Coming up with an Idea
For instance, playing to type with D&D or Pathfinder can be really helpful in coming up with a character that is relatively easy to build and play. For instance, gnomes have racial traits that work well with the druid class, and halflings have traits that complement the rogue class. If you know what class you want to play, this makes it easier to choose a race and vice versa. This is an especially good way for beginners to come up with a character, because these characters are easier to play than those created against type. Once you know your character’s class and race, you can begin to develop them more naturally.
Another option, for those who are comfortable with it, is to intentionally play against type. You know that dwarves don’t have natural proficiencies that would benefit a wizard, but you decide to make a dwarf wizard, anyway. Now you have to come up with a justification for your dwarf to have chosen a path so rarely walked for their race. What drove them to pursue magic? How does their family feel about it? It is worth noting, however, that these characters do tend to be a bit harder to play and level up because their natural proficiencies don’t benefit their classes. It can be a rewarding challenge for those who wish to try it.
For those RPG systems without type mechanics, you’ll have to look elsewhere for inspiration. One suggestion would be to see what other members of your party are making. If you have a leader, a heavy weapons specialist, and a medic, then maybe a tech specialist would be a good fit. You usually want to have a well-rounded party, so filling in gaps in your squad can be a good place to start. Try to think about what kinds of challenges you will face and whether the other characters will be able to tackle them effectively. If you are playing a Call of Cthulhu campaign and no one has any occult knowledge, that might be a good place to start.
Once you have the basics of your character down, the rest often follows pretty naturally. If not, hopefully the rest of this article will be able to get your creative juices flowing.
Finding Internal Conflict/Nuance
The point here is that your character should always have a motivation behind what they do. Why do they choose to hang back from a fight and survey the surroundings first? Why do they always charge in headlong with no regard for their own safety? Why do they always carry a chess piece with them wherever they go? It doesn’t have to be an overly-complicated reason, it just needs to be there so your character has a motive for doing things. These motivations will also help influence your character by helping you figure out what they would do in a situation. If you aren’t sure what to do when facing a large wall, you just need to ask what your character would do. Salthana the Alchemist may have a widely different solution than Grok the Barbarian. Or they may not, depending upon their motivations.
Adding a Third Dimension
There are a lot of ways in which your character can come off as a “Mary-Sue”. She could have an overly tragic past, unbeatable powers, flaws that are actually thinly veiled strengths (‘she’s just too loyal for her own good’), etc. That doesn’t mean your character can’t have a tragic past or a really cool power, it just means you have to handle it carefully. For instance, a character with a tragic past is usually affected by it. They might be difficult to get through to, prone to lashing out, or have a misaligned moral compass. If you want your character to have a crazy ability, perhaps it could be one that is difficult for them to control, or only accessible in very specific circumstances. Just be careful about making your character more powerful than those of the other players without giving it some kind of complication.
Another trademark of the Mary-Sue is that she often changes as time goes on, and not in the natural character growth sort of way. If your character starts off as a meek wallflower sort, but rapidly becomes a social butterfly with authority issues, you may be in trouble. It can be difficult to stay in-character, especially if you go a long time in-between sessions, but it is important to try to maintain consistency in the character you initially created. For one thing, that’s what your fellow players are expecting. For another, if your character is all over the board in terms of disposition and personality, it will be difficult for the GM to plan sessions that work well for the characters in the campaign.
Being a Hero, but not the hero
How do you do this? Well, try not to make your character’s background too far-reaching and of the gravest importance. If your character is the last heir to a far off throne, don’t push your story to the forefront of your character’s goals. The story your GM is telling for your characters should come first, otherwise nobody else would be having fun, no matter how interesting your character’s story arc is. Everyone else wants time to explore their characters, and everyone, including you, will get a chance via the main story. Try to make your character’s background a little less dire or directly involved in the safety of the world. No game is the same, but it’s a safe bet that your RPG group is trying to work together as a team to accomplish the same goal, and that goal should be in everyone’s best interest, not just yours.
However, if you truly have to be royalty or the supernatural key to destroying the world, then talk to your GM. Work with them to integrate your story into the main game as a side-plot or a step to completing the main story. This may even give your GM some plot-fuel to add to the story they were already making.
So how do we avoid making a walking cliché as a character? For one thing, look at characters you love from your favorite books, movies, TV shows, comics, etc. What makes them interesting? On the other hand, what makes a character boring? Now, don’t just copy the traits of your favorite characters, instead think about what makes them interesting (strengths, flaws, how they react to situations, their background, etc.) and how you can come up with a character that is equally well-rounded, but different. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the powerful descendent of a long line of mystical demon-fighting badasses, but she is also a valley-girl from California who likes dating and nail polish. Bilbo Baggins is an ordinary hobbit who never thought he wanted anything more than the Shire. Heroes aren’t always larger-than-life.
Another tactic is to consider how your character might react in certain situations. Many RPG characters rush into conflict headlong, sword swinging. Perhaps your character likes to scope out the scene before attacking, or hesitates to attack at all. In D&D, people often don’t trust orcs or bandits, but maybe your character is happy-go-lucky, naïve, or stupid enough to take untrustworthy folk at their word.
Some common clichés in tabletop RPGs include orphans & feral children, ill-fated lovers, long-lost princes, the last in a long line of powerful [wizards, seers, warriors, etc.], charming rogues, escaped slaves… There are plenty more, and you don’t necessarily have to avoid these like the plague. Just be aware of them so you don’t fall into their trap.
The most important thing is to be creative, and don’t be afraid to try new things.
Doing Your Research
In order to make a character fit within a universe, some research is in order. A great place to start is Wikipedia. If your game is historically set, then a quick Wikipedia search of the time period can do wonders. If the game is set in an already made universe, such as Star Wars or the Golden Compass, then a nice dive into the universe’s respective ‘–pedia’ can be very beneficial. Most universes have their own maintained online encyclopedia; just make sure not to get lost in them! If your character has any mental illness or physical disability, make sure to do some proper research to get a proper idea as to how your character would handle it. Also, remember to look up proper naming styles for your character. Not many elves are named Johnny.
Now what to do if your game is set in a universe created solely by the GM? No problem! Just sit down and talk with your GM about the universe (it’s probably a safe bet that they have a lot to say about it). Ask them about the universe’s influences, if any, in order to get a good idea about what your character should be like. After all, your GM wants your character to fit into their world just as much as you do.
Playing Outside of Your Comfort Zone
Being a white young man in most games can give you certain benefits, while being a young Mexican woman could be a detriment in the same game. Or maybe it could be a benefit to be a woman. Most identity politics will be contextual to the game, but it can still open up a lot of opportunities. If, for instance, you’re playing a child, you may not be able to fight as well as an adult, but you can fit in that airduct to get inside the base, opening up the door for your adult allies to enter. All of these variations can make for interesting situations and roleplaying, creating group dynamics and choices that wouldn’t be present in a simply homogenous group. Of course we aren’t saying you should be making stereotypes or caricatures. And it is important not to trivialize identities, trying them on like garments. Be sure you give as much love and care in making this character as you would any character in your comfort zone.
- If you’re having trouble figuring your character out, try finding a random generator like this and determining how your character would feel about the stuff it spits out
- Look for inspiration from more than just the rulebook – historical figures, legends, gods and goddesses, folklore, your own friends and family, photo galleries, magazines, etc.
- Sometimes picking one cool aspect (a unique weapon, animal companion, profession, etc.) and building out from there can be easier than trying to see the whole picture
- Another way to develop your character is to think about their relationships to the other characters in the party. You could make another character’s kid brother or love interest, or you could just think about how they would react to the other characters’ personalities and backstories – tension can easily be created by making a character who hates magic-users when one of your fellow players has made a magic-user.