View Full Version : What are your go-to questions or process for creating or fleshing out a character?

2014-12-14, 09:02 PM
Unfortunately my process is mostly to muddle through and have things come to me as I mess around with the character after coming up with a very, very small part of the concept, typically I get the most inspiration and detail while using them in play, which is, of course, less than useful for games where the character has to be fully fleshed out from the word go like FATE or any of the White Wolf product line.

Also, I'm trying to help some newbies flesh out/develop characters and would like some recommendations beyond piecemeal Q&A or socratic method.

So, yeah, what's your process? Do you have a tight formula of core questions/aspects of the character to determine and then some supplementary ones which aren't required in all cases? More of a looser, rough sketch approach to the bare minimum of what you need to start and then determine what's what as you need to in game?

Red Fel
2014-12-14, 09:38 PM
My process starts with a single kernel. It can be anything. I could be inspired by a hair color or a facial expression; I could find a particular class, spell, or ability interesting; I could look at an overused or underused character attribute and say, "What would I do with that?" It starts from there.

My next step is to elaborate on that one thing. If it's a physical characteristic, I start fleshing it out. Hair goes on the head, so I flesh out the face, eyes, ears, nose, skin tone. Is the smile perfect or awkward? Does the skin burn in the sun? Are there freckles? Is the hair long or short?

If it's an ability or other mechanical feature, I start with the optimization process. Who gets to use that ability? What's a smart way to do it? What's a fun way? How can I maximize its use?

My next step, once I've built either the aesthetics, fluff, or mechanics, is to start asking what made the character that way, and why. Say I've decided that my character has long red hair, laughing green eyes, pale, freckled skin, and some scarring on her right cheek. I start fleshing out the person. How does she feel about her hair? Does she like to get sun, even though it burns her skin? How did she get the scar? Does she tie her hair back? Does that ribbon have sentimental value?

Say instead that I've found a really cool swordsmanship technique, picked out the progression needed to get it and everything. I start from the basics and work my way through explaining the decision. Well, first level requires joining a monastery of sword-monks. Why did he join? This later part requires being a student of the volcano-wizards. Clearly, he needed to leave the monastery - why did he do so? What led him to the volcano-wizards? This last part requires exile in the frozen arctic for five years. Well, fortunately, his volcano-wizard training lets him regulate his body temperature, but why leave the caldera?

After working through the character's "present," I work through the past. My pale beauty, where did she come from? Does she ever think about home? Does she go back? Are there more like her where she came from, or is she a one-of-a-kind? Did she have a childhood romance? An abusive home life? Was she educated by books or by life? My scorched swordsman, what drove him to the monastery? Was he an orphan? Did he idolize the swordsmen that passed through his village? Does he have family who wonder where he is?

For me, this is a very organic process - everything leads to a complex latticework of new questions and answers. I tend to have this fairly elaborately established before gameplay begins. Admittedly, this can complicate things - if I design the character too tightly, a sudden curveball in mid-game can really throw me. For many of my concepts, I try to design a little wiggle room, questions like "What if this character turned Evil," or "What if her ideals were challenged and her worldview shattered," or "What if he was turned into a puppy?" But some are so tied to a concept, usually because of unforgiving mechanics, that too much wiggle room becomes impracticable.

That's my process. When I guide others through it, however, I keep it simpler. My rule, very simply, is this: Every statement of fact deserves a question. For example, you tell me that your PC is a mercenary. Why is he a mercenary? Because he is a loner who cares about money. Why is he a loner who cares about money? Because he was a poor child who was forced to fend for himself from a young age. Bam, character development.

You tell me that your PC has blue hair. How does she feel about her hair? Indifferent. Why indifferent? Because everyone has blue hair where she comes from. Does she like looking like everyone where she comes from? Not really. Why not really? Because she wants to be unique. How does she try to be unique? She left home to become a warrior. How is that different? Nobody ever leaves, where she comes from. Bam, character development, and this one from someone who was clearly resisting at first.

2014-12-14, 09:46 PM
My character-creation process is all over the place, but I think that if pressed, I could boil it down to four major questions, in no specific order:

Where are they from?
Where is this character from? Do they have family? Does it even matter? If it does, how has it affected them?

Why are they here?
Where is the character currently? Why is the character here? Why is the character working with the party?

What do they want?
Exactly that. What sort of goals does the character have? Any hopes and dreams? Personal enemies? How does this help them work with the party?

How can they get it?
What can the character do to achieve their goals? What abilities do they have?

Naturally, there's a lot more to it, but I think that's the simplest way to put it. As an example, here's one of the characters I built recently (pared down to just the pertinent information):

Where is he from?
Helen (long story) is a man from a small town in the middle of nowhere. He's an only child whose mother died when he was ten. His home life was happy, but unremarkable. It did, however, instill him with a generally Neutral Good morality.

Why is he here?
Three years ago, Helen got possessed by a psionic spirit that could force him to take another form. After a while of this, he got into a mental battle with it and won, granting him psychic powers (and causing the spirit to stick around, albeit pretty powerless). Two years ago, he left his hometown because he didn't want to live somewhere where he was the strangest thing in every room. On the road, he met a traveling salt merchant (a wizard who had used wall of salt to start his business before buying a mine in order to not wreck the economy), who offered some sort of great boon in exchange for analyzing his somewhat unique powers. After some magical MRI machine type stuff, he concluded that he couldn't perform an exorcism, so instead he teleported Helen to one of his homes in a large trade city, gave him the house, and set him up with a job at a library.

The party (a group of low-level demons) was teleported into his home recently, and he was roped into helping them because of something the spirit possessing him did.

What does he want?
Basically, Helen wants:

An exorcism.
To return to a relatively normal life.
The freeloaders to leave his house.

How can he get it?

By finding a powerful enough spellcaster to do so (but someone at least level 9 was unable to, so it's going to be hard).
Hah that's not happening.
He's carrying a debt that got lumped onto him, and until he's been of enough service, he's flatmates with demons.

Helen has some stock psychic powers (telepathy, telekinesis) and a decent amount of knowledge on account of reading a lot. As he levels, he'll get more powers and improve his current ones.

This is a decent amount of information, but I can see these questions being used to help flesh out a character who otherwise doesn't have much to go on. After you've got these down, then another important one to add is What are they like?, but honestly, I generally leave that one out when I make characters (other than a vague idea; Helen's answer would be "frazzled"), because it's going to change within a session anyway once we actually get rolling and party dynamics start getting established. It's generally during the process of answering these rather broad questions that everything else gets fleshed out and explained in a similar manner to how Red Fel described.

2014-12-14, 10:10 PM
I roughly follow these steps:

1. Pick what kind of character I want to play. Usually this just means a class and a general role. For instance - alchemist bomber. Bard archer. Wizard summoner. Reach oracle. Etc.
2. Pick a reason for this character to be adventuring (or doing whatever PCs do in this particular game). Greed, prestige, fame, revenge, knowledge, to do good in the world, to overturn an empire, etc.
3. Figure out his/her personality. Talkative, wise, impulsive, emotional, rigid, rebellious, stubborn, etc. What would this character be like to talk to? What would he be like to work with on a day to day basis?
4. Fill out a history that explains 1, 2, and 3. If possible, link that history to setting information the DM has provided.
5. Fill out the character sheet.

So rough character mechanics -> rough character concept -> detailed character concept -> detailed character mechanics. The end goal is to create a character I want to play, that makes sense as a person, and that makes sense as a build.

2014-12-14, 10:24 PM
Most of the time I'm GMing, but the few times I'm deceived into thinking I'll be playing, or even more rarely the times I'm actually playing, my process sometimes looks like this:

The Concept Phase. This is when I think of an idea. Oftentimes it's still soft enough at this point that it can be condensed down into one sentence, or even a phrase.
The Inspiration Phase. This is when I go picking through material for cool ideas.
The Communication Phase. This is when I bounce the ideas I've collected off of the GM.
The Mechanics Phase. This is when I start applying the numbers to my idea.
The Rework Phase. This is when applying the mechanics to my character leads me to make some changes.
The Presentation Phase. This is when I share the completed sheet with the GM.

Now let's take this process and apply it to the last PC I made in this fashion.

GM tells me he's gonna run a D&D 3.5 game with a lot of Victorian imagery and voodoo themes. My concept at this point.is literally two words: magical con-artist.
Since I seemed to recall Eberron having some steampunk stuff going on in there, I look into those books and get hooked by the Changeling race. I also decide on the Warlock class since I didn't want as big a bag of tricks as a full caster is allowed, but still wanted some magical talents. I read some Michael Moorcock and decide I like the idea of a character whose destiny is significant, but he doesn't know what it is.
I toss these ideas around with the GM; he tells me he likes the idea, we work up a bit of a background in which my character's arcane talents are the result of meddling by spirits who want to use his great destiny to their own ends.
I note that since we're not starting at first level, I can get a fair amount of magical equipment - I snag a Handy Haversack, and noting the weight limitations (and the comparatively low price of outfits), decide that my character has outfits for pretty much every situation. From there I decide I might as well grab a heck of a lot of mundane equipment because seriously, who knows when it'll come in handy? We're still low-enough level that fifty feet of silk rope might actually carry the day. I also start working up a list of "personas" for him to take up when donning various outfits and faces.
I decide that Warlock might not be versatile enough, and ask the GM if he'll allow Changeling to count as "human or doppelganger" for the purpose of qualifying for Chameleon later. He agrees. The skill points for Warlock are going to make for really late entry for Chameleon, though, but Rogue synergizes decently with Warlock, so I add a little more "street urchin" to his background to justify multiclassing.
I make copies of my sheet and give one to the GM. He agrees that it's cool, and we're set to game. A week later, but before the game has started I get a text from him about how our playstyles don't match up and I'm asked to not attend his game. :sigh: