My name is Matthew Fallaize and I am a professional actor and singer living in London. I have been performing in theatre for over 12 years and have been playing RPG's and LARP's on and off for over 6 years as both a player and a Game Master/Dungeon Master (GM/DM).
This first article is all about creating a new and compelling character for an RPG. I will be using examples, mostly from Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5e), Pathfinder and TORG. Please note that this will not be a step by step guide to creating a character in a particular system as the core rulebooks for each game should clearly detail this process. Instead I am going to go through how to make your characters more than just a bunch of words and numbers on a piece of paper.
Preparation and Research
As an actor; when I start preparing to play a new character, whether this is for a play, film, radio drama or even role-play event; the first thing I do is learn as much about that character as humanly possible.
The first stop for this information is the script for whatever production you am involved with. (Role-play events don't actually have scripts but they do give you a dossier on the character you are playing). As you read through the script, there are two types of information you can gain from the script: given circumstances and subtext. Given circumstances refers to the information that is given directly by the script, where as subtext is all about what is hinted at without being out rightly said.
For example: In the classic Shakespearean play Macbeth; we know that Macbeth is married, has a best friend named Banquo and that he is a General in King Duncan's army as this information is all directly stated in the script. This information cannot be ignored by the actor.
The subtext however can be a little more open to interpretation. From subtext we can deduce his wife is a very strong willed person and that he allows her to manipulate him, due to his close friendship with Banquo we can assume that he is also close to Banquo's son Fleance and could even be his godfather, and due to his rank and title(s) we can assume he is on good terms with King Duncan. (Anyone familiar with the play will know the significance of this information).
Now, you may be thinking What does this have to do with RPG's? RPG's don't even have scripts, and you'd be right; but that doesn't mean they don't have given circumstances and subtext for you to draw upon. It's all there on your character street. Most systems will have you chose a race/heritage and a class (although some are a lot more flexible, but we'll get to that). The core rulebook will also give you details about those races and how they are typically perceived to be, plus the details of how each class works and how they get their abilities. This is all information you can use to create your character.
In some games, such as D&D 5e, you can even select a background for your character which gives you even more information to work with. Some people may find the background templates limiting, but this can actually help to keep your character grounded and more realistic.
Another piece of information that a lot of RPG's give you is ability score and skill ranks. Whilst these are meant to be mechanical tools of the game, that doesn't mean you can't use them to fuel your character. Having a high or low score in any of these can make for great characterisations.
For example: A high charisma character could be very suave and charming or just very well spoken, however a low charisma character could always manage to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
A character who has a high "Animal Handling" score would most likely be an animal lover (maybe they collect carved figures of woodland creatures). Whereas a character with a low "Animal Handling" score may be deathly afraid of all animals, even a domesticated bunny.
You can interoperate any skills or abilities how you like: High wisdom might mean someone who's always one step ahead of the game. A low dexterity score might mean someone who's very clumsy. A low constitution might be someone who is always very sickly (side note: never have a low constitution).
The great thing about playing a character you've created in an RPG is exactly that, you created them; so really everything is flexible, including the given circumstances, as long as you can justify it.
The best example I can give of this flexibility from the hit online show Critical Role: In the D&D 5e handbook, half-elves are said to be seen as shifty and untrustworthy. On Critical Role there are three half-elf player characters: Laura Bailey's "Vex'ahlia," Liam O'Brien's "Vax'ildan" and Marisha Ray's "Keyleth." Laura and Liam embraced this idea of half-elves being seen as shifty and untrustworthy when they created their twin characters "Vex" and "Vax"; however Marisha used her creative license to have "Keyleth" grow up in a society of druids that didn't judge half-elves, keeping her character sheltered from prejudice until after her adventure started. These choices led to three wonderfully unique characters with very different outlooks on life.
Now that you know your given circumstances and your subtext you've got quite a collection of information; but is it enough? No! A good actor should know their character so well that you could ask them any random question about their character (What's their favourite drink? Who was their first crush? At what age did they have their first kiss?) and they'd be able to answer it. Where do actors get this information? Well there are two places:
Firstly they will do additional research. With our previous example of Macbeth they may do research on Medieval Scotland, the duties of a Thane or about the locations mentioned in the show (Glamis, Cawdor and Fife to name a few). When starting a new campaign the GM/DM will have information about the setting, locations, royal and military structure, note worthy people and generally any other information you could want about the world your characters will be living in.
This fills in a lot of the blanks but there is still a lot of information you haven't discovered about your character, however these details cannot be found through research or reading. Where do you get this information? It comes from inside your own head; in other words, you make it up. Something a lot of actors struggle with is this idea of making things up about your character that aren't written, but it's okay. Not only that but it's a good thing. There is only one rule; as long as it doesn't contradict the given circumstances, subtext or research, you can make up whatever you like. This is your character.
Creating An Interesting and Compelling Character
Now that you have all the information you need to make your character it's time to put them together. You should already have a good idea of who your character is from your preparations and research, but what gives a character personality, depth and life? What makes a character interesting? It's all about balance.
As an actor, I've always loved to play shady or villainous characters or even anti-heroes. Why? Because they are the most interesting characters to play (and frankly to watch). No one wants to see a flawless character who's good at everything and whose motivation is just "It's the right thing to do." *yawn.* If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: A character is a person, and people aren't perfect. Embrace the imperfections in your characters; the elf wizard who gets so easily flustered that they drop something every time someone talks to them, the half-orc barbarian who's really good at solving problems but wouldn't remember their own name if it wasn't tattooed to the back of their hand, or that halfling bard who's convinced they can beat anyone in an arm wrestling match but refuses to acknowledge when they've been beaten. A good character needs both good and bad to thrive, so whenever you come up with a character trait or quirk just use this simple structure: My character is _____________, because ______________, but _____________.
Example: My character is compassionate, because his parents had always told him "It's better to give than to receive", but he always becomes really awkward when someone is nice to him.
My character is very charming, because he spent most of his life amongst pretty noble women, but put a drink in his hand and he starts blurting out clumsy innuendos.
At this point, you should have a pretty solid character made up complete with backstory and personality traits. At this point if you're happy with what you've got then great; if it isn't broke, don't fix it. However if this isn't the case then there is still a bit of work to do.
If a character still isn't feeling complete yet then consider giving them a little quirkiness: a funny laugh, a twitch, a speech impediment, a bad habit...little things like this can really bring a character to life.
If that doesn't quite cut it then maybe talk to your GM/DM about doing something big with the character, something that may affect the story in some way. It could be a curse, a fixed destiny, a false identity... Something that changes everything you've created so far.
If by some extreme chance you still aren't happy with your character then chances are it's just not the character for you.
Practice Makes Perfect
Now until you start actually playing you're not going to know how your character plays out in game. In the theatre, you have a rehearsal period. The primary purpose of this period is for the actors to try out different ideas for their characters; because no matter how much you prepare and plan ahead of time, some things just won't work out in practice. In game you don't have a rehearsal period to try things out but that's okay. You can't expect that your character will be perfect when you go in for your first session. Your character will develop a lot over the first few sessions as you get a feel for them, and that's okay; your character will also develop more in later games as the story progresses. This is what we call, in the acting world, a character arc.
Find out as much information about your character as possible and then fill in the gaps with whatever you like until you know everything there is to know about the character.
Balance the positive with the negative in your character to make them compelling and interesting. Always remember: A character is a person, and people aren't perfect.
Make little changes and additions to your character, little quirks and ticks, but only if you feel the character needs something more.
Use the first few gaming sessions to try out different things with your character and be prepared to change things. Remember that whatever happens; your character won't be the same person in session 50 as they were is session one, just like how you're not the same person you were five years ago.
I hope you found this article useful and that I've sparked some new ideas for your future RPG characters. Keep watching this space for Part Two-Getting Into Character.