Character creation (part five)

3 11 2009

Creating Better NPCs

There are many ways to create believable characters. One of the easiest is to read. My advice here is to:

a. Read like a writer

Either re-read a book you already know well, or just pick up a new one – but put aside the temptation to get drawn into the story and cast a critical eye on the characters (that’s why re-reading a book often works better).

b. Read outside your genre

It is often easier to be dispassionate about reading if you read a book that isn’t your chosen genre.

c. Read good books

You may choose to read anything in your chosen genre, but when reading to appraise, please make sure you only read the best. And I know it’s a cliché but avoid the fast-paced action adventures if you want to learn more about characters.

d. Watch people

In addition to reading, you must become a people watcher. If you’re sitting on a train or a bus, use that time to study people.

Aliens or Monsters as Characters

This is a specialist point but if you look deep enough there is meaning for everyone. There is an obvious point in SciFi to making aliens…well, alien.

But if they’re too alien, players won’t empathise with them and it takes a great adventure writer to overcome this. If the players don’t want to defeat the bad guy at all costs, you’ve lost – and it doesn’t matter if this is because they are alien of just not human enough (I said it might get deep).

An often misunderstood aspect of character creation is the importance of naming your character

Some names just work

The first point is that depending on the genre or era, some names were, or are, fashionable and some aren’t. Checking for popular names from a given year or era on the internet is a sensible idea. It’s also worth bearing in mind that some names just sound like heroes or villains.

It’s often better to go with type than to try to be clever for the sake of it.

I know him already

Be aware of choosing overly familiar names for characters. Calling your young magician ‘Harry’ will have everyone imagine someone else entirely and your original NPC will never break through the preconceived image your players have (unless you’re being very clever and want to trick them of course).

The origin of names

Many adventure writers like to use meaningful names. They look up the meaning of names on the internet and use ones that are appropriate. It’s certainly not essential – but if it works for you, there’s no harm in it.

Who is that again?

One last word on names – don’t confuse the players. If the name is too complicated, players will switch off. It’s also worth bearing in mind that if the names are in some way alien or unfamiliar then readers will easily forget who is who. This is especially true if you give two characters similar names.

I have just finished reading a very famous trilogy and two of the characters from the first book (one major and one minor) had similar names. When they fought at the end of book one, I had to go back a few pages to check which was which. And I had to do it more than once.

Personally I start each adventure with the letters A-Z printed twice on an Excel spreadsheet. I only allow one character to have a first name beginning with each letter and the same for surnames. Then I check for similar sounding names and I change them if necessary.

What if the name doesn’t work

I have heard about writers that can’t start writing until they have agonised for months over the names.

But you’re an adventure writer and would never fall for that, would you?

Personally, I just pick a name quickly and with the benefit of word processing software, when I change my mind, I simply auto-replace. Some people, I have heard, call the character ‘Antagonist’ until they can think of something appropriate. Whatever works for you.

One word of warning. If the name you change from is also part of the English language, check the manuscript after the auto-replace. If you change from Jack to John, don’t be surprised if your characters change car tyres with a ‘john’ or get ‘hijohned.’

Next time out I’ll close characters with a section on personality types.

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