Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #39:

Building A Character, Part 2

by Travis S. Casey
August 2, 2002

Last time, I talked about DaS vs. DiP and a few questions to ask yourself when building a character. If you missed it, you can find it here. As promised then, this time I'm continuing to talk about characters. So, let's get on with it...

A Few More Questions

To recap, these are the things to ask questions about for your character that were presented last time:

  • Goals.
  • Secrets.
  • Likes & Dislikes.
  • Appearance.

We could go on a long time in this vein, but I'd just like to bring up a couple more important ones:

History. What did this character do before? Where did he/she come from? Are there any organizations that the character has significant relationships with? Note that a character history can range from being very specific and detailed ("in March of 1979, Joe transferred to a new elementary school...") to being very general ("at some point in her past, Jane served in the military"). It's generally best to start out more general, then get more specific later if/when you decide it's needed.

Family. This relates strongly to history, but family can also be important in a character's present and future, so I've broken it out. Who are the character's parents? Does he/she even know? Was he/she adopted? Abandoned? Orphaned? If so, who raised the character? Are the parents and/or whoever raised the character still alive? What are the character's current relationships with them like? Does the character have siblings? What are the character's relationships with them like? What were all these relationships like when the character was growing up? And are there any significant other family members (aunts, uncles, half-siblings, grandparents... even children or grandchildren, if the character is old enough)?

Other Relationships. What significant people outside of family are/were there in the character's life? Boy/girlfriends? Spouse(s)? Bosses? Business associates? Friends? Casual acquaintances (e.g., the server at the restaurant who always says "Hi" to the character)? Answering these questions can also get into things about how much the character lets his/her personal and business lives interact, and can shade over into "Secrets".

Last, but not least, Fears. What is the character afraid of? Something concrete, like "I'm afraid I won't get my mob loan paid off in time!" A phobia, like snakes ("Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?")? That one of his/her secrets will be revealed? Commitment? Almost everyone has something they're afraid of... think about it.

The Most Important Question

When I GM paper RPGs and use a "character info form" for people to give me more information about their characters, there's one question that I always put down: If your character had three wishes, what would they be?

This question goes straight to the heart of "what does your character want"? Would they wish for money? Power? That their parents were still alive? That they'd been brave enough to ask that girl/boy to the prom? To be better looking? Stronger? Smarter?

It's easy to go for wise-ass answers like "more wishes" or "everything" — but that's not going to help you define your character (unless he/she is supposed to be a wise-ass). It's also easy to go for gamespeak answers like, "a +5 sword" — but again, that's not really helpful. Think about it honestly. This might be one of those questions you can't answer right away... which sort of brings us to the next topic.

Leaving Questions Unanswered on Purpose

Sometimes you just don't know the answer to a question yet, and that's fine; remember, you don't have to start play knowing everything about your character. On the other hand, sometimes you might want to leave a mystery about your character on purpose. In that case, you might want to just not answer some questions right now, or leave them incompletely answered.

Note that these unanswered questions can be opened as fodder for others — particularly for GMs, Storytellers, or similar people. Of course, it's the player's prerogative to open these, but if you really want a mystery about your character, letting someone else decide what it is can be a good way to do it.

Trick 1: What Do You See Your Character Doing?

When creating a character, try to picture him/her doing something — something that you'd like him/her to get to do in the game, something that shows who he/she is. Note that this is the character actively doing something — not just the character "posing for the camera". This trick is meant to (a) help you solidify your core character concept — to know what he/she does, you have to have a fairly good idea of it, and (b) make sure that you've got a character who can take an active role in the game. If the only thing you can see your character doing is standing around brooding, or "looking mysterious", or otherwise posing for the camera, you probably ought to think more about what he/she can do, instead of just be.

(Credit goes to Ron Edwards, creator of the paper RPGs Sorcerer and Elfs for the first explication of this idea that I saw.)

Trick 2: Contradictory Characters

A contradictory character is one who has two different elements that don't seem to go together. People seem to like these sorts of characters, sometimes to the point of fascination. Some well-known examples include:

  • Buffy, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A typical horror-movie "victim" cast in the role of hero.
  • The good-guy vampire. More of these than can easily be counted, but Angel (from Buffy again), Louis (from Interview With the Vampire), and even Vampirella are all examples.
  • The Peaceful Warrior. These abound in martial-arts movies. John Wayne's character in The Quiet Man is also an example.

I think that's enough to get the concept across. I don't recommend just stealing one of those, though, unless you can find a new take on the idea — they're too cliché.

Trick 3: Describe Your Character In One Sentence

This is another bit I always like to throw in on character description sheets. It's my theory that if you really have a clear idea of who a character is, and of what makes that character interesting, you should be able to express it in one sentence. If you can't, then you may need to think about the character more.

Avoiding Clichés

There are a few "standard character types" who show up so often in movies, stories, and games that they quickly become boring. (Unless you do something different with them, which is a topic we'll get to in a minute.) Here's a few of these:

The Angsty Guy/Girl. This is a "tortured hero", usually With A Past, who makes it apparent to everyone just how tortured he/she is. Often the character is so torn that he/she finds it hard to actually do anything except engage in soliloquies (see Trick 1).

The Secretive Wizard. I seem to know everything, but refuse to tell anyone anything, except possibly in the form of cryptic hints. Once you've made the wrong choice, however, I'll be happy to tell you all about how you should have asked me, should have listened to me, or should have interpreted what I said differently.

The Big Dumb Strong Warrior. Me break things. Me kill things. Me not have good grammar. Me amazingly act really smart when actually acting as dumb as I'm supposed to be would get me killed.

The Thief Who Pretends He Isn't. I'm a... handler. Trust me. Yeah. How'd that get in my pocket? Oh, it must have dropped in...

I'm sure you can think of quite a few others... those are common in fantasy, and every genre seems to have its own set of them. Unless you have a twist to give to them to make one that's really different, avoid them. And even then, be sure about your twist.


Again, I'm indebted to Ron Edwards for this idea. It won't be applicable in all game setups, but if you can do it, it can be a big help to GMs/Storytellers/whoever. Basically, a kicker is the thing that kicks your character out of his/her normal, everyday life, and into something interesting. Done properly, it should also require a decision from the character. For example, a character might get a note from an old enemy saying that the enemy has his/her ex-spouse, and if the character wants that ex-spouse not to be an ex-ex-spouse, to show up at this time and place. What's the character going to do? Go to the meeting, but try to "go prepared"? Get the hell out of here, and the heck with the ex-spouse? Go looking for the enemy before the arranged meeting, to try to catch him/her by surprise? Or something else?

(For more thoughts on making decisions meaningful, see Problem 2: Isn't this just railroading? in my Story Now! column.)

Closing Up

In the end, sometimes the only way to really get to know a character is to play it — and there's nothing wrong with that. But even then, you should strive to make characters interesting. And while I've been directing this advice primarily at players, it's also useful for creating NPCs... so you Storytellers and Storybuilders out there take note! If an NPC is going to play a major role in a storyline, then you should flesh out that NPC as if it were a player character — especially if someone's going to have to be sitting there live playing the NPC.

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