Character creation (part two)

30 10 2009

Characters are people really

OK, so characters aren’t really people, but for your players to truly enjoy your adventure, they have to believe they are.

It’s a balancing act. If the person is too ‘normal’ they become boring – too outlandish and they become a cartoon character.

Too stereotyped and they are hackneyed – too individual and they can’t be related to.

Too rounded and their flaws stop any empathy – too good (or bad) and they become one-dimensional.

The best characters are ones that you know intimately – even if you only ever reveal a small percentage of that background to the players. You should know what newspapers they read, what drink they would order at the bar and whom their first kiss was with.


If you never use this information you could argue it is irrelevant. There are two popular counter-arguments to this:

1.  Using the character becomes automatic

The wealth of background data helps to form a more complete character in your mind. All actions that you have the character do are mentally checked against their background – thus making them more consistent and well-rounded.

2.  Your plot lines develop

Having this background data will help your adventure. Once you’ve done extensive research, you’ll have a lot of extra information that you can throw in to make the character more believable.

Ways to develop your understanding of the character

There are many options. I would always recommend first creating a character sheet (see previous blog entry). This starts to get you into the head of the character.

a. Interview the character

A popular way to develop understanding is to pick up a magazine that contains interviews. ‘Ask’ your character the questions and see what responses you get. Sometimes you get information that didn’t occur to you when you completed the character sheet. The best questions are of the ‘what if’ type.

  • What if your character found a wallet in the street?
  • What would they do with it?
  • What if your character found out their best friend was having an affair?

b. Diarise

Some writers keep a fictitious diary for their main characters and use this to flesh out the plain facts from the character sheet into a personality. If you’ve had a good day, make the diary entry light. If it’s a bad day, how has your character reacted to a miserable time?

Use your own mood to help you work it out.

Characters aren’t just a checklist

The checklists and exercises outlined are the starting point of creating a character. Just rolling some dice only starts to create a character, it can take a while to truly flesh out a set of statistics into a living ands breathing Hero.

That’s why character creation shouldn’t be rushed.

Characterisation can be a real challenge for the new adventure writer. When you do it right, you can almost enter into a discussion with the PCs and not have to attribute the speaker – so obvious will it be to the players. It’s fair to devote more time to the major characters but overlook the lesser characters with caution.

Similarly, don’t invest a lot of time working on an NPCs background only to have them interact once and you never see them again. Players don’t want to invest time in characters that are expendable. They’ll feel cheated.

The variation to this rule is the NPC that is mentioned throughout – or casts a shadow over the adventure – but rarely appears. This character should be well-developed. Sometimes the less the player knows about them, the greater the mystery. That’s your judgement call. But don’t forget – you should know everything about them.

Unlike a novel, where the reader can only follow what’s written, PCs can start asking questions you never expected them to think of.

Next time I’ll talk about the pitfalls of stereotypes.




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