If you want to make a character into something special, memorable, and enjoyable not only for you but for others just remember this one simple rule: Verb it. By that I mean, “do something,” like breathe life into your creation. Imagine how it will walk and talk and interact with the world. Don’t just make a character that is a stereotypical archetype, slap a name on it and call it a day. Explore your options. Think about what you need and want out of a character. Whether you’re an author looking to make a character that will capture your reader’s interest or a gamer wanting to bring something to the table that is more than a name and a set of numbers, it’s all the same.
I am an author and an avid gamer. Between the two I have created literally hundreds of characters over the years. For the sake of this blog I will be speaking most directly about how to make a character for an RPG (role-playing game) but if you are an author and looking for that little golden nugget of information that will spark your imagination, the lessons that I am going to explain are basically the same.
The traditional pen and paper RPG played with dice with your fellow players in the round, all start with basic character creation. It doesn’t matter what system you play, be it The Dark Fantasy of Sundrah, Mutants and Masterminds, Savage Worlds, or 6th edition Champions, remember this: you are creating a living and breathing person that you will be living vicariously through. Your character will be you.
That may sound a bit over the top, but it’s true. When you game, or at least when I do, I submerse myself into the character I create. It is after all the only vessel I will have in which I will be able to explore and interact with the world that the GM has created.
When asked to describe your character’s physical appearance just saying that he’s tall, blond hair, blue eyes and wears tee-shirt and jeans is not doing yourself or your creation credit. Unless, of course, you’re Louis L’Amour, the master of minimal words for maximum effect. Are you talking about Fred from Scoobie-Doo, Spike from BtVS (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), or Eric Northman from True Blood? There is a lot of wiggle room between these three guys. Once you add to your description things like his apparent physical attitude the gap between Fred and Eric begins to narrow. A lot. Now we could be somewhere between Eric and Spike. Eric projects a silent strength that leaves no doubt who’s in charge when he walks into a room whereas Spike instantly makes a show of power as soon as he appears, challenging others to usurp his sudden claim of dominance and authority. Remember to add something to a character’s description that makes him stand apart from your basic police APB description, even if all you add is that he’s carrying a book in his hand. That one tidbit has added a layer of mystery to your guy. What type of book? A spell book? A paper back? Why does he have it? Is it a plot device or just something he was on his way to throw out? And why would you throw out a book? Even that says something about the character.
There is so much more to character creation than breaking out the rule book and filling in some numbers on a character sheet. In truth, there are some people that for them character creation is a matter of pure Min-Maxing, getting the maximum amount of benefit for the minimal amount of drawbacks. Not that min-maxing is a bad thing, but a character should be more than a bunch of mathematically balanced numbers. We’re talking about gaming here, not about book keeping. NO ONE not even the nerdiest of nerds does recordkeeping for fun. That is why accountants get paid so much money to do your taxes – because if it were fun you would do it yourself. Min-maxed characters that are nothing beyond their min-maxed selves make for terrible characters no matter how you play them. Some of the best characters to interact with, the most fun to play, and the ones that other folks remember and enjoy playing with are the characters who have flaws.
Your character’s flaws are not a bad thing. Having a weakness or susceptibility or personality tick is does not mean that your character is a sissy or push over, it means he’s human and therefore believable. Let’s look at a character we all know and love: Harry Dresden. Naturally, Fred Hicks is hard at work making The Dresden Files RPG and it will be released one day soon. In the mean while let’s run down the list of Harry’s flaws:
-He’s too tall which is a distinctive feature (yea, I play Champions).
-He is a chauvinist. He can not resist saving a woman in distress, even if she is not in need or desire of his help.
-He will not compromise his principles, ever. Not even in the slightest little bit. A good quality for a person to have, but one that has caused him several concussions and nearly his life in every book so far.
-He overacts when children are hurt, has to do with his own crappy childhood.
-He loves deeply and has a hard time letting go of those he loves, even when they assure him that this is it, it’s over, to forget all about them.
-He believes that anyone can be saved, even those who have sold their souls to the devil and have been demons for the last two thousand years.
There are lots more I could rattle off, but you get the point. Everything we love about Harry is in spite of his weakness and because of them. He is a hero even with his flaws; he fights them, all the time. It’s because of his never say die spirit that we love him. This is gaming 101: Characters can only grow through conflict. If you don’t fight you don’t get the big experience points, you can’t level up. Experience and conflict causes growth, but every single fight doesn’t have to be against a dragon or Doctor Destroyer. After all, the greatest battles are within ourselves.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true, if you don’t know where you came from, you can’t know where you’re going. Your character, theoretically, did stuff before you started playing him. That stuff is his history. There are reasons that your character is the person you made him to be, has the skills and ability you either rolled randomly for or carefully spend points buying him. No one suddenly wakes up one morning and decides to be a Super Hero or Space Marine, something had to motivate or propel him in that direction. How did your guy become a vampire and how does he feel about it? Why did he take the early out from his military service and decide to become a street level vigilante? He has two kids, but what about their mother, or mothers as the case may be. Are they involved in their lives or did she run off? Everything that you are going to do through your character is based in some part on what he has done in the past.
You’ve heard this line before, delivered by actors: “What’s my character’s motivation?” It’s a valid question and something you need to consider. What motivates the character is what determines how he acts. For instance, if you are playing a super hero are you in for the fame and glory like Booster Rocket, is it your job a la Nick Fury, or do you want to protect humanity from the bad guys like Batman who is driven by personal demons or Superman who is compelled by his very nature to serve and protect. If you, as the player, do not know why your character thinks and acts the way he does there will never be a level of consistency to the character. If you don’t know how your guy is going to act, how is the GM supposed to plan an adventure or select a module to run?
And one final thought about character creation: make sure that when you build your character that you are happy with the end result. Not every character is going to be your new “most favorite character of all time” just because you made it. If you see that you are having a hard time getting into character or don’t like where you see a particular character going, talk to your GM about making a new one. Every thought the job of the GM is to kill your character, um, I mean set the stage and fill it with action and obstacles for your guy to overcome trust me, he does not want a miserable player at his table.