How to Create Engaging Characters for Dungeons & Dragons
Whether you are a player or a Dungeon Master, you will need to create characters. Although DMs have to create many characters, in some ways, the player has the more difficult job. DMs can easily rid themselves of unlikeable NPCs by never revisiting them, but a player holds onto their character for at least a few sessions, if not an entire campaign. These characters hold the spotlight.
Many campaigns, even well-thought-out campaigns with engaging and unique encounters, can break down if the players lose interest in their characters. Likewise, a group of engaging characters can save even the dullest and lackluster adventures.
How can a player make his or her character worthy of such long-term attention? The following advice helps the player, and by extension the Dungeon Master, to create the most vivid, engaging characters worthy of the time spent with them. The advice focuses more on roleplaying and personality rather than mechanics, although choices of race, character class, background, ability, and skills certainly affect the process of creating unique characters and receive some mention.
Introduce Internal Conflict
The gregarious bard, the gruff fighter, the peaceful cleric, the brilliant wizard, the badass ranger. These simplistic and clichéd descriptions of characters need more to make them engaging.
I once had a player who was uncompromisingly dispassionate. She never cared about her fellow adventurers and remained focused completely on her goals, which just happened to align with the other characters. I believe the player, who herself was a likable and enthusiastic person, had made a poor choice by keeping her character inflexible. No one seemed to care about her character and as DM, I found her character difficult to engage with. Why engage with someone who doesn’t care about you and will never change?
Instead, a character should have internal conflict and moments of contradiction. A player need not determine these conflicts and contradictions right away and may discover them as they play. However, the seemingly gregarious bard may feel shy and unworthy around royalty, or the gruff fighter may have a soft spot for animals or experience PTSD when others are not around. The peaceful cleric may have an unholy streak of sadism toward her enemies. The brilliant wizard keeps misplacing his spellbook.
If my player had made her usually cold and dispassionate character have something she cared about (a deceased lover or even a childhood toy), then we would have someone more complex and mysterious, someone we want to get to know more.
Characters who have clear personalities become more engaging when they become unpredictable. Characters become unpredictable with they have internal conflicts. Internal conflicts reflect real life: confident people have moments of self-doubt, loving people have moments of animosity, smart people can be stupid, faithful people have occasional doubts. Internal conflict makes us human and interesting.
Make Your Characters Vulnerable
A lot of players want to play a badass who fears nothing. They’ve seen enough movies where a character walks into a situation and singlehandedly takes out scores of enemies without receiving so much as a scratch. However, those moments come relatively early in the movie to establish the character’s might. The rest of the movie shows these otherwise powerful characters challenged by something equally powerful (and sometimes something overpowering). Batman gets his Joker, Jedis get their Siths, and the Bride gets her Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.
Vulnerability is a fact of life in the D&D world. Good DMs challenge characters with deadly battles, cruel characters, and multiple obstacles. It's a dangerous world for even the most hearty characters. Embrace this vulnerability.
Vulnerability makes us human. Many of us spend much of our lives trying not to look weak, yet our vulnerability makes us lovable. Your characters will also be lovable if you allow them to express fear, self-doubt, and grief. You can still play a badass, but a sympathetic badass with whom we can relate.
Make Your Characters Unique
Fantasy abounds with clichés. The farm boy who leaves the farm to fight the archvillain. The wise and elderly wizard with a long white beard. The aloof elf. The maiden with a heart of gold. You could argue that these are archetypes and therefore important and powerful aspects of fantasy. Sure. But you still need to make the characters unique if you want to make them engaging.
Perhaps the humble farm boy is actually a farm girl whose mother taught her a secret druidic curriculum known by only a handful of other women. Perhaps the wise and elderly wizard runs a consortium of magic shops with his equally wise wife (and he shaves). Perhaps, the aloof elf is also a dedicated pacifist and therefore focuses on only defensive and healing abilities. The maiden with a heart of gold could be a tiefling or some other creature with fiendish blood.
The possibilities in fantasy are endless. Engage your creativity. Your characters (and fellow players) will thank you for it.
Know the Likes and Dislikes of Your Fellow Gamers
Not all gaming tables are alike. A character that was successful and interesting in one game may not receive the same reception at another table. Your humble character with a regretful background in slave trading may make some players uncomfortable, and the antics of your clumsy bard may frustrate some players focused on accomplishing goals.
Many newer roleplaying publications are embracing session 0, where players get together to discuss what kind of game they want, to create their characters, and to determine what might be acceptable or unacceptable as far as story content. Use this session 0 to find out what your DM and players desire in the game.
If the group seems focused on strategy and leveling up, you may want to skip the character that comically trips up the party. You’ll have to explore your character’s vulnerabilities in other ways. If the group wants a lighthearted game in which characters play a series of unconnected one-shots, you may want to skill the four-page backstory about your character's traumatic childhood.
The general advice whenever you join a group: Know what you are getting into. Know your fellow players.
If Need Be, Change Your Character
You may follow all of the above advice and still find that you don’t like your character. It’s always important to admit when something is not working. You may need to tweak your character’s personality or build, or you may need to change characters completely.
Let’s say you’ve created a warlock whose otherworldly patron is a fiend. You find, as you play, that you’ve made the character too dark even though you’ve given the characters something to care about and made the character vulnerable. You’re just not enjoying the character.
You can do several things. You can change the character’s personality to be a bit more lighthearted. You can talk to your DM about changing your otherworldly patron, perhaps to an archfey or a celestial. Or you could retire the character and create something completely different.
Make sure you enjoy playing your character. Admit when you are not and make the necessary changes. It can make all the difference for your enjoyment of the game.
As with all advice, use what helps you to enjoy the game and throw out the rest. If you want to play a more stereotypical character or a badass who never admits defeat, by all means.
However, you might just find that by challenging the clichés and adding some vulnerability, you have created a character you will never forget. And that’s what the game is about: creating memories.