So, you have a group and you have the time to sit down to play together. Whoever has been nominated GM asks you to make a character. But how do you do that? There are countless guides already about making characters. What I’m going to do here is explain the steps I go through when making a character, and why. After that, take whatever you want from this article and mix it up with advice from elsewhere to make your own process. I am certainly not of the opinion that everyone has, or should have, the same method for creating characters.
Obviously the character you are going to make is limited by the system/rules set/setting that the GM has chosen. It is very important before you even start thinking about your character to have a frank discussion with the GM about what kind of things you are and aren’t allowed to choose, as well as things that you shouldn’t choose without good cause (e.g. character concepts that may prove a detriment to the game, characters dealing with themes that other players may find uncomfortable). After you know what things to avoid, you should sit down with a copy of the rules and look at what options are available to you in character creation.
Before we go any further, it is worth mentioning at this point that this process applies to MOST systems of character creation, not all. Some systems use vastly incompatible means to create characters so take what you can of this process and ignore the rest.
In order to explain this process, I will be using an example character for Dungeons and Dragons. However, this is for ease of recognition and the process works for all the games I’ve tried, whether modern, historical or fantastical with varying levels of technology and magic.
The character concept. Without a solid character concept, your character will merely be an assortment of numbers on a piece of paper. That isn’t to say you need to have every detail worked out in advance (I certainly don’t), but you should have a good idea about the core of the character. Some systems include question prompts or a selection of starting points to help with this step. My advice is to use them as far as is helpful. Once you have a concept you are comfortable with, question it. Tease out a few points of interest but keep everything rough and nebulous so you have freedom to alter it later if needs be. It is at this stage that you should also start thinking about your character’s personality.
For this example, I have decided that I want my starting character to be an orphan who grew up on the docks but managed to avoid a life of crime. Already this raises questions about the character’s sense of self and how they see their place in the world. But it also makes me wonder HOW they avoided a life of crime. I decide the as a street rat growing up my character learnt a trade, likely something they could sell to/do for the sailors visiting the docks, as well as the city folk. They’re friendly enough (they had to be to survive) but are good at spotting trouble before it occurs and avoids a fight where possible.
The name. A good name should fit the campaign world. It should be thematically appropriate and might serve as an externalisation of some aspect of your character. With regards to names, I am well aware they are not my personal strong suit, so don’t be afraid to use suggested names in rulebooks or random name generators if you are drawing a blank. Mixing and matching celebrity names, or pre-existing characters, works equally well. It is at this point that it is useful to choose a race for your character in settings that offer a choice of race or species so the name can be race specific.
Taking my concept as a starting point, I decide that my character is a water Genasi (a child of the djinn) named Pearl. From this I decide her trade may have related to pearl diving or something similar.
The reason. Why is your character leaving the life they knew for something else? What led your character to the point they are at when the game starts? This can be a difficult one to decide. You may find that the only reasons you can come up with are somewhat esoteric and odd. Don’t worry about that. You can come back to change it later. It may seem odd to think of the reason for leaving the life before deciding what that life was, but this way around means that you have complete control of the situation at the end of their life as they knew it and gives you a point from which to work backwards.
After having a long thought about things, I decide that Pearl leaves the little dockside hovel she grew up in because her adoptive parents die and she feels the call of the sea in her blood. It’s simple (which isn’t a bad thing, sometimes overcomplicating things at this stage makes it harder to do the next step) and provides an open ending for the GM to tie Pearl’s fate in with the beginning of their campaign.
The life then. No character exists in a vacuum; every single one has a life before the adventure finds them. Player characters are no different. They invariably have a childhood, an awkward transition into their adult self, and (in some cases) grow into their responsibilities. This is, of course, before the life changing event that causes them to seek the adventurer’s life/drags them into the GM’s plot. It is at this stage that you should dive deeper into things. Leave things to be discovered, but build up a coherent picture of the character’s life up until this point, including the reason they leave their old life behind.
Pearl’s little dockside hovel becomes a little curio shop set up by two half-elves. Accomplished divers themselves, adopting a little Genasi girl allowed them to dive deeper out in the bay to recover treasures lost overboard and from shipwrecks. Viewed by the regular visitors as a lucky charm, Pearl could hold a conversation with anyone and struck up friendships easily. That isn’t to say she is innocent to the ways of the world. She witnessed several murders, muggings and other criminal acts growing up but remained positive despite this. When a freak storm tore through the dock shortly after her 18th birthday and destroyed the curio shop, killing her parents in the process, she hired on with the first ship she could and set out for a life on the waves.
The life now. This stage is somewhat nebulous as it relates directly to the game you are playing. Games like World of Darkness won’t have anything for this step to relate to (certainly playing a mortal character won’t) but in others this is the step in which you’ll be picking the class for your character (or the system’s equivalent). It is worth noting that this stage can be done before the first stage if you already have a class in mind. I habitually do it last because it allows the character to grow organically through the creation process to find the class that is the best fit.
Pearl’s life changing event being an extremely powerful storm immediately puts me in mind of a Sorcerer with the Storm sorcerous origin from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide from Wizards of the Coast.
The game. Your character is now (mostly) ready and playable. They have a name, a concept and a backstory. By combining these, you should be able to get a good enough feeling for your character’s personality, if not, don’t be afraid to take a few sessions to find that out. Enjoy!
Some game systems will have things you need to complete and decide upon that aren’t mentioned here, so feel free to do those whenever seems most useful to you.
The process doesn’t stop here, however, as you play, you may discover things about your character that you had no inkling of when you started playing. Quirks of personality, little events that happened in their life, people they used to know etc. That’s fine, it happens all the time, just note it down somewhere and keep playing.
I hope this brief guide is at least helpful as a starting point for creating characters of your own, I aim to follow it up at some point with an article on actually playing your character but until then, my advice is to keep thinking of characters and their stories. You might not play all of them but it is good practice and you might stumble upon a favourite that will be ready when the time comes to play.