Making Characters Quickly, Effectively, and Consistently

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An organized archive of roleplaying guides, including step-by-step, how-to, and general essays on theory.
How do you do it?

I have a tested this formula inspired by some of my favorite authors, a judicial hearing, and an amalgamation of the successful strategies employed in the writing of some of my own, favorite characters, many times, and I have faith in it. Before this guide beings, though, I think it's important to include obligatory disclaimers, such as:

1. This guide is not for everyone.

2. This guide is not for every character.

3. This guide is a stepping stone, and will not create a finished product unless you enjoy one-dimensional characters.

4. This guide is intentionally generic, as to be (hopefully) applicable to any roleplay.

5. This guide is more comprehensive than necessary for NPCs and less comprehensive than necessary for PCs.

6. This guide should not be followed in order, or perhaps even in its entirety; decide for yourself what works and what doesn't. The steps aren't listed in order of operation or importance; there is no real organization to the following guide.

7. I will be using Elisabeth as my example throughout the guide. She likes to cuss.

And, before you ask, this is why the guide is being written:

1. Brevity. A lot can be said in few words, and nothing can be said in many. It is better to have a character made quickly, to be submitted and approved with the sincerest intentions of further development as a schedule permits. Not everyone has hours to write about characters, fewer people have the interest to risk hours wasted on an RP that never launches, and even fewer have the interest to read about someone else's character. This guide, in theory, should full your character sheets with short but comprehensive blocks of information so a skimming RPer can pick out important details.

2. Efficacy. A ten-page backstory, even well-written, will ultimately be lost on the majority of the roleplaying population. As a side effect of the primary goal of the guide, your character sheets should be shorter but denser.

3. Consistency. Not only should this guide result in an easy-to-read character for your GM and fellow writers, it should result in an easy-to-read character for yourself. Like a student with color-coded notes, sticky notes, flashcards, bookmarks, and cheat sheets, if you want to remember the particular wording of a phrase you will want to be able to isolate it easily. More importantly, if you're ever afraid of contradicting your description of your character, this guide should result in a very simple "do's" and "don't's" list your character likes to adhere to.

4. Humanity. This guide has sections that encourage self contradiction, which is a very human (and, therefor, sympathetic) quality that realistic and meaningful characters have. You will be told to write something, and be told to write something completely different, because (barring special circumstances) your character is a person, with all the fallibilities and hypocrisy that implies.


The Guide

Avoid Pitfalls

Be a team player. The roleplay is a communal effort, and no one is going to have fun if you hold the story hostage with an obnoxious, unpredictable, or silly character in an RP that doesn't call for one. A kleptomaniac rogue might like his companion's baubles, but there's better treasures to steal when they help than when they're pissed off. Don't play a one-dimensional character, or a character that refuses to cooperate with the other characters or the story.

Do you remember that famous trilogy about the hobbit who told Gandalf of piss off, and sat at home while all his friends got killed by the armies of darkness? No, you don't. So put on your backpack and go destroy the ring. If your character wouldn't participate in the story, they aren't part of the story, and you're going to look like an idiot when everyone else leaves to go RP without you.

Basic Character Information

What is your character's name? This question vexes me to no end. There is a myriad of free, web-based databases of names for any language or setting that will generate a random name. I used to rely on websites like SeventhSanctum, but now I pool from one of two sources: A name I've used before, and enjoy, or I pick from my running list of name ideas.

"What if I don't have a running list of name ideas?"

Make one. Seriously. I have a notebook dedicated to recording the names of bands, mythical animals, ships, companies, characters, countries, settings, spells, plot hooks, or anything else I want record of. Sometimes they come to me as random thoughts, and sometimes my dyslexia rears its ugly head and "Mt. Annapurna" becomes "Mrs. Annabelle Purns." My class notes are covered in nonsense. My French teacher sent me to the Dean's Office because my papers were covered with plot hooks about conspiracies involving "Smelly frogs." If you don't have pen or paper on-hand, quickly type your idea into google search so you see it next time you open your browser/phone. Do the same thing with famous speeches, story experts, or poignant quotes.

Age/weight/height/sex? Typically I've already decided these details before I sit down to start writing, and I don't have any lifehacks for it.

Eye/hair/skin color? If the GM's fictional world includes descriptions of various ethnic/racial groups, that's probably decided for you. Otherwise, play what you're comfortable with.

Personality

Decide your character's backstory

Do it yourself or scroll down to read about backstory development.

Start with a mission statement

Elisabeth is pissed off and mad about it.

Right there, all the reading world has the definitive observation they need to know about your character. Without reading any further, you know the character's name and her personality, even if it's only a surface judgement. When your character faces opposition, incredible odds, and difficult situations, and you don't know how they would react, your mission statement is your ultimate fall back. Dragon? Elisabeth is going to attack. Gang of thugs? Elisabeth is going to attack. This helps your GM anticipate your character's actions, and it helps you justify them.

Obviously that's well short of a psychological profile, though.

List qualities

Don't worry about writing a long paragraph (yet). Just list some facts about your character.

She's rude, crude, brash, insulting, mean, ridiculing, hateful, spiteful, violent, harsh, and impatient.

Now we have more of an idea about what Elisabeth is, and how she follows the almighty mission statement. She's pissed off and not at the least worried about how anyone feels about it.

Challenge those qualities

No one's angry all the time, or at least not without a good reason. Have a list of related qualities.

She's dependable, honest, absolute, critical, unforgiving, dedicated, and brave.

Now we see two sides to Elisabeth: She's temperamental, and impatient, but one could assume that is because so many people don't share her dedication, bravery, or honesty. Or maybe she comes across as rude or mean because she speaks so honestly, and absolutely, with disregard for social niceties.

Introduce your lists, and combine them

Elisabeth is an angry woman, and has no hesitation in making it known. She is rude, crude, brash, insultingly honest, unforgiving, and demanding. She says what she means and she means what she says, always, with no patience for dishonesty and no quarter shown for liars or the milquetoast.

That provides a fairly comprehensive and succinct summary of Elisabeth's personality. She is honest, dedicated, and expects the same qualities from everyone else.

Contradict your list

I'm not going to start calling Elisabeth a nice person, but she isn't all demands and sunshine. If you said a bunch of nice things about your character, now is when you rip them apart. In Elisabeth's case, then is when I start saying nice things.

Elisabeth is better than most people, not in word, but action and virtue. She might choose violence over diplomacy when given the opportunity, but she isn't all sound and fury: Elisabeth is smart, cunning, good at improvise, stalwart, and dangerous far beyond what injuries a sword could threaten.

Bring it all together

Elisabeth lives as if the world does everything in its power to earn her disapproval, and her bitter tongue and violent behavior illustrate her opinion of its inhabitants. Not that approval seems important to her; she speaks honestly, and absolutely, and expressions her opinion without provocation or fear of how it might be received. Most people assume she's just uncouth. Rude, crude, brash, belligerent, insulting, ridiculing, argumentative, hateful, spiteful, violent, and inconsolable.
But the few that impress Elisabeth know more. Those qualities are accurate appellations, but not exhausting; she's isn't just angry and violent out of some perceived injustice existence has deemed fit to inflict upon her: She is demanding, with high standards for those she regards as friends, and expects for all the dedication and self-sacrifice she displays each day that the universe owes her something. And she's mad she doesn't have it yet.


As you write, keep in the back of your mind the RP's setting. In some universes, it's perfectly fine to shout and holler; in some countries today a woman can't yell without a public beheading. Jot quick notes about which of your character's traits affects their backstory, and how their backstory might affect them.

Appearance

Start with a mission statement

Elisabeth is an unfortunate woman.

Make another list of features!

Height, body type, distinguishing features, haircut, and resting expression/demeanor, clothing style, clothing quality.

Please, for the love of God, make this consistent with your character and setting. If your character is a rebellions tomboy with no respect for authority, they aren't going to wear business casual or long, curly hair. A wizened old sage isn't going to enjoy slacks and a Smashmouth t-shirt.

Elisabeth is tall, has an attractive face and awkward proportions, branding burned into her left shoulder, scowls a lot. She dresses modestly, and practically. Her clothes suggest wealth.

Write it out

Now that you have a list of important information, you can get lost daydreaming about how handsome your knight is without forgetting to include important information. Don't assume everyone has the same ideas of attractive/hideous; describe what facial (and other) features justify the claim.

This is often the shortest section of my characters. I'm not only bad at writing physical descriptions, I'm not interested in writing them. Unless a GM has specific instructions, it is usually sufficient to provide a quality information block and an appropriate picture.

Elisabeth would have been attractive from the chin-up if it weren't for the perpetual scowl that rendered it less pleasant than a wide scar could. Everything about her face is angular beauty, with high and sharp cheek-bones, a pleasant nose, and the long, tapering ears of her species, but it was stretched and darkened by frowns and sneers. Her hair is kept short, and like most things in her life, practicality is chosen over appearance; she cuts it herself, near jaw-length, with a dulling knife dedicated to the split ends and uneven frame that fell around her head.
Elisabeth has Marfan's Syndrome, a condition that (description of her body and symptoms)
Elisabeth's wardrobe is modest and shallow. Her clothes are always clean and she's willing to pay more for higher quality clothes.


Backstory
Yay! The least helpful section!

This is the most difficult part of character design to give general instructions for. Every RP has a different setting (well, should) and if you have a checklist broad enough to apply to many, feel free to describe it below.

Decide your character's personality

Do it yourself or scroll up to read about personality development.

Read the RP introduction

This really shouldn't have to be a step but, unfortunately, it needs to be said: Read the RP. Your character's backstory absolutely cannot contradict that of the RP unless you approve it with the GM.

What about the setting interests you?

If you answer "Nothing," choose a different RP.

If you answer "The race relations!" or "The civil war!" or "The politics!" or whatever, start there. It's easier to RP a character that interests you. Does slavery exist in the setting, and does your character have an opinion about it? Maybe they're a runaway, lost their family to it, were raised in a household that used it, or saw its effects daily. Is there a big war going on? Maybe your character is a veteran, or prospective conscript, or a refugee, or medical discharge. Maybe the connection isn't that close: Your character's cousin is a soldier, and got a purple heart, or the kid next door got drafted. Either way, your character has an opinion about the world, and you have to justify why they have it.

Where was your character born? What class was your character born? Does that affect their personality?

What significant event happened early in your character's life? Where are they at the beginning of the RP? Fill in the middle during the post-submission revision phase (which it outside of the scope of this guide)

In Elisabeth's case, she lived her early life as a slave. Events happened that resulted in her becoming a hunter of runaway slaves in exchange of her own partial freedom. At the beginning of the RP, she's a moody and bitter outcast that regrets the years she spent the victim of cruelty, hates herself for the years she spent perpetuating the crimes, and has resolved herself to painfully ending the abhorrent practice and those who participate in it.

Write as much as you think it takes to go from being born to the beginning of the RP. As you write, revise or add to your character's personality as new ideas emerge and play off of each other.

Final notes

Ultimately, in the perfect character, personality, history, and physical appearance are all intertwined, beautiful, and ugly things, not discrete components. But this guide is for making quick characters, so don't worry about so much about pointing out your creativity as making sure your ideas are written. Have faith in the intelligence of your compatriots, and their abilities to connect the dots without you patronizing them.

Your GM will probably reject your character after your first submission. All this guide gave you was a list of personality traits, a paragraph on appearance, and a timeline. Hopefully your GM will see your outlined character, however, and if all they say with the rejection is "Requires more information," you're golden. It's easy to write fluff, and now that's what you can do.

However, if your GM rejects your character with a fat "No, this doesn't fit into my setting/plot/whatever" then you spent... maybe 20 minutes on it? Some people will take more time than that (I always do, but I forgo the initial rejection step and write everything), some will bang out my lists 5. What's really beneficial about this process is that your GM can let you know if you're going in the right direction or not. "You want to play an runaway slave elf that's got a freak medical condition and a brooding backstory of self-regret that constantly argues with her companions? No, I'm not letting letting that into my RP." And that's fine. I rework the character, come up with something new, or find a different RP. It's the best low-effort low-risk strategy available, and once your character's concept is accepted you can immediately jump into writing out the long, ridiculous prose and passionate, vivid descriptions you like to bore your readers with.

My absolute, final note: Make more lists. Make lists of good things to say about your character and bad things to say about your character, whether it pertains to their personality, appearance, or history. Make definitive statements; beyond your mission statements, there should be a handful of unwavering traits that will only change as the result of a significant character ark. Elisabeth is impatient, but that's now what her profile opens with; with time she might learn to relax, but nothing short of a miracle will improve her resting disposition. Having the distinction in your head, and in your GM's head, between what is fact about your character and what is a feature of your character is important, and that's what the mission statements are for. "Elron the Knight wants to kill a dragon." He might also be an alcoholic, but that quality doesn't define him. At least, it hopefully doesn't. Maybe someone should show him ye olde psychiatrist.
Do you feel like you're a bad writer? PM me, and let's talk about it. :)

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