I've written a lot of characters over the course of my life, PC’s (player characters) and NPC’s (non-player characters) alike. I've written them for games and for stories, and in the spirit of honesty, a lot of them were terrible. This is a normal part of learning to write characters, we all go through it. I'm far from the only person who's written a bad protagonist. We learn from our mistakes, and I've made many. So, here I am, picking up the crumpled scraps of paper that litter my hypothetical writers’ room floor, hoping you might be able to learn from a few of them just like I did.
Now, I want to be clear that the advice I’m laying out in this article is in no way a set of rules. I’m only hoping that by showing all of you the mistakes I’ve made in the past, it might help you skip ahead a bit on the long road of learning to write genuine, believable characters. As time goes on, and you gain more experience, you might find yourself going directly against my advice with amazing results.
I mentioned in my article “So you want to be a GM” that nothing is sacred. Every detail of a campaign, no matter how well thought out, can still end up in the scrap pile. This lesson applies well to character creation too. If you get too hung up on specifics, you'll forget about the big picture, and your character will suffer. I myself am guilty of shoehorning a character into a narrow little box, so that one minuscule idea I had about their backstory could remain. I was so attached to the idea that there was no talking me out if it. In the end, not only did that detail I strived to maintain never come up in game, it also left a lot to be desired for the rest of her development. I had a ‘what’, maybe even a ‘who’, but no ‘why’. There was a gaping hole in the foundation of this character, and everything on top of it very quickly started to crumble. Without motivation your characters will always feel two dimensional and bland. The ‘why’ behind your character's actions is fundamental to making them realistic. So take a bit of time, and come up with a reason for them to be doing what they’re doing, then stick to it. If the events that unfold in your game or story push that motivation to change, that only adds dimension. It doesn’t need to be complicated, it just needs to exist.
I think the most common mistake I see, when people first start developing characters, is that they refuse to give them flaws. For a character to really come off as believable, they need to read like normal people, and normal people are flawed complex creatures with strengths and weaknesses. Figuring out your character’s strengths is the easy part, and once you’ve done that, sometimes the weaknesses just fall into place. Think about who they are, where they come from, and that fundamental ‘why’ that drives them to act. Somewhere in that web of things you’ll start to notice holes. It can be hard not to try to patch them all, and stitch them closed, but trust me when I say your character will be more fun to write, and far more fun to play, with those holes than without. Whether simple or complex, a character’s flaws are fundamental to their believability. Let them be. Nobody is perfect, and you shouldn’t approach character creation as a way to create someone who is. It can be something small, like a phobia of spiders or enclosed spaces. Or it can be something larger, like a non-existent sense of self preservation, or a tendency to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. These flaws not only add dimension that makes your character believable, they also provide ample opportunities for conflict, and subsequent problem solving. Don’t ever shy away from giving your character flaws – they drive the story forward.
In the same train of thought, another common mistake is making characters overly complicated. Think of building your character like building a campfire, without some room around the logs for the fire to breath, it suffocates, and puts itself out. Piling too many traits onto a character has the same effect. You can smother them under the weight of over-development. I’ve been guilty of this in the past, and it’s one of my biggest struggles when I’m putting together new characters. Part of how I handle this is by dividing those efforts. If the character I’m working on starts to get over burdened, I give them a companion. Sometimes you need to take a step back, and realize you’re trying to cram more than one person’s worth of personality into one being, and it may turn out better in the end if you split those efforts into multiple characters.
Characters should read like real people, so I’m definitely not above taking inspiration for my writing from the people in my life, and from my favorite movies, books and shows. Adapting characters from media into your games and stories is a time tested practice, but should be approached with a degree of caution. You don’t want to just end up playing a character that’s a blatant rip off of the current box office superhero. Mostly because that ends up being really boring to play, but also because it might not fit well with the scope of the story you’re trying to tell. Characters need to fit their environment in order to thrive and develop, and as much as you want to come to the table with a good idea of who your character is, they should (like real people) be able to have those motivations change based on what’s happened to them. If you’re playing a character whose personality is a carbon-copy of someone else, it can be hard if not impossible to be flexible with their traits. Caricatures aren’t the same as characters, be careful not to get stuck as the former.
Only you truly understand the inner thoughts and motivations for your character. No one else knows your character’s depth and nuances the same way you do. If you’ve put in the time to flesh out a backstory that motivates and drives your character, try to avoid monologuing it at everyone else – show them who you are through your interactions. Positive or negative, the way your character reacts and interacts is how everyone else learns who they are. Sure you can sit down and tell everyone your backstory, but let’s be honest, people are going to tune out. Show, don’t tell. Remember that, as far as your character is concerned, everyone they’re talking to is another person, and the divide between PC and NPC shouldn’t change anything about their actions. The way you engage with an NPC is just as important in showing who your character is as engaging with a PC. Every conversation is an excuse to show the world a little more about your character and what makes them tick.
In the end, the characters you write should first and foremost be enjoyable for you. You’re the one who’s playing them, writing them, developing them as the story moves on. Time and time again I’ve seen people put in hours of work to develop overly complex characters just to have them tossed in the scrap pile completely, after realizing they aren’t actually any fun to play, or they don’t fit with the scope of the game they were built for. When it doubt, always air on the side of simplicity. You don’t need every detail set in stone when you begin. I know the temptation to write every character as the chosen hero is a strong one, but the best heroes start as totally normal people. It’s our actions that define who we are, and who we’ll become, not our histories. Let your characters rise to become heroes, or villains, or wherever they land in between. If you start too big, you won't have any room left to grow, and the ability for growth is the one thing that really makes an exceptional character.