Developing Character Personality

Posted on March 27, 2009

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I am primarily a player. I respect GMs a great deal, but I have trouble maintaining all the various aspects necessary to run a good game. I prefer to focus on an individual character, developing that person’s story as I go along.

When I design a character, I start with a vague idea of what I want that person to be or do. I’ve found over the years that it can often be difficult to model a more exact idea, and that inspiration will strike during the creation process, so I try not to limit myself too much at the beginning. From this starting point, I go through character creation, designing with an eye toward developing the initial concept into a more fully-realized person.

That doesn’t always give me a good handle on the character, however. There are three further methods I use to help me bring the character to greater life. These are often discovered during play, much like the development of a character in a movie or novel.

Shtick

Even with something like a class-based system (or even role-defining categories such as Exalted’s Castes), it is possible to have a generic individual. Further defining a character’s special area of interest or expertise within that limiter goes a long way toward helping to define the character as a unique person. This can include developing a character’s trademark methods and approaches to his or her chosen profession. For example, a tech-user character who specializes in certain types of computer programming, a warrior who prefers blunt weapons to edged, or a diplomat/face who specializes in using deceptive arguments instead of truth and cooperation.

Quirk

More narrow than shtick and related less to class/role and more to personality, quirks are habits, preferences and personal details. Something about what the character eats or does not eat, does for fun or loathes, how the character speaks or displays emotion; these can say a lot about the person behind and beyond the numbers on the sheet. Does she not like ice in her drinks? Listen only to jazz at night? Obsessively keep his weapons clean beyond what is necessary? Affect a strange accent?

Soundtrack

This one is my favorite. Many players will give their characters “theme songs”, but I go one step farther. I will build an entire soundtrack album around the character’s history, shtick, quirks and previous play, and then listen to it before game time to help “get into character”. This allows me to get deeper into the character’s mindset and makes presenting a full personality easier.

Examples of these three methods coming together to help expand a character concept include three characters I played in my previous group’s games, to of them for a d20 Future megamashup and one for Exalted:

Captain Martin Reese started play as a former Marine (Strong Hero / Soldier), and that was all I knew about him. Over time I worked on narrowing his concept from simply “ex-Marine” to “team-player soldier willing to take any risk to help his friends and allies”. His Marine training and philosophy really came to life in his devotion to his team and his readiness to do whatever the mission took, despite any fear.

Asellus Gollarion was his replacement after he died. Asellus was a Turian Spectre from the Mass Effect milieu, and came into play as a blank slate. I knew he was dedicated and I also already knew he was willing to bend the rules because of his opinion of the Council, but I didn’t have an individual traits to make him fun. Not only did I learn how to emote without changing my facial expression (to replicate the Turian biology), I also gave Asellus a habit of badly mangling human sayings — such as “sitting around with our thumbs up our noses”, or “break a skull”. These malapropisms turned him from a cardboard standup into a source of constant fun and made it easier to further expand my definition of the little things about him.

Midnight’s Vengeance was a rebel Dusk Caste Abyssal Exalt, transformed in-play from Haldran, a Dawn Caste Solar. Though he had a defined personality, I was never quite sure where his development was going to lead until I started piecing together songs that reminded me of him. I realized some common themes among the music — heroism even in the face of constant pain, seeking to fight Death from within to bring balance, and a struggle against losing his identity to the whispers in his mind. This helped me to see more clearly that Midnight was headed toward a major confrontation with himself, and would need to seek redemption (turning back into a Solar). This set him on a long road that he had only just begun when the campaign ended, and gave him a clear goal toward which I could guide him in everything he did.

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