I decided that simply talking about this in relation to VLDR wasn’t enough. So… my essay on character creation, a major passion of mine.
So, you want to roleplay?
"Wait, wait, wait! I’m lost! Where am I even supposed to begin?
Alright. Let’s evaluate: for the purpose of this essay, your goal is to make a character and roleplay them well. So, obviously, the first part is where we begin.
“Who is my character?”
That’s a harder question than it appears, and also an easier one than it appears.
Where a character begins varies wildly between them. Some people start with a name. Some start with a core question that serves as a base for the rest. Some get their start from a shitpost, or a song, or just a really cool looking image.
But, to try to account for every possible way you can create a character would kill me. I mean, hell, I sometimes anthropomorphize the cleaning tools at work. If you could feasibly make a character off of that, you can make a character off of ANYTHING.
So let’s just say you’ve been asked to make A character. Just. ANY character. What do you need?
You can start in a lot of places. But, one of the easiest ways I’ve personally found for making a character is simply having… a prompt.
“What if someone obsessively followed a list of rules?”
“What if someone literally couldn’t feel pain?”
“What if someone constantly heard music that correlated to the situation at hand?”
“What if a mad scientist was actually a really, really nice and friendly person?”
“What if an ordinary girl got in a car accident and ended up turned into a cyborg to save her life?”
There are literally infinite concepts you could use to spawn your character. The point is, every character begins with SOMETHING. And, typically, it isn’t “What if there was an entirely normal person?”
A compelling character has SOMETHING about them that’s compelling.
Now, this isn’t to say your character can’t be a relatively levelheaded, grounded, balanced personality. But, why is that character worth creating, worth developing? A good character isn’t just a plot device- they’re a person. They have a life, motivations, a world they live in… they’re real.
The question you need to ask is:
“Why should the people interacting with this character care about them?”
Once you have a core concept, a seed, you can go from there.
A name. This one’s simple, and also not. What makes a name?
In this world, we are naught but how we are written. We can be anything, but it’s not in our hands.
What does it all even mean if one lacks a name to be known by?
Once, I was nameless. Lost, and alone, and left to my own devices. And once, everything changed, and I became someone.
Someone new. Someone alive. Someone interesting.
It’s only right that I should bless you two with a name, isn’t it?
A name can be a lot of things. It might be interwoven with meaning, rhythm, purpose. Or, it might just be a name you thought sounds cool. Either way, your character needs a name. But which one? There’s so many words and combinations of syllables and whatnot, how do you pick?
Well, ultimately, it’s up to you. Depending on how you begin, you might pick the name to suit the character in some way. Or not. If you want a quick and easy way to just get A name that isn’t just, like, your name or the names of people you know, I’d recommend Fantasy Name Generators. Thank you, Emily!
You don’t necessarily need a full name- you just need something to call your character. Once you have this label, any label, you can group things together easier, and it’ll start to take root in your mind.
I’d recommend doing research, especially if you’re using a name with real world cultural ties. You don’t want to accidentally give your character two last names or a name that you THOUGHT was a real name, but it’s not. Take my word for this, I’ve done both.
Now things get interesting.
If you began by picking the appearance first as your core concept, obviously, this is less of a deal, but it’s also worth considering altering details of the design to match whatever character details you come up with. But, for those of you who went, say, character concept question → name → appearance, let’s go into that.
What does your character look like? And, more importantly, why?
Let’s say you gave your character dreadlocks. Does that mean anything? Maybe it represents his core themes of control and order- metaphorically taming his formerly wild hair and binding it with itself.
Maybe your character looks like she rarely sleeps. Why? Maybe it’s insomnia, or a related health condition that makes it hard to sleep. Maybe she stays up late doing dumb shit. You ought to give a reason for it.
What about outfit? If you’re going to give a character a crazy looking outfit, why would that person, by their own decision, wear it? If your character has a top hat and makeup and pants that look like a 90s carpet, does xe want to stand out, maybe, or perhaps it’s a method of defiance against a trend of modesty that xe hates?
And, hell, maybe your character looks like a normal person. No weird hair or eye colors, a “regular” shirt and pants. Why? Does it mean anything? Maybe your character just likes to dress comfortable, and doesn’t feel a need to stand out. Maybe it even represents the running gag of how unnoticeable and average he looks up until he opens his mouth- a representation of what YOU do with the character.
And then, if you have something absolutely wild, why? Tails, strangely-colored sclera, odd tattoos, why does the character have that? Maybe your character needs the odd things. Most people aren’t just cutting off their arm for the hell of it… this is a callout at That Unnamed Bitch. You know who you are, twink.
My point with these examples is that EVERYTHING can have deeper meaning. Be the classic lit author your English teacher wanted you to analyze! Why are the curtains blue? But, also, remember that the CHARACTER needs to have a reason to look like that.
The more thought you put into a character’s everything, the easier it is to flesh them out. Everything can have meaning. Everything can have purpose.
Now, we’ve got a base prompt. We have a name, we have an appearance. There’s a little more we should address.
- Age: how old is your character? This is important- how much life experience your character has, and what level of maturity they’ve gained, both impact who they are as a person.
- Gender: this is a fun one. For me, gender is a very, very personal and important aspect of who I am. Everyone experiences gender differently. One person’s flavor of, say, “girl” might be different from another person’s “woman”. What is the character’s relation to gender? What pronouns do they use? Does their gender have a greater impact than “I don’t want to be called a boy”?
- Birthday: not as necessary as the rest, especially considering characters who have no birthday, but you can still put a decent amount of thought into it. What day was the character born? What years were they growing up during, did anything worldwide happen during those years? Hey, if you want, you can make the birthdate significant, or just throw in a fun easter egg. I have a character born on the release date of Crypt of the Necrodancer because of his music background. I just thought it was funny. And if you’re that type of person, you can think about their zodiac sign and incorporate that too.
- Origin: kind of bleeding into personality at this point, but what’s the character’s country of origin and culture? There’s a lot that can go into this, and, if it’s NOT a culture you’re personally familiar with or part of, DO YOUR FUCKING RESEARCH. PLEASE. I speak as someone who has done some VERY cringe shit in my earlier years of character creation. Know what you’re writing.
- Orientation: In the same vein as gender above, it might be more relevant to some characters than others. Does your character feel sexual attraction towards men, women, both, neither? What about romantic orientation? Any sexual or romantic preferences? Maybe the character has a unique relationship with sex and romance, or maybe they even engage in queerplatonic activity? Are they polyamorous? So many questions.
And, of course…
The personality of a character is one of, if not THE most important aspect of a character. By this point in the process, you should already have an idea of this, but now we should dive into it.
Who a character is, personality-wise, bleeds into literally EVERYTHING else about them. You may even, after going through this part, want to go back and revise certain details to make things blend together better, and that’s great! Do that! A well written character is both realistic as a person and beautiful as a work of literature.
There are so many different aspects to a personality. Extroverted or introverted? Optimistic or pessimistic? Emotionally expressive or emotionally closed off? Or, hell, what about a character who masks their real feelings behind a facade? (Looking at you, Bug.) Patient or short-tempered? How does a character express anger? Love? Are they vocal about their feelings, do they speak through action, or do they hide everything?
I could go on and on and on and on, but each individual aspect of a character is an essay all its own. There’s so much to look into when it comes to a character and personality. Let’s try to rein it in a little bit. This is a lot, I know.
An easy way to define a character’s BASE personality is to set 3 or so traits. They do not have to be typical personality trait descriptors, but they need to set a baseline. Using the example characters I’ve been using…
- A liar, a control freak, emotionally volatile.
- Reckless, masculine, casual.
- Rebellious, flamboyant, eccentric.
- Friendly, overenthusiastic, intelligent.
- Sweet, meek, gentle.
With just 3 or so traits, you can start building from there. This weaves into backstory, because who a person is in the modern day is built off of the experiences they’ve been through as much as it is their genetics and neurology. You typically will do a lot better starting from a baseline personality in the modern day, jumping into backstory a bit to establish WHY the character is like this, and then jumping back and forth from there to refine and flesh out.
This, like I said, weaves into personality development. In fact, if you’ve noticed, you may realize that all of it ties together, and you could honestly start ANYWHERE in this process. And… that’s the point. Character creation isn’t exactly linear, but this specific order of items is just what I’m using because I have to start SOMEWHERE.
Backstory has a lot to it. Where was the person born, in what conditions, to what people? What’s their family like- loving and gentle, or cold and neglectful? Think about important childhood events- something that would change the person’s life forever, like a world-altering diagnosis of a chronic illness. What loved ones does the person have, if any, and how close to the character are they emotionally? Has the character ever been in love, if they even know what that’s like, and how did it go? What about loss, has the character ever lost someone?
Again, there’s a lot to go into and I could make an individual essay on each and every aspect. So let’s simplify.
I’d advise you start with key events. What things directly influenced those base personality traits you set up? To reflect back on the examples…
Congrats, you now have a basic character concept! There’s probably still a lot to flesh out, and honestly, you’ll never STOP fleshing out a character until they’re abandoned or retired. So, what else can we look into? A lot.
- The sound of their voice- does it have any relevance to the character as a person? Is it a softer voice, maybe the person’s nice? Or maybe they want you to think they’re nice, and it’s intentional. How about someone who’s got an accent, what accent? Are they a loud person, do they have an auditorily pleasing voice? Maybe their voice shifts when they’re in a particular mood, or around certain people. Maybe they stammer, or stutter, or maybe trip over words and use strange phrasing. Is English even their first language? And so on.
- What are their core values? Motivations? Dreams? This usually gets tied in with the original character concept, but if not, well, what do they do everything for? What do they like? Dislike? How strong are they, how motivating?
- What are their hobbies? What do they do in their spare time? How do they destress?
- What’s their morality? Do they have the interests of others in mind? Do they genuinely wish to hurt others, or are they ignorant of others’ needs and wants?
- What about ideology? Are they strongly politically oriented? Do they believe in the strength of the law, or in the value of freedom, or somewhere in between? Is their ideology completely bonkers to anyone who isn’t them? Do they place value in ONE SPECIFIC THING and consider everything else unimportant?
- Do they have specific triggers? Things that piss them off? What about just little things that make them happy?
- Do they have verbal or physical tics or habits? What does that say about them as a person?
- Does the person have any disorders, conditions, or the like? Are they diagnosed? Do they take their condition into account?
- Does the person have secrets they keep to themself? How severe, how potentially life-ruining? Or maybe it’s just some small thing that they don’t need to worry about but unnecessarily do?
There is just so, so much you can go into from this point. I could talk forever. But, at this point, I need to shift focus.
Okay. Let’s say, at this point, you have a relatively fleshed out character. A name, a face, a personality, a story, and various other details to make them more than 1-dimensional. Now what?
It’s time to roleplay.
Roleplaying is a hard thing to get down, and honestly, a lot of it comes down to practice. But there’s a few key things to get out of the way.
You are not your character. If your character is just you, you’re doing something wrong. Your character isn’t going to hold your exact views on things, and sometimes, you need to learn to take a backseat to the whims of your character. Yes, this means that sometimes your character would do something you consider stupid, or irrational. Yes, that means you SHOULD, if you want to be a good roleplayer, let them do it.
Even if it gets them hurt, or killed. I cannot emphasize this enough- your character is calling the shots, ideally.
There’s another thing to mention, which is what YOU know versus what YOUR CHARACTER knows. YOU might know that, say, Keldi has a tendency to play neutral-aligned characters leaning good, and therefore this loud, abrasive asshole character they’re playing is probably not that bad a person after all. But your character? What do THEY think? They might just want nothing to do with the perceived dickhead.
Or maybe the character doesn’t know all the things you know. You might be a literal scientist, or doctor, or whatnot, but if you’re playing Average Joe Mann, who just walked in on Miss Pretty Girl He Likes bleeding out from an abdomen wound, more likely than not, he’s not going to know how to do the exact stitching required to save her life, and he’s almost CERTAINLY going to be freaking the fuck out. And he DEFINITELY won’t know it if you, out of character, look up how to fix the injury. That’s just cheating, and bad roleplay.
The point is, you have to let your character do what they’re doing and make decisions from THEIR perspective.
Of course, there’s something to be said about “a trace of the true self exists in the false self.” No character will be entirely separate from who you are. They’re still operating off of YOUR brain, and therefore, whether you like it or not, some aspect of YOU will bleed into THEM. The goal is to MINIMIZE this, not ERASE it. Let the character call the shots, but remember that they are, at the end of the day, very likely reflecting some aspect of YOU.
I would write more, but honestly? There’s not much more I can say besides… it’s a practice thing. No one’s perfect, no one can truly and flawlessly morph into an entirely different person. You have to practice pretending to be someone else. But, also, something to remember:
A trace of the FALSE self exists in the TRUE self.
Wait, what? What does THAT mean? Well, essentially, it means actors tend to pick up little pieces of their characters, too. Emotions towards a character or even a player playing the character, verbal tics, even more than that. I will say that I’ve personally picked up a lot of traits from my characters, as they reflect me in turn.
You’re going to feel strongly, if you’re roleplaying right. And that’s okay. Just remember when it’s going too far, when you’re losing control, when you need to step away from the game for your own mental health. Don’t lose yourself in your character- it is shockingly easy.
A good character will both be a person, distinct from you, and a well-written CHARACTER, with motifs and- wait, I should go into those.
What’s a motif?
Well, historically, that’s a music term. But, it also serves as a literary term. It’s a recurring pattern or theme. It can be a lot of things. Sometimes, it’s an aesthetic that a particular character of importance wields, like storms or angels or music. Sometimes, it’s a piece of symbolism that is recurring throughout the work, like the representation of, I don’t know, death and rebirth through ashes. Sometimes, it’s a repeating phrase, an arc phrase, you could say, like “I am in control” or “Look up, look forward, and keep going” or even just a particular word like “hope” or “will”.
Motifs can help tie your character together narratively. Even if it’s just as simple as a recurring theme, you can put a lot of thought into that. I personally tie aesthetic motifs to personality traits- the irritable, turbulent Brit is as much the essence of the storm as the essence of the storm is him. I use the motif to develop the character further, and I use the character to flesh out exactly how his motifs are expressed.
And, another thing, since I’m just dumping my thoughts now: about Mary Sues and Villain Sues and whatnot. Flaws are important. It’s important to remember people will stop caring if they don’t see any stake in the conflict. Your character always winning is boring. So is your character always losing. But winning and losing doesn’t always mean life and death, or the world hanging in the balance- sometimes, it’s a personal loss or victory, or a conflict of the self, or sometimes you end up with a bittersweet end, and so on.
But don’t worry too hard about making EVERY character on an equal playing ground. That’s impossible. Some characters are genuinely a little stronger than others. That’s how people are! But don’t make it always certain who wins and loses. Everyone has value. As long as they’re not one dimensional, as long as there’s a chance they gain something from what they experience, or develop, or something, anything, they’re valuable, people can CARE about them.
There is so much more I could say, but this is already getting ridiculously long. I’m shocked I haven’t hit some kind of character limit as I usually do.
Please, go ahead, ask away, ask me questions. I can elaborate, I just want to get my thoughts on the matter out. The art of creating a someone, someone who means something, is so, so intricate, and has so much value. Art is art, and it is self expression and therapeutic and revolutionary.
Remember that. And roleplay well.