5 Ways to Make Interesting Characters
As I’ve discussed before in my halloween special and fantastical micro-setting posts, I believe that what sets tabletop RPGs apart from other mediums is the absolute freedom to create. Some find this a burden and choose to stick by the book or by well established cliches, and others even look down upon those who would deign to use their imagination. Admittedly nobody likes the “snowflake / edgelord” half-angel / half-demon prince whose very existence places them at the center of the world. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater! There are plenty of ways to take the cliches and give them a twist, or take the “chosen one” character concepts and turn them on their head. Here are five ways to make interesting characters.
1) Add One Unique Feature
Everyone has one idea in them! So, you’re an elf wizard, but you have a distinctive nervous habit; you tap your fingertips to your nose like the performer Sting or Dr. Cox from Scrubs. You’re the tough half-orc fighter but in your free time you develop con-langs. You’re the halfling bard who ends every verse with “can you dig it!?”. Nervous habits, catch phrases, hobbies, predilections, family heirlooms, or odd trinkets worth little in gold but containing sentimental value are all little things you can do to bring some depth to your character. Just one unique feature can lead to an explosion of character developments!
2) Play Against Type
People think they know what a fighter, wizard, paladin, etc., are supposed to be, but what if they were different? In fact, what if they were opposite? Why can’t a fighter be intelligent and introspective? In many games, this is discouraged, because a fighter would need to put points into their “dump stat,” typically intelligence, in order to perform well on skills which benefit from the intelligence attribute. However, even in such a system, there are outside-the-box ways to make an intelligent fighter that isn’t poorly optimized. This intelligent fighter comes from a small, under-educated village, but his mom was once a scholar in a major kingdom. Although the rest of his village discouraged his learning and even bullied and taunted him, he is nonetheless well-read, introspective, and eloquent. However, he has anxiety and general emotional issues around his education, and when taken to task, his anxiety often gets the better of him (see tip 4). In this way, while on his character sheet he has low intelligence and this will still affect his rolls, in terms of his character, he can be roleplayed as an intelligent and introspective person. Going back to our Sting-like elf wizard, as opposed to the bookish dork, this wizard is a charming magician / rock-star, although he’s also callous and tends to turn people off who get to know him (justifying his low charisma). And what about the lawful stupid paladin? How about our paladin sees the corruption in his church. He believes in the general morals but not the exact letter and idiosyncrasies of the law. He’s the rogue cop of paladins.
3) Play Against Genre Conventions (the exception that proves the rule)
So this one is a bit trickier, and may require that the GM and the rest of the party approve of it in order for it to work. In a typical fantasy setting, often times people resort to the “fellowship” story: A group of strangers or loosely associated individuals with varying backgrounds who come together to go on some quest. Whether this is your campaign or not, there are ways to inject different kinds of genre archetypes into the fold. Perhaps your character wears a masked costume and fashions themselves as a vigilante or superhero, as much Batman or Zorro as Robin Hood. Or maybe your character is an agent of the kingdom, a pulp superspy, or instead is a gritty hardboiled noir detective wrapped up in a plot beyond their imagining. Maybe your eldritch knight gets their strength and magical powers from an alien or extraplanar symbiote, fantasy Venom-style. Again, it’s important to make sure that this concept will work within the world and story that the GM is trying to tell, but this can be a fun way to utilize pre-existing archetypes while also seeming fresh and unique, and can potentially spice up the whole setting.
4) Give yourself a Hindrance (and be true to it)
So I want to be very careful with this one. Hindrances should not be treated as an oddity, or a joke, or used flippantly. Do a little research, learn the logistics of the hindrance, and think about how it can add to the character without being the character. Especially if portraying mental illness, which is often stigmatized, please be respectful. This can be a fighter with a missing hand, a wizard with dyslexia, a bard with performance anxiety, etc. Unlike systems where disadvantages can be gamed to get more abilities and then ignored, in this case, the point is that the hindrance does affect the character and must be addressed. That’s not to say it needs to affect their character sheet. Perhaps the one-handed fighter has trained his whole life this way and is as capable as anyone else, but there is a story around how he lost the hand, or it’s a sensitive topic that enemies or other NPCs can use to provoke him.
5) Turn an unpopular concept on its head
I know I railed on the half-angel / half-demon “edgelord / snowflake” character above, but actually I’m as much railing against the people whose only concept of a unique character is something like this, than the concept itself. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with this half-breed, but let’s make it actually interesting! Maybe the end result of our half-angel / half-demon is something in the middle, something purely mundane. Everyone is out there looking for some exotic messianic figure, when in fact she’s really more of a Joan Smith the human-iest human. Maybe, rather than being some beautiful angel/succubus-like creature, she’s actually an awkward, twisted, Lovecraftian creature, like a cross between the Chaos God Nurgle of Warhammer 40K and the chimeric cherubs from Kabbalah or the Book of Ezekiel. Perhaps you’re chaotic evil in a party of good, but rather than being a third-tier Joker, you have some incentive to work with the party, and maybe their goodness rubs off on you after a while. Rather than being the petty, rogue rogue (pun intended) who pickpockets the party and stabs everyone, you mastermind heists, leveraging the abilities of the full party like Ocean’s 11 or Leverage (see tip 3).
Whether you stick closely to the traditional fantasy archetypes, or want to play the “exotic” half-angel / half-demon, there are all sorts of ways to put a little spice or twist into it, to make the character, the world, or the campaign more interesting. Regardless of what system you’re playing or what’s on the character sheet, there is usually wiggle room, little nooks and crannies where you can get creative. Even just one unique feature can breathe life into a character. Good luck with your new character concepts, I look forward to hearing your stories!
Max Cantor is a graduate student and data analyst, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2016/10/19/19/08/medieval-1753740_960_720.jpg
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