Creating characters can be fun but it can also be frustrating if, for some reason, your creativity just isn’t flowing. There are many different methods for creating characters but no single method is going to be right for everyone, or right every time. Most of the time I can create new characters on the fly, and I quickly gain insight into who they are and how they behave during role-playing. Sometimes, though, I need a little help. These are some of the tricks I use when I need a new character and my brain just isn’t cooperating.
Usually I start with a character concept – a general idea of personality and occupation. I’ll know that I’m starting with an outgoing smith who turned to adventuring when he lost his business to a rival. Or I’ll have a quiet scoundrel who watches everything and everyone and likes picking locks and disabling traps for the sheer joy of the puzzle. From there I can build a character: choosing a class, rolling dice, assigning stats, picking out equipment and spells, etc. When that doesn’t work, I start randomly rolling. For everything. Literally everything.
You can start anywhere with this method: social background, family, age and sex, personality, social standing, etc. It doesn’t matter. The trick to using it well is to discard anything that doesn’t make sense. If you roll “7 siblings” and decide she’s attached to her youngest sister but then roll, “no family ties” you have to either justify how she could have both, or toss one out. So maybe you decide that, of all her family, she only got along with her sister, but that sister was married off and subsequently died in childbirth. Now your character has a background, a broken heart, and a reason to hate what’s left of her family.
Perhaps you roll that your character is happy-go-lucky, outgoing, kind and compassionate, and then you roll that he follows the god of murder. Again, you have to either justify how both could be true, or you discard one of them.
With this method I just keep going until I have a character I’m comfortable playing. Sometimes it takes only a few rolls. Sometimes it takes considerably more time and effort. Most often I’m satisfied with only a dozen or so rolls.
One of the other tools I use to help flesh out a character is a questionnaire. What is your favorite color? What kind of music do you enjoy (if any)? Who are your siblings? Your parents? Grandparents? If you search for “character questionnaire” in your web browser you’ll find tons of question lists. One of my favorites, though, is the Pivot Questionnaire: a set of 10 innocuous questions that can reveal much about a character’s personality. James Lipton asked these questions of his guests at the end of every “Inside the Actor’s Studio” show, but it originally came from the French series, “Bouillon de Culture” hosted by Bernard Pivot.
- What is your favorite word?
- What is your least favorite word?
- What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
- What turns you off?
- What is your favorite curse word?
- What sound or noise do you love?
- What sound or noise do you hate?
- What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
- What profession would you not like to do?
- If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Lastly, names. I almost never start with a name. I usually have a very good idea of who a character is before I know what she’s called. Sometimes the name will come to me early in the character creation process. Other times I’m ready to play and I still don’t know what she’s called. When that happens I turn to the Internet, or to my favorite baby name book: A World of Baby Names, by Teresa Norman. (It’s available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Books, Goodreads… ) It has 30,000 names from all over the world, and includes interesting information about the names, their origins, and naming conventions in different cultures. When I use the book I don’t just randomly flip through it. I’m looking for a name with a meaning that will sum up the character I’m going to play. I created a half-orc ranger recently and turned to my book for his name. I ended up in the North American section, and finally settled on “Mikasi”, an Omaha name meaning “coyote.” I also found an entry that meant Crazy Alligator, but Mikasi isn’t an alligator type. I changed it to Crazy Claws. So his friends know him as Coyote, and his enemies know him as Crazy Claws. Mikasi is a bit wild in combat, fierce and reckless, and this is how he earned his name.
And there you have it: the basics of my character generation process. If it helps you in some small way, then my job here is done. May glory and fortune be yours!
This work by Jean Headley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.