from Kurosawa films, Frank Herbert, Flash Gordon serials, and a number of other sources. This is less true the further you move away from A New Hope, after which Lucas began buying into his own publicity as a myth-crafter.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. This is, in fact, where most stories come from: an experience we’ve had in life or something we’ve already seen. As such, that’s where I start when I want to concoct a character. Consult your GM as to the nature of the setting in which your game is set. Since most (good) GMs will incorporate this as a sort of first session “team building” exercise, this should pose no problem. Are you playing a fantasy game with high magic? A western set in space? A metropolitan political drama, featuring supernatural creatures? This informs your decisions and so too will the archetypal inclinations of the other players.
Once you know the setting, start thinking about characters you’ve already seen in such a setting that you liked. Write them down, perhaps along with what it was you liked about each. It’s one thing to write down “Darth Vader,” but quite another to write down “Darth Vader: overpowering, menacing voice.” Each of these things will inform your character, even if you don’t choose to use them.
Example time. One of the games in which I play is a space cowboy-themed game. The character I portray is a sentient, artificial intelligence named Nigel. He often functions as the ship’s intelligence, but can also be away from the ship in an android body. He speaks with a British accent. The first character I wrote down when considering ideas? Han Solo. Where’s the connection there to the finished product of a British-accented android/AI?
Han Solo made me think of Obi-Wan Kenobi (British accent) and Dagg DeBrini, from Starchaser: The Legend of Orin. Thinking of Dagg made me think of Mizzo from the same. Mizzo’s appearance was a direct inspiration for Nigel’s android body. Dagg also made me think of Arthur, his ship’s AI. Because of the space cowboy setting, everyone had Firefly in mind. That brought to mind Joss Whedon, which brought to mind Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, which brought to mind Giles (also British-accented). Obi-Wan Kenobi + Mizzo + Arthur + Giles = Nigel. And thus one of the most-fun characters I’ve played was born.
This is just the first step. Once you’ve hammered out a concept, you need to turn that concept into more than a series of quirks (or gimmicks, as I’ve also heard them called). To do this, I turn to a time-honored tradition of writers: character questionnaires. There are hundreds, thousands, maybe more, of these that are just a quick Google search away. However, some of the best are The Original 100+ Questions Essay Test for Character Development (White Wolf-focused, but applicable to most), Errant Dreams’ Character Questionnaire, The Mother of All Character Questionnaires, and The 100 Most Important Things to Know About Your Character.
I must stress that you should not answer all the questions on any of these. That’s not the point of a character questionnaire. However, I also disagree with what some of these questionnaires espouse, which is that you should answer only a handful of these questions. The more you answer, the more you understand your character. However, here’s the most important part: your character must answer these questions, not you for your character. This sounds a little odd, but in order to craft a character you’re going to get into and enjoy, they’ve got to be a “real” person that you can understand. By answering in his* voice, you start to get into his head.
Sometimes, you’ll get this far and realize you don’t like the character you’re crafting. Good; stop and start over. Never try to force yourself into a character you aren’t feeling at this stage. You won’t enjoy it and neither will your fellow gamers. I’ve done that more times than I care to count and it never ends well. More often than not, the character turns into the game world’s avatar of me with some added gimmicks. I’m not there to play me, I’m there to play someone else!
If you find yourself enjoying writing the character, then you’re on the right track. The GM for the space cowboy game encourages backstory, but most people don’t write more than about half a page to a page. I wrote six before stopping and wondering if I should perhaps get some feedback. I thought I had something special, though, and when the GM remarked that he felt Nigel was the character I had been born to play, I knew I did.
There’s nothing wrong with going overboard. As with any endeavor, you do must put some work and thought into it to get the best rewards. We often hear about how acting is a difficult craft, and we revere great actors as master artisans. Why? Because crafting yourself into another person is no mean feat, and that’s what we as amateurs and hobbyists seek each time we sit down to come up with our next character. Most of us don’t phrase the goal in such a lofty way, and perhaps some don’t aspire to such heights. For my part, though, that’s where the best characters come from, and very often the best characters make the best games.
* His, in this case, is gender-neutral. His/her, s/he, “he or she” and other such constructions are hideous to look at and grammatical concessions rather than proper syntax. If you want to write that way in the name of some cause, be my guest. I’m not going to.