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Characterisation

By Skimble

Characterisation is one of the most useful skills that a roleplayer can learn. Done well it adds immeasurably to the gaming experience for both players and GMs, providing memorable characters and moments that people will still be talking about many years later.

Conversely, cookie-cutter NPCs and recycled characters can drag a game down, making it feel stale and forgettable.

The aim of this article is to give you a toolbox for building and portraying memorable, interesting characters who seem real (or at least verisimilar) to the other players. For the purposes of this article, “character” is used to refer to both Player Characters and Non-Player Characters.

If you have any tips or tricks you’d like to contribute that I haven’t mentioned, please tell us about them in the comments!

I should note that not all of the following steps need to be completed immediately on the creation of a character, especially if it’s an NPC. Quite often the longest-running NPCs arise from a character created on the fly that turn out to be popular and end up sticking around. I’ll give you some tips on characterising NPC’s on the fly a bit later.

However, if an NPC is sticking around, you owe it to yourself to flesh out the rough template with some of the information suggested below. The game will be richer as a result!

The Naming of Characters

The naming of characters can be a difficult thing: Often I am told that it’s the step that takes longest during character creation. If it’s difficult for players to come up with sensible names for their characters, imagine how much more difficult it can be for the GM who is creating an NPC on the fly in order to deal with an unexpected interaction!

When naming a character it is generally best to avoid puns and comedic names (although this may depend somewhat on the game you’re playing; comedic names are pretty much required in Paranoia, for instance), as it’s almost impossible for players to take a character with a comedic name seriously.

Almost as bad are unintentionally comedic names or names that can be twisted to comedic effect, though this is more difficult to control. I once had a demon NPC named “Löholt”, but after one of the group twisted it to “Lurpak” do you think anyone used his real name? Almost as bad was the demon “Shibboleth”, who became “Shubbalubba” as far as the players were concerned.

The issue of naming NPCs can be made easier by pre-preparing a list of names appropriate to the game being run. These can be divided up into categories  (dwarven names, elvish names, Hispanic names, Russian names etc.) to make it easier to find a suitable name in a hurry.

Having pre-prepared names allows the GM to simply pick one and move on rather than having to spend a few minutes running names through his head to try and find an appropriate one.

Stereotypes and Clichés

Stereotypes and clichés are a shortcut method of characterisation. They can be very useful in generating a character on the fly or for forming the launchpad for creating a more detailed character, but using them too often or solely basing key characters on them can result in the whole game feeling clichéd and generic.

The Mexican with broken English and a lot of macho is a stereotype. The angry, bearded dwarf with an obsession for gold and ale and a fear of being up high is a stereotype verging on a cliché.   The mysterious cloaked old man in the tavern who hands the band of adventurers a quest is a hoary old cliché.  The katana-wielding street samurai in shades and a trenchcoat is a cliché.

There’s nothing wrong with using one of these concepts as the initial template for a character, but try hard to make the character an individual rather than a simple carbon copy of the base template.

Take the macho Mexican with broken English and make him confident and assured instead, accepting insults with good grace and a shrug and a smile. Players dealing with him will be thrown off-step by the shift from the perceived stereotype and will treat him as more an individual as a result.

Subversion or aversion rather than inversion is the key here. Inverting a stereotype or cliché is in itself a cliché. Making the Mexican cowardly and submissive with a “Si senor” for every insult is just as clichéd as the original form.

Shake your stereotypes up a bit. Try to do something to distinguish your characters from the template that will immediately make them stand out from the crowd, and everyone will find them more memorable and interesting as a result.

Character Appearance

When you’re creating a character, spend a brief while considering his or her appearance. It tends to be the first thing described to anybody, and it’s likely to stick in their minds far more than the character’s name.

When you’re coming up with your character’s appearance, make a list of at least two or three details that are distinctive and which will make him or her distinguishable from other people with a superficially similar description.

Examples: A particular item of jewellery,  a nervous tic or habit of moving around, a particular hairstyle, a missing tooth, a strange expression,  bitten fingernails, a missing limb, a lazy eye, the bulge of a concealed weapon, a mole, a scar, a tattoo, a pet.

You can also use descriptive elements to give the players some hints about this character. Bitten fingernails might indicate a nervous disposition. Mud under short fingernails might suggest that this is a man who works the fields. Fine-quality shoes under peasant trousers may show that this is a man in disguise (or a thief, or imply some other interesting story).  Such details intrigue the other players and make them think, immediately cementing the character in their minds as someone of potential interest.

Again you should try and avoid over-reliance on stereotype and cliché when you describe characters. Why make the quest-giver at the inn an old, hooded man when he could instead be a comely lass with a knowing smile who’s secretly a polymorphed old man? Or woman?!

Personality

Once you’ve got a basic archetype, a name and a description decided for your character, you should spend a while developing his or her personality. Personally I like to divide this into three stages.

1) Personality Keywords or Phrases

Define three or more keywords or phrases that give you a brief overview of the most important aspects of a character. These are very useful for later reference as they will refresh your memory of how to play the character. You can use words or phrases that describe their general emotional state, or their responses to certain stimuli, or their overall demeanour.

Examples: Vengeful, polite, disrespectful, distant, disdainful towards women, xenophobic, kindly, long-suffering, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, patient, overbearing, autocratic, meddling, curious, dull, witty, unintelligent, sharp, bright, ingenious, a genius.

When you’re trying to work out how the character would act in a given situation, referring to these personality keywords or phrases will often give you the answer.

2) Character Motivations

Give some thought to what matters to the character. Write at least three phrases that represent things the character wishes to achieve, or which are important to him or her generally. I note that these can be negative in nature, the key point is that they matter to the character.

These motivations give you an even stronger clue as to how the character is likely to act in a given scenario. In general they will try to act towards or to encourage their positive motivations and work against the negative ones. Where circumstances are unclear or not directly applicable to their motivations then they will act according to their overall personality and their beliefs.

Examples: “Protect my family”, “Get rich”, “Look after No. 1″, “Conquer the realm”, “Show those scientists they should never have messed with me”, “Encourage altruism”, “Never surrender”, “Trust n0-one”, “Kill anyone who sees my face”.

3) Beliefs and Morality

What does the character believe? What is his code of ethics or morality? While you may have a fairly good grasp of these things already from the earlier stages, fleshing them out here gives you a richer palette with which to paint the character when you are playing him or her.

Having a defined code of morality and a belief system for your character also makes it easier to make decisions for your character when layered on top of motivations and personality keywords.

Examples: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”, “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”,”Reincarnation”, “Christianity”, “Have a good time and try not to hurt other people while you’re doing it”.

Quirks

Quirks are distinctive things about a character that are unique to him or her. They might include catchphrases (I once had a character prone to threatening “Diiiiiire Consequences” and it became a running catchphrase; another always inroduced herself as “Katarina the Pirate Queen, ah HA!”), specific tics, unusual beliefs and other details that help to individuate the character. Most quirks will fit into one of the categories I’ve mentioned above, but it’s worth giving yourself a brief reminder of a character’s particular quirks in your notes.

Example: Fear of mice, fondness for the phrase “As the Actress said to the Bishop”, hatred of cheese,  refuses to use any gun other than “Bessie”.

Acting the Part

Once you have established the character’s appearance, personality, motivations, beliefs, morality and quirks, you have almost completed your fully characterised character.

The last thing you need to do is to work out how to actually portray the character. This can be broken down into two parts.

1) Voice

The character’s voice can be of the utmost importance in his or her portrayal. If you manage to make the character’s voice distinctive, it is far more likely that the character will be remembered.

This doesn’t mean you have to put on a funny accent or try to change your voice outrageously, though of course if you have a talent for accents or for voice acting this is a definite possibility.

However, pitch and accent are just one part of how people speak, and there are plenty of other ways in which you can vary a character’s voice. Here are some examples:

1) Does the character speak confidently or with hesitance, with lots of “ums” and “ers”?

2) Does the character speak quickly and smoothly? In quick bursts? Slowly and measuredly? In a state of near-panic most of the time?

3) Does the character often pause for thought, or does he or she modify and expand upon thoughts while speaking? “No, actually it was more like…”

4) Does the character use a particular vernacular? Old English, Californian surfer, leet kid, banker… do they have a good or bad vocabulary?

5)  Does the character speak softly or loudly?

6) How does the character sound when angry?

7) Does the character have asthma, or breathe through his or her mouth, or otherwise have a breathy voice?

8) Is the character prone to coughing, sneezing, sniffing or yawning?

2) Physical Mannerisms

The physical portrayal of a character is as important as his or her voice. Feel free to stand up if you need to in order to play the character properly. You can use gestures and facial acting to get across something of the nature of your character, for example grand and sweeping gestures for a pompous or overconfident character. Alternatively for shy or reserved characters you might keep your body language closed in and defensive, crossing your arms and generally adopting a meek persona.

Other physical tricks you can use to add to characterisation are the rate at which you blink, leaning forwards or backwards, looking around you in a particular way, fidgeting, refusing to make eye contact, running your hands through your hair, miming certain actions or using props, gesticulating, overall body position and so forth.

Characterising NPCs on the fly

All of the above is great stuff if you’ve got the time to fully detail a character. What if your players tell you they go into a random bar and want to have a conversation with the bartender. How can you speedily create a character with at least a little bit of individuality and characterisation?

1) Name

Use your handy list of names to give the NPC a name.

2) Pick an archetype

Like a less distinctive stereotype, pick an archetype for the NPC. This is a short phrase that will give you a hook to hang the rest of his personality off, and which you can later develop into a fully characterised individual. You can start with the type of NPC the group was looking for (e.g. a bartender) and then add extra descriptors that will make the NPC more original.

Here are some examples:

1) Ex-military bartender with a temper

2) Near-retired policeman

3)  Semi-competent doctor with a drug habit

4) Divorced Locksmith

5) Embarrassing parent

3) Description

You can springboard from the archetype to get a description of the NPC. The ex-military bartender is likely to have that distinctive ex-military look with a thousand-yard-stare, a buzz cut. The semi-competent doctor probably looks strung-out, his clothing not ironed properly, his eyes somewhat red. Try to jot down a couple of distinctive elements of the NPC’s appearance if you can.

4) Motivations

Try to come up with at least a couple of Motivations for the NPC. These are likely to spring directly from the archetype, or they may develop in play as you roleplay the NPC.

5) Quirks

Again, a couple of quirks really helps the NPC to stand out. See if any seem to develop in your mind while you’re playing the NPC and then note them down for later reference.

In Closing

There may seem to be a daunting amount of steps to take when characterising your character, but if you try it once or twice you are bound to find that the enhancement of your game makes it all worth while. Over time as you gain experience you’ll also find it easier to do this on the fly.

Did I miss anything? Do you have questions or would you like more information? Let us know!

In the meantime, enjoy your characters!

3 Comments

  1. avatar

    Lore-master says:

    Additional note: when creating NPCs with quirks/voice patterns/obvious appearance, make sure you write it down you never know when you might need that character again.

    Other advice is read a wide variety of fiction books (genre mainly irrelevant) to find some interesting character quirks to throw at your PCs. (or for your character to use in the case of a player)

  2. avatar

    Ian Warner says:

    Funny voices are lots of fun if you can do them.

    Lifting characters from others or celeb apperances are also fun. Forget copyright it’s just you and your players round your table.

    I’ve had

    Real:
    Tony Blair (and later Zombie Tony Blair)
    Samuel L Jackson (with motherfucking snakes on a motherfucking plane)
    Hugh Heffnah (Demon)
    The Ghost of Karl Marx (who refused to believe he existed)
    Boris Johnson (Weredog)
    Lord Alan Sugar (Half Goblin Wizkid)

    Fictional:
    The Doctor (7th the best)
    Ace
    K9
    The entire cast of Heartbeat
    DCSI Foyle

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