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Making it Personal: Personality in Character Building
The primary function of character building for role-playing games is for the player to have a means of playing the game; and thus interact with the story and other players. But how a player chooses to interact with the story and other characters is up to the player by means of their character’s personality. Which makes sense: people tend to define one another in terms of personality; not to mention, the quality, methods and frequency of a person’s social interaction is a prominent trait of their personality. So when it comes to character design it is important to develop the character’s personality. How realistic and dynamic you make that character’s personality is up to you. Bear in mind that a character’s personality can and will often change during the course of the campaign; a result of their interactions as well as story developments. It is this dynamic that makes role-playing games so exciting as you can see how your character evolves over time.
As a starting point to character building, it is not unknown to start with the personality; but I have not seen it that often. Most of the time, players design a character around a niche the group needs, a particular concept, or around a specific iconic or original image. However, if a player does decide to start crafting their character based on their personality, here are a few things to consider . . .
A major factor to developing a character’s personality is tone; the primary concern being whether or not the tone conflicts with the overall tone of the group and/or the campaign. If a player opts for a much more comedic personality for their character, the comical tone may clash with a more serious story; unwanted comic relief can be annoying for any movie or show, so why bring it into your game? So, when initially designing the personality of your character, it is important to assess the atmosphere of the group (whether they prefer more serious attitudes or if they appreciate the occasional wise-crack) as well as understand the overall vibe of the setting/story (a brooding and grim character stands out and bring down an otherwise light-hearted and fun campaign).
Personal tip (and opinion): it is always better and more enjoyable to soften a character’s attitude than to harden it. What I mean is that I prefer to see tough or gritty characters ease up over time and develop a sense of humor than see the smart-ass clown butch up because of all the hardships and challenges they have faced. The latter is just played out in my mind. Of course, those are extreme examples; more appropriate ones might be to see an introverted character come out of their shell; or a character who may be rough around the edges become more accommodating and understanding to his/her comrades as the chronicle progresses. But just to emphasize: this is only my opinion.
Easily the largest influence on a character’s personality is their background. A character’s life before the adventure begins can and will shape how the character behaves up until the starting point; their experiences, positive and negative, beneficial and detrimental, all have an impact on shaping a character’s viewpoints on the world. In one way, when you are setting out to design a character’s personality, you are also designing their background; you are crafting their origin story.
When working on a character’s personal history, you can also have fun toying with expectations and come up with something truly unique to your character; always a lofty and enjoyable goal. For example, say you wanted to make the light-hearted and loveable goof-ball character; easy going, carefree, but still just serious enough to not be considered a complete joke coupled with a good-nature and kind heart. Now say that your character is that way because of his extremely affluent, but doting parents/family. Instead turning out to be a spoiled and selfish child, you have someone who genuinely cares about others and their well-being; maybe even the reason they go off on their adventures or become involved in the story. Now you have actually played with TWO different tropes: the spoiled brat (already mentioned) and the distinguished gentleman (or woman) with a profound sense of noblesse oblige.
Perhaps one of the most common sources to work from, when developing personality, is oneself. From my experience, the majority of players’ very first character(s) are going to be fictionalized and/or idealized versions of themselves; at least in terms of temperament and attitude. I think the instinct is to go in with what you know and become acclimated to the system and story before moving on to something more experimental; building up your confidence before trying something different. And there is nothing wrong or inappropriate with going this route. If it helps you create a character that you enjoy playing (and, ideally, other players enjoy seeing you play as well) then all the better.
Obviously, the character is not you; and by reversal, you are not your character. As such, you can have fun with the expectations of yourself and other players by crafting the character’s backstory into being different from your own; which is almost a given, but still worthy of being stated. Another way of crafting a unique character while still working off of your own personality is by making the character an imperfect copy of your personality. You can accentuate or exaggerate positive or negative traits of yourself; or just even ones that you see in yourself. For example, say you really like coffee/tea/pop and you feel you need to have that caffeine fix in order to work through the day. Well, taking that as a cue, your character could be a straight-up addict to something with a little more seriousness to it, such as alcohol or tobacco; depending on the tone of the setting, it could be something elicit such as hard drugs or worse. A more positive example, is that you consider yourself a generous and caring individual; your character, by extension, can be a much stronger and selfless hero inspired by your own sense of moral altruism.
On the opposite side, players of all experience-levels will eventually try to make a character that is wholly dissimilar from themselves. You can make the argument that they are trying to accent negative or different aspects of themselves; however, when making a character totally divorced in personality from yourself, you are often going to bring up personality traits that are completely different from yourself. Therein lies the challenge: you are going in without the same base of reference that you do when making yourself (or shadow of yourself) in-game. What you are going to have to do is draw many logical conclusions based on the background of the character and do plenty of research in order to best play the part.
One of the most frequent characterizations I see are players designing characters who are their polar opposite. Something about the escapist-fantasy atmosphere that gives players a sense of freedom and comfort to explore personas they otherwise would not indulge. I have mentioned previously that I knew of one player who regularly plays the most crass and vulgar characters; yet, ironically, the player is a very respectable and considerate person who is far from the tactless brutes (metaphorically and literally) he has been known to play.
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In the end, no matter how you approach character creation you are going to end up with a personality for your character. Otherwise, the character is just going to be scribbles on a sheet of paper and be just as interesting. Even if you put in the minimal amount of thought into the backstory and motivation, you have to think of something to make the character fun for you to role-play. Besides, the character is going to evolve over the course of the campaign as you get use to the setting and you get more opportunities to role-play. So even if the character starts off rudimentary, they can grow into something more dynamic and interesting; and you get be there for the whole ride.