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Creating a Complex Character

Updated on November 15, 2012

Step One: The Concept

A compelling character, whether it be for LARP, Table Top, or a novel starts with an idea. This can be anything from 'the perfect butler' (which a friend of mine has played for years) to an adaptation of a movie character. The more specific your idea here, the more ideas you'll have to draw upon later. But this concept doesn't have to be an entire history. Sometimes the history flows organically from the concept right at first, sometimes you may even have to play the character for a few weeks or even months before you discover where they come from. It can be different for different people and the important thing you need to remember is not to force it. It has been my experience that if you try and force too much of a concept before you're ready you are far more likely to need to adjust it later. There are a few good things to keep in mind in any role playing setting with regards to a concept.

  • Make it your own - You'll have a lot more fun if you're comfortable with the concept and it's a lot easier to connect with a character if you have some element of yourself in it
  • Look to your sources - We all draw on literature and media to get some ideas, and while most players will groan at a character that is wholesale ripped off of a movie or book, if you can pull it off it can still be fun. I certainly recommend that drawing inspiration from books and media and not directly using them is more creatively sound, and more often than not will produce a more complex and real character. Please note: in any work of writing ownership of the characters in mind has to be taken into account. I do not in any way advocate the theft of others intellectual property.
  • Keep development in mind - Does this concept have a goal or something that will give you reasons to act without being prompted by the storyteller? How do you foresee this concept growing? If you reach this goal will you take the character out of play or take a new one? How long term is the goal?
  • Genre - This is always a difficult point in coming up with a character, does it fit within the setting? Sometimes a mild break with setting can make for an interesting character. An optimist in Warhammer or a kindly Vampire can help reinforce the inherent darkness in the setting, for example. But if the concept is too jarring a contrast or simply couldn't interact with others in the story then you'll end up looking ridiculous or bored as everyone else goes off without you respectively.
  • Fun - Will you enjoy playing or writing this character? It seems like a simple question, but some ideas will get old quickly. Go back to what you considered on the subject of development and really think about the staying power of your enjoyment. Because first and foremost any RPG is a game, and if you're not enjoying it what is the point?

I find filling out a character questionnaire particularly helpful in developing a concept. 7th Sea has a particularly good one, but the book has been out of print for some time. I know I've seen several out there on the web for World of Darkness, and I've known a few DMs who create them for their characters in any game they run.

Step Two: Developing

Now that you have a base concept, you need to flesh it out. Research on the source material can help somewhat, but again you want to avoid drawing too heavily on it. This may be a good time to create a timeline of your character's life and a history or biography.

  • Costuming/Picture - If this is for a LARP I often find that picking one or two 'signature' costume items for a character can help you develop their personality. Perhaps a necklace or a hat or glasses. This can help you feel like you're 'putting on' the persona of the character when you literally put on the signature items. Some people like to go into intricate detail for costuming for a character, and if you like that major kudos. This is a good point to consider how your character dresses, and what they look like. If this is for a book or tabletop game maybe find a picture or draw one yourself if you are artistically inclined. Deviantart is a great source for inspiration, they have a lot of great artists working on a broad spectrum of images. The important thing about this is that how someone dresses says something about them. If you wear solid or bold striped suits, maybe you're a businessman, or perhaps its a matter of the fashion of the era from which you come. Wigs help if you want to go with a radically different hair style from your own without making a drastic change on your own hair. Even little things like a pendant might have personal significance for the character.
  • Mannerisms - Do you drum your fingers or tap your feet when you're waiting for things? Do you always carry a newspaper to read through if you need to wait for something or someone? Little tics or mannerisms can betray underlying characteristics. Someone who drums their fingers may be impatient, preferring action to idle pursuits. A Librarian may always have a book to read. Someone who considers etiquette important probably sits with impeccable posture, and opens the door for others. Physicality can say a lot about the internal workings of a character without having to actually voice their thoughts and feelings.
  • Patterns of Speech - Much like mannerisms this can say a lot about a character without actually voicing it. An old fashioned character probably won't use modern slang. A proper character would likely use good grammar and avoid vulgarity. Again this can really help you get into the mindset of the character in question.
  • History - This doesn't have to be a formal biography, but if that is how you are comfortable expressing it, then by all means. However sometimes a simple list of bullet points of major life events or a timeline are all you need. But this helps put the character into a chronological perspective and gives you an idea of why they do the things they do and what is going on inside their head.
  • Hopes/Dreams/Fears/Ideals - This is a catch all for anything else you might want to include in their personality. Often times this ties in to the history. A person who dislikes bullies may feel that way because they were bullied as a child, but a person who was bullied as a child could instead turn out to be something of a brute themselves. This is more of an internal workings of the character than external mannerisms, though often times the external mannerisms may be a result of the internal processes. Draw on the old acting question, "What's my motivation?"

If you did my questionnaire I suggested before this may be quite easy, but perhaps not. The important thing here is to take the kernel you started with in the concept phase and cultivate and grow it into a full blown character.

Step Three: Reevaluate

Some might consider this an optional step, but I do encourage people to look over their character ideas again, once they've been fleshed out, before committing to them. Sometimes when you've fleshed a character out you may discover that its simply not a good fit for a specific story or game. Its better to be honest with yourself before you implement a character and discover that it needs extensive tweaking to fit within a given setting, or you have to drop it because it simply doesn't work out. Give a good long look at the character and consider what they will add to the story as a whole and if you'll enjoy playing/writing them. This is a good time to consider your own motivations behind playing a character. If the purpose of the character is to get back at the person who killed your last character, or just to mess with people... while you may enjoy the character for a short time eventually that feeling will fade, if for no other reason than the fact that others around you likely will not enjoy the character. Consider the longevity of the completed concept. Maybe come up with a few story hooks you could provide for the character. Once you're sure that this character will be a good idea. Then you're ready to implement.

Step Four: Implement

This is the point when you start with the stats in an RPG or the story board or writing in a novel. Try and keep the character's history and personality in mind when you pick the stats, as in theory the stats your character possesses are supposed to reflect their capabilities. In many LARP settings an easy way to irritate your STs is to include abilities without some kind of justification for them in the background. Especially if the abilities are rare or powerful. I do *not* advocate adjusting or tailoring histories around a certain ability or power. I know some people differ with me on this point, but I tend to find histories written to tailor to the desired skill set inorganic and choppy. Please keep in mind the individual rules of whatever venue you are playing at, since certain powers and abilities may be allowed in the base ruleset but restricted in the particular game.

Once you have completed the biography and sheet, I advise that you go online and find a 'Mary Sue Litmus Test'. One I like can be found here. However, if you have one you prefer use that one. Take the test with regards to the character. If your score is too high... you might want to go back and rework bits. A little color and 'specialness' is part of making an interesting character, but too much and don't be surprised if storytellers are reluctant to allow your character in the game, and also don't be surprised that if you are allowed in, others may not like your character. This is simply to spare your feelings later after you put all this work into a character. Nobody likes rejection.

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    • Amber Howard profile image

      Amber Howard 4 years ago from Wallkill, New York

      Voted up. This would be amazing for the world of modern roleplayers, and newbies in the table top setting. Everyone has the potential to make an amazing character if they know where to start.

    • Porshadoxus profile image

      Porshadoxus 4 years ago from the straight and narrow way

      Good stuff right here! Voted up.