Making RPG characters believable

I just happened across something I wrote back in '99 in response to a friend who'd asked, "How [do I] make a roleplaying character believable as a person (am I asking 'how to act'?)"

I thought my answer might be of some interest, though it's certainly not the only answer; so I'm reproducing it, lightly edited, here:

I'd say you're asking a combination of how to write and how to act. The first step is creating a believable character; the second step is portraying that character in a believable and consistent fashion.

Some assorted approaches that might help, in no particular order:

Think about the way the character talks. If they're highly educated, they may perhaps be inclined to use complex words and intricate sentence structures. But if they're a street kid, they're gonna talk like one. Diction and vocabulary are key here. You can even correct yourself: "She says, 'Hey, bring that flashlight over so I can examine the body.' No, wait, she wouldn't say 'examine.' 'Yo! Shine the light over here, dude!'" I think of it as putting a filter on my vocabulary and range of diction styles--limiting the character's vocabulary, for instance, to a subset of my own. (It's hard to play a character who's smarter than you are unless you get help from the GM and/or the game mechanics.) Don't caricature speech styles unless you're playing a heavily-genred game; if you're playing Champions or Space:1889 it's fine to do a stereotyped Brooklyn or Cockney accent, but in a more serious game with less broadly-drawn characters, think carefully about the way the character would really express themself.

If you're a more visual person than I am, think about the way the character dresses. This can tell you (and others) a lot about the character if you know how to interpret such clues. Not something I'm good at.

Think about philosophical questions like "What are the character's goals?" and "What do they want?" and "What intangible ideas [such as truth, honor, greed, loyalty, . . .] are important to them?" Even if the character wouldn't think about such things, you should do so on their behalf. (And if the character wouldn't think about such things, that's useful to know too.)

Delany gave us a character exercise at Clarion that involved distinguishing between habitual actions (those performed often/repeatedly); purposeful actions (to accomplish something); and gratuitous actions (the sorts of little odd unnecessary things real people do). Think of three of each type of action for your character. Visualize those actions clearly and specifically. Use some or all of those actions when playing the character in the game.

Delany also told us "Character is not in the details but in the tension between the details" and "Specific observation points give characters greater intensity."

Give the character hobbies and interests that are totally unrelated to the plot.

Give the character problems and disadvantages--minor physical disabilities, phobias, quirks. (Talk these over with the GM first to avoid having, for instance, a character who's too out of shape to even walk fast, if the game will require the character to do a lot of running. Disadvantages should be interesting without disrupting the game.) I tend to overdo this, putting such limits on my characters that they become ineffective in combat and such; Rob and Jamie and Arthur have a running joke that my characters in Hero-system games get an automatic 15-point disadvantage called "Played By Jed."

Finally, try to achieve emotional identification with the character. Try to imagine yourself to be the character, to the point that you experience the emotions the character would experience. Okay, okay, there are different schools of performance; some actors would say it's silly to get that far into character. But for me, being that far into a character is the main point of RPGs.

5 Responses to “Making RPG characters believable”

  1. Pasquinade

    Those are all great ideas for creating believable characters. The one thing I’d add, and this will depend on the nature of the game in question (as always), is that in my opinion, a good character, with “good” defined as “enjoyable for the GM, the player, and the other players”, has to be fairly broad.

    Which is immediately inflammatory, I imagine, but there it is.

    As a GM, I asked one guy to define his character’s personality in a nutshell. He thought for a moment and then said, “Sarcastic, headstrong, shortsighted. He’ll do the right thing if he thinks about it, but he might not think about it until a bit too late.”

    I asked another guy the same thing. He said, “Well, it’s tough. He doesn’t leap into combat, but he’ll fight for what he believes in. He can be very standoffish at times, although he’ll open up to people who take the time to know him. Sometimes he can be brave, but not to the point where he gets himself into too much trouble.” And so on, and so forth, and what I had was this collection-of-lame-attributes character with no plot hooks who wasn’t actually INTERESTING to anyone else at the table.

    The latter guy was likely more realistic as a character, but he wasn’t fun for the table, and in my games, I’m not running a world-sim. I’m trying to run a game for a bunch of people to play for fun. As such, the sarcastic and shortsighted bard, the headstrong ranger, the hypercautious sorcerer, and the bellicose cleric all made for a good game.

    This relates in a tangential way to what the Dude (my older son, now coming up on three) taught me about comedy, back when he was less than a year old. If I just reached out and tickled him by surprise, it wasn’t funny — it was surprising, maybe a bit scary. Comedy was when I waggled my eyebrows, lifted my hands to show that I was thinking of tickling him, held them there just long enough to make him wonder, and then zoomed in to tickle and receive uproarious giggling. It was the general predictability (Dad is going to tickle me, based on clues) combined with specific spontaneity (is it going to be now? Now? How about aiiiieee!) that made the whole thing fun for my son.

    And I think that a good roleplaying character is like that. When the group comes to a locked door and there’s no rogue in the party and the war-priest is in the lead, everyone at the table knows that he’s going to do SOMETHING violent and showy to get that door open, so there’s the expectation… and then, when he finally says, “Yeah, okay, Holy Smite on the door,” everyone laughs at the sheer absurdity of a divine warrior blowing a fourth-level spell on a simple locked door, both because they kind of saw it coming, and because the actual execution still surprised them in some way.

    If nobody knows what your character is going to do, your character isn’t developed enough to be fun. If everybody knows exactly what your character is going to do, you’re a one-trick pony, and while it might be fun, it could probably be improved a lot with just a little effort.

    Mileage may vary, depends on the game, and so forth. No wrong way to have fun, unless handguns are involved.

  2. David Moles

    I find a distant third person helps. 🙂

  3. Jed

    Patrick: I was wondering what you would think of this; thanks for the comment!

    I totally agree that it depends on the nature of the game in question. I suspect that your games, by and large, tend to be more heavily genred than mine (there’s no value judgment intended there; just describing a difference), and I think that different genre levels can lead to different goals, different approaches, and different types of fun.

    Which is not to say I don’t enjoy heavily genred games. I’ve had lots of fun playing (and running) Space:1889, and Champions, and Toon, and Paranoia, and so on. There was some game–was it Shadowrun?–that used Archetypes instead of character classes, and that can be a great way to generate playable and fun characters quickly and easily.

    However, given my druthers, I prefer the more “realistic” kinds of games. I’ve had great gaming sessions in which the PCs mostly just sat around in a bar and chatted in character; there was no dramatic conflict, no combat, no action, just talking. And I think that that’s a different kind of enjoyment from the enjoyment that comes out of the general predictability but specific spontaneity you mention. (And I think that’s a great way of describing the kind of thing you’re talking about, btw; also a good description of a lot of kinds of humor and performance and art, I think. Perhaps related to a film technique I was once told about: “Establish a rhythm, then break it up.”)

    To put it another way, in very broad/general terms: I’m more interested in character-oriented drama; I think you’re more interested in action-adventure. Both have their genre conventions, their strong and weak points, and their sources of reader(/player/GM) pleasure.

    And I think in character-oriented drama, having little character quirks and nuances and in-betweennesses is generally a plus; whereas in action-adventure, I agree with you that more broadly drawn characters may well be a better choice.

    I think this difference really only becomes a problem when there’s a genre mismatch between what some participants are looking for and what others are looking for. Your “Well, it’s tough” player might well have fit pretty well into one of my games, but it sounds like he was in the wrong mode to fit well into that game of yours.

    So I think it’s a good idea for players and GM to talk over mood/tone/genre stuff beforehand. In the game I’m running now, I started by asking Mary Anne whether she wanted to play Space:1889 or this other somewhat darker and more drama-oriented homebrew system/setting; she picked the latter. So when I started talking with other players, I let them know upfront what tone I was looking for. (Though I think it took most of a game session before we were all in sync on that; I made some mistakes in my presentation in the first session that made parts of it come across more horrory than I’d intended.)

    Blah blah blah, I think I had a point but I lost track of it. Too sleepy. Time for bed.

    Oh, wait, I know the other thing I was gonna say: your comment about not knowing what the characters will do is an interesting one. It reminds me of the time, in one of the two best games I ever played in, when I was going to be absent from a session; I said to the GM, “Oh, but you know how Elena [my character] will behave; she’s very predictable.” And the GM looked at me in confusion and said, “I never have the slightest idea how Elena is going to react to anything.” I had to laugh, because from my point of view the character had essentially just two heuristics: (1) Keep The Group Together At All Costs; and (2) The Group Is More Important Than Anything Else In The Universe. I rarely had to think about what she was going to do, but apparently my interpretation of those heuristics came out looking kinda random.

    David: 🙂 Good point.

  4. Dan P

    Give the character hobbies and interests that are totally unrelated to the plot.

    …but please, please, consider the annoyance possibilities when you do. And if you discover that your character’s perfectly in-character habit of trying to tickle everyone they meet is, in fact, annoying the heck out of the rest of the players, be gracious about playing it down.

  5. Ash

    Although a bit of self-promotion, I invite you to check out this Guide to RPG Character Personality and Background. I tried to make a system that was simple, quick, and yet robust enough to make complex characters. I hope you find it useful.


Join the Conversation