May 112010

It happens all the time: you plan out every inch of your fantasy city, including all the characters you can imagine – barkeeps and their patrons, the mages’ guild and the religious clergy, the king and his court, lords and ladies, merchants and musicians, politicians and paupers – and then your players ruin it all by deciding that they really want to befriend the lowly herbalist that you completely neglected to detail.

Or perhaps you’re a player and you’re participating in a one-shot at a convention, or you and your pals decide that you’re starting a new campaign in about ten minutes. You barely have time to pick a character class, let alone time to write out a detailed backstory.

Sometimes you need to come up with a character in a pinch, and luckily, it’s not too hard. Improvisers do it all the time, and they usually do it with little to no starting information. In any given gaming session, you have a wealth of context to work with; setting, genre, other characters, even the game rules and available character archetypes can help inform your characters. Should be simple, right?

Where to start?

Any character starts with an initial idea. In improv, this idea can come from an audience suggestion, a previous scene, or even a completely stray thought. In a roleplaying game, you’ll most likely be prompted with an initial idea (herbalist, for example), and you can build from there. The following are a few aspects you should consider when first creating a character, initial ideas that you can build from and turn into full-fledged beings.


Names are powerful things. Have you ever met someone and made a guess as to their name? Or perhaps thought that a friend’s name really suited (or not) their looks and personality? Names can be cues for gender, race, religion, social status, and all sorts of other information about a character. “Reginald” will often conjure up a very different image than “Billy-Joe-Bob”, for example. Similarly, Ronar Thunderhawk is a very different person than Lia’shané Silvanarasoth’l.

So one of the first things you should do when creating a new character is choose a name. If you already have some information (say, for example, you know that this herbalist is a male elf), then picking a suitable name can be easy. If you’re working from a completely blank slate, even better. Pick any name, the first one that comes to mind, even if it doesn’t make any sense, and see where that takes you.

Some people aren’t very good at thinking of names. Luckily, the Internet has you covered. A while back, some folks over at Story Games (a forum dedicated to roleplaying, primarily focused on indie games) pitched in to create The Story Games Names Project, a giant compilation of random names from a wide variety of settings and cultures, both real-world and fantastical. You can find names for anything from Celtic and Zulu characters to Taverns and Porn Stars. You can get the book as a free PDF, or you can order a paperback version from Lulu, if hard-copies are your thing.


Almost everyone has distinctive characteristics that set them apart from other people. Interesting mannerisms and characteristics can therefore make your characters more memorable. Simple things such as physical quirks or a unique ways of speaking can really bring a character to life. Not only that, but they’re a great starting point when you have no other information to work with.

A really quick way to come up with a mannerism is to simply pick a body part and focus on it. And by body part, I mean anything: leg, arm, fingers, nose, eyes, scalp, etc. Pick one, and do something, anything, with it. Here are some examples:

  • Feet: tip-toeing, stomping, dragging
  • Arms: flexing, stretching
  • Fingers: knuckle-cracking, tapping, thumb-twiddling
  • Neck: craning, slouching
  • Head: tilting, scratching, nodding
  • Eyes: squinting, rubbing, wide-eyed
  • Nose: sniffling, sneezing, picking
  • Mouth: whistling, lip-licking, lip-smacking

And that’s only a tiny sampling. Keep in mind that some mannerisms are easier to get into when you’re standing up and acting them out, such as limping, but others, like squinting and sniffling, can easily be played while sitting down at the table. Even if you’re not much of an actor, or are not quite comfortable with really performing as your character, a simple explanation of these mannerisms can serve instead.

Mannerisms can also be expressed through voice. Distinct accents can be a great tool; if you’re good at them, feel free to use them to distinguish types of characters. If you’re not, try something simpler, like talking quickly or slowly, or use a high or low voice. Even a crappy accent is great if you’re committed to it.

Once you’ve picked a mannerism, see what it tells you about the character. Ask yourself why your character does this thing, and take the first answer that comes to mind. Let’s say, for example, the herbalist is constantly sniffling and rubbing his nose. The most obvious reason behind that mannerism is that he’s allergic to his own wares, so let’s go with that. Alternative explanations include that he might be a drug user, or he’s always sick. Each of these explanations would lead us down a very different path. Distinctive mannerisms can tell stories all on their own.


Characters don’t exist in a bubble. They have friends and family, acquaintances and co-workers, lovers and enemies. As such, relationships are a great place to look for character ideas. What if our herbalist was a childhood friend of one of the adventurers? Suddenly, the two have an instant connection, and probably some shared history. Or what if the herbalist is the queen’s secret lover? That’s just begging to cause trouble down the road. Starting with a relationship can instantly give your character a place in the world, as well as reasons to interact with those around him.

When you need a new character, try relating him or her to someone (or a group of someones) that already exists in the world. From there, you can work out how this relationship came about, what the advantages (and disadvantages) are for each of the involved parties, and what effects it might have on the rest of the world. Also consider what keeps the relationship alive; most negative or destructive relationships exist because there’s no easy way to get out of them.

Don’t limit yourself to just sex and blood; familial and romantic relationships are often the strongest, but others exist as well. Some have status arrangements built-in, such boss and employee, doctor and patient, mentor and student, criminal mastermind and subordinate henchmen, etc. Others are a little more unclear, like ex-lovers, which can really make for interesting stories. Imagine what might happen if one of the adventurers crosses paths with the one who got away, who is now a priestess of the Lord of Undeath. Unusual relationships can provide engaging and dynamic interactions in game.


Everyone has something they want in life, from social revolution to plain ol’ wealth, or even the affections of the young maiden next door. These desires often define who we are and how we interact with others. Someone whose goal is to acquire wealth will often be more manipulative and demanding than someone who only wants a friend. Try starting a character with a desire and see what that tells you about how the character will act. Whenever you’re stuck thinking of what a character would do in a situation, you can always return to their desires, and see how that informs their current actions.

Desires are also great story motivators: nothing is done without reason, so giving characters desires therefore gives them reason to act. In that same vein, desires can give other characters reason to act as well. For example, the herbalist requires a rare herb to complete his collection, and refuses to help the adventurers until they gather a sample for him. Unfortunately, the mystical glowroot only grows deep in the Underdark. Suddenly, the adventurers have a new (and dangerous) quest to occupy them.

Creating characters with wants and desires can lead to all sorts of interesting plot hooks. Pay special attention to creating desires that will directly affect other characters in the world. If all the Big Bad Evil Guy wants is a slice of pie, chances are the adventurers don’t have to get involved. Of course, if he wants world domination, that’s a different story.

Then what?

Don’t worry about covering all the above areas immediately. Just having ideas for one or two of them should give you a really good base to work from. The rest of the character details will naturally progress from what you’ve already decided.

There’s a golden question to ask oneself when building a character, scene, or show in improv: “If this, then what?” Here’s where it all comes together. Given any single piece of information, you can infer and extrapolate more information about a character or situation. You can detail a character just by asking yourself more questions and making logical assumptions that follow from the already-established information.

Let’s explore our lowly herbalist, starting with a simple mannerism: he sniffles and sneezes constantly. Why? He’s allergic to his own wares. What does that say about him? Well, he didn’t want to be an herbalist, but he’s stuck in this job. What’s forcing him to work here? His dying father is too sick to tend the store. What does he want from the players? A cure for his father, or at least for his allergies. Oh, and his name? Achuan. (See what I did there?)

Don’t worry if all these details don’t come to you right away. Play the character, and let yourself discover details about him, rather than trying to invent answers to these questions. Let the details come to you in eureka moments; you’ll often be as surprised as everyone else when a good bit of information comes out about your character.

Try it. Take a few minutes each day and think up a character. Start with the tiniest detail, ask yourself the questions that spring from that detail, and then provide answers. Don’t second guess yourself; always go with your first thought, especially since this exercise is completely out of context of your game, and see where that leads you. With (lots of) practice, you’ll learn to trust yourself completely. You’ll be able to create whole characters in your head within a minute of your initial idea, the entire thought process will become invisible, and you’ll never be at a loss for a character again.

Wingin’ It is a series of articles that touch on improvisation, and how improv skills and philosophies can enhance your gaming. Have any questions, comments, or criticisms? Topics you’d like me to cover? Comment below and let me know.

[tags]improv, roleplaying games, characters, wingin’ it[/tags]

About Mike R.

I'm a geek, in pretty much every sense of the word. I like computers and technology, board games, video games, roleplaying games, and improvisational comedy (just for a bit of contrast). Gaming, in one form or another, has been a part of life ever since adolescence, when I first tried my hand at Shadowrun and AD&D (2nd Edition of both). Along the way, I flirted with CCGs, discovered true love in indie RPGs, and developed a serious board game habit. I'm less serious about video games, but I do enjoy gaming on my Wii, DS, and more recently, my iPhone.

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