Things to Think about During RPG Character Creation
First published 9/12/2001; last edited 12/16/2004
The September 2001 issue of the Twilight Time 'zine was all about three-dimensional character creation from the ground up. There ended up being enough general material that we decided to split the more specific hints off into their own article. So here you have them: a bunch of little hints to keep in mind when creating a three-dimensional character.
Beware Archetypes and Stereotypes
People who are just starting to learn how to create three-dimensional characters usually begin by creating a character that is an archetype or stereotype--something they're familiar with. Often this character will strongly resemble a character from a movie or TV show that the player is familiar with.
There's nothing wrong with this in general, and it can make a very useful stepping stone. But a character that is nothing more than an archetype is only barely three-dimensional. Luckily there's a very easy way to fix this: come up with a bunch of small, personal details for the character. Once you know a few things about his childhood friends, what he does on his nights off, and so on, he becomes something more than that original archetype. With a little practice you'll find that each successive character you create is more original than the last.
Archetypes also create another problem: Most archetypical protagonists are loners, and loners don't often work out well in party-play games. (See The Problem with Loners.)
Remember the Bad Things
Don't just consider what your character is good at and what he's done right in his life. There's a strong temptation, particularly when you start creating characters with depth, to make your characters infallible, unflappable, and extremely skilled at whatever they do. It's an attractive tendency; almost everyone wants to be someone amazing, after all! However, there are several good reasons not to do this.
- No one's really like this. Everyone has things they aren't good at, hidden embarrassments, and so on. It's what makes us complex, interesting and human.
- It's boring to create an infallible character. If you know you can't do anything wrong, then what's the point? All of your outcomes should be predetermined, right? Where's the fun in playing that out?
- It's impossible to create an infallible character. Trying to do so only sets you up for disappointment. It's always possible for the dice to fall "wrong."
- Characters that have foibles and make mistakes are easier for the GM to pull into plots.
- Characters that have flaws tend to get involved in a wider range of interesting plots.
- Characters with flaws have a lot more depth to them.
So consider this: Are there hobbies and skills that your character is barely capable of? Is there something he's clumsy at? Are there things he's done that he'd be embarrassed to admit to? Are there things out there in the world that he just can't handle?
Breaking Points and "Negative" Emotions
What's your character's breaking point? Think about what can terrify him, horrify him, scare him, piss him off, even if it's never happened to him before. A totally unflappable character is unrealistic in the extreme, boring for the game, and frustrating for the GM. "Negative" emotions make it easy for the GM to involve your character in plots. They make for much more dramatic scenes. Emotions are the key to a "real" person. Don't just list off dry facts; think about how your character's past has affected his emotional development. What makes him panic? What enrages him? What makes him cry?
Even the seemingly unflappable heroes of TV and the movies have their breaking points. Suave spies get angry when their friends are killed. Smart-alecky heroes break down when relatives get hurt. Keep this in mind when you create and play your characters and your games will be much more interesting. Particularly keep this in mind if you're playing in a horror campaign; what's the point in exploring horror if your character is incapable of feeling the emotion? Your character doesn't have to panic at the first sign of danger, but there has to be something that's capable of scaring him.
If You're Short On Time...
If you don't have much time in which to come up with your character, then pick a few interesting details and worry about the rest later. You might get a few ideas from our article on the bright spots of detail method for coming up with NPCs; many of the ideas will carry over.
Talk to Your Game Master
Not all GMs want to work lots of personal material into their games, so be sure to check with your GM first before writing reams and reams of material on your character. (Three-dimensional character creation is really something that needs to be done with the cooperation of your GM.) You also want to give your GM the chance to veto anything that won't work within her game. Work with her to fix anything that she sees as a problem.
As a corollary to this, try to make things easy on your GM. This is for your sake as well as hers; it's very frustrating to make a fun, complex character and then have it totally ignored by the GM. By making things easy on your GM, you can make it more likely that she'll enjoy and play with the material you've given her:
- Organize things so she can find them quickly and easily.
- Give her a copy of everything you come up with.
- If you write fiction, summarize any important details in your main write-up and mark the fiction as optional reading.
- Underline or bold anything that you expect to be particularly important to your GM.
- Don't use all of this as an excuse to try to slip "questionable" material past your GM.
- Sit down with your GM and explain the highlights.
- Try not to go overboard creating pages and pages of material unless you know your GM likes that. The more concise you are, the more likely she is to read the material and make use of it.
One of the most useful parts of a character's background are the non-player characters (NPCs) you create. These NPCs are ways for the GM to drag you into plots. They're resources for your character. They're the supporting cast in the story of your character's life. There are few ways to add depth to your character that work as well as giving her relationships with other people.
Consider the Rest of the Party
Make sure your character has reason in all of this to work with other people. Otherwise things will probably get frustrating for the other players.
Leave Plot Hooks
Don't resolve everything in your background. Leave dangling plot hooks for the GM to play with. Try not to make them time-dependent, so she can slip them in wherever she wants. Also try not to expect the plot to evolve a certain way; the GM might have different ideas of where to take it, and things don't always work out as expected.
Consider the Context of Roleplaying
There are certain things that just don't make for good roleplaying games, and certain things that do. For instance, you usually need to have a character who is willing to poke his nose into the interesting things going on around him. If your character has always wanted to settle down and be a farmer and once he gets a little money has no reason not to do so, then he's unlikely to stay in the game for very long. Make sure your character will work well as an RPG character.