Whether you're brand new to the world of traditional RPGs or a pen-and-paper veteran, knowing how to make a great RPG character is a valuable skill, and one that doesn't come easy. Sitting down to make something from nothing can be daunting, especially when you aren't sure where to start and in theory you can be literally anyone in an RPG. These are some of the tips, tricks, and guidelines I use in my own games to narrow down the options.
Everyone's creative process is different, but what I find most helpful is to start by trying to pick a singular concept. Keep your ideas short and simple—I shoot for a single descriptive sentence each—and don't limit yourself to finding the perfect one. Instead, every time you come up with one, jot it down. The goal here is to get a body of ideas to draw from (or to combine!) as you go through the process and not get stuck on finding one silver-bullet perfect idea. Here are some examples:
- A bumbling young spellcaster who lacks confidence and mixes up their spells.
- The only child of a miserly moneychanger who wants to escape, travel the world, and see the ocean.
- The former leader of a street gang sets out to turn over a new leaf on a bigger stage.
These basic concepts will give you something to spin off from as you develop your background further. Maybe that clumsy young spellcaster accidentally turned their master into a cat, and perhaps the child who escaped their moneychanger parent stole the funds to pay for their new life and has to evade mercenaries hired to retrieve them.
Top-down vs. bottom-up creation
There are two different schools of thought about making memorable RPG characters. The first is that you look through the rules, the classes and races and so on when it comes to the ubiquitous D&D, or similar choices in other systems. Find ones that speak to you, or seem like they'd be fun to play. Choose a class, or playbook, or archetype, and use that as a foundation to build on as you consider things like personality and history. Why did they take up the sword, join the academy to be a space marine, or start slinging spells?
In the second school of thought, you instead begin with a background and work from there. Answer questions about where your character is from, who they developed into from childhood, and what path they ended up on. Did they come from humble beginnings, triumph over adversity, or escape a boring life of privilege? Once you have a good sense of who someone is and where they began, you can think about whether they sling spells, pilot starships, or stalk the wilderness with a trusty companion.
If neither approach speaks to you, consider filling a missing skill gap in your party. What kind of character is nobody else playing, and how can you make that appeal to you?
Collaboration is key
A good character for one setting or player group can be a bad character in one where they're inappropriate. No matter how cool the brooding bad boy seems, he'll be out of place in the light-hearted romp everyone else wants to play. The best-laid plans can be the worst-timed plans if they don't match what everyone wants, so stop: collaborate, and listen.
Present your ideas to the other players to check them against the tone of the game, the setting, and the style of game everyone wants. Find out how long the game is expected to last while you're at it—a short campaign won't have time for a novel-length backstory to be uncovered, or a complicated arc of personal growth to play out.
It's better to do this early before you invest a lot of time in a character. Talk earnestly about what you want from the game, and listen to everyone else so you can find solid middle ground to compromise on. This is also a great opportunity to connect your character to others—perhaps they're old friends, or went to school together—to give yourself a ready-made thing to roleplay about.
Steal traits, not people
First-time roleplayers tend to latch onto famous and well-known characters and pattern their own after them. This is a good starting point, but the next step is to break those characters down to the traits they're made of. Think about a character you love or admire and pull out the stuff that makes them appealing to you. Take Han Solo for instance: if it's his irrepressible attitude and disrespect for authority you love, use those traits in your character instead of stooping to obvious, surface-level mimicry. Make a character who is like their inspiration, rather than recreating the inspiration.
Questions to ask
A useful tool in fleshing out a character concept is a series of questions you answer as your character. Sometimes you'll immediately have an answer to the question at hand, and other times they'll inspire you to add elements to your concept until you do. There are lots of resources out there with example questions, and they may even be in the rulebook, but here are some I really like:
- What does a perfect world look like to them?
- What is their greatest fear?
- What did they dream about being when they grew up?
- What bad habits are they trying to overcome?
- What was their bravest moment?
- What is their biggest regret, and does it still bother them?
- Who is family to them, and why?
- What ideals would they fight for? Are there any they would die for? Kill for?
- How do they usually dress? Do they have a style or lack thereof?
- What rewards motivate them?
Ground your character with small things
It may seem silly, but consider little quirks of behavior, habits or routines that they have, hobbies to keep them busy, and bad habits that plague them. You never want these to take over a character completely—or to annoy the rest of the table—but they can be the spice in an excellent meal, and bring your character back to earth to feel like something that could exist in the real world.
A character who is obsessed with mapmaking, loves to whittle small toys out of wood, or is always snacking on something becomes a more memorable one and gives you something to fall back on when you can't think of how they'd respond to a situation.
How to spot a bad character and common pitfalls
There are some extremely common tropes and traits in fiction that don't work as well in a roleplaying game, or are very difficult to portray well. In general, I advise against the following:
Playing the loner or strong silent type. Many antiheroes in fiction avoid working with others and even talking to them. But in a roleplaying game you're denying yourself from being part of the conversation and connection that drives excellent and memorable roleplay.
The mismatch. A pacifist in a group of mercenary adventurers, a cynical and selfish type in a group of devoted heroes, or a goofy and wacky character in a serious game. It's important to make sure that your character's personality and goals aren't totally at cross purposes to the tone of the game and goals of the group.
Some games have random name tables or lists of suggestions, which should guarantee something appropriate for the time period or world. Otherwise, you can borrow a cool name from a real or fictional person as long as it's not too obvious. And importantly, say it out loud. Brennan Lee Mulligan of Dimension 20 once named a character Falas, which seemed fine on paper, and then at the table everyone burst out laughing because his name sounded like Phallus.
Beginning at the end of your character's journey. It's tempting when creating a character to peer into the looking glass at who you want them to become. Creating grizzled veteran characters who have seen it all or are masters of their craft can lead to limited opportunities for growth, or experiencing a journey as a character. Leave room for change and learning in their future.
Playing to win. My excellent mentor Mark C. Hill once told me, “Play to lose. Lean into the challenges and dangers instead of avoiding them. What's the point of a secret nobody ever learns, or a weakness that doesn't come up? You're robbing yourself and those around you of the dramatic roleplay you can achieve when you embrace that the experience is the way to win.”
These are a few of my favorite links on developing good characters:
- Inspiration through art on Pinterest or Google image search can be just the lever you need to move your concept forward.
- Name generators are an invaluable tool when you’re stuck.
- Taking personality tests as your character concept plus personality generators can be a great way to find traits you like or discover more about them.