How do you construct your characters?
I thought this might make for an interesting discussion.
So let's say you are planning to run a theoretical PC - I'm not curious as to what inspires the character since it can be so many things, from a movie or a book to some interesting homeless guy you saw on the way to work, but how you plan things out after that. So forget that part; you already know kinda sorta what you want to play - how do you go from there?
Do you have a process about breaking down their personality? Do you consciously think about giving them flaws and what kinds interest you the most? Do you prefer to seek out other people and design ties with them or is that something you prefer to happen circumstantially or in-game?
How about their looks, are they an important part of the way you approach it or an afterthought? Do you pick them before, during or even after the concept stage itself?
Do you prefer a long, detailed background or a blank canvas to draw on - and why? Do you like to revisit it after the fact and retcon connections or events into it or do you prefer to leave it fixed?
And the last one... do you like to replay/recreate old concepts or are you done with one once it's played? Please note I'm not necessarily referring to reusing the exact same PC with a different name, but borrowing heavily from one you've already tried before. Do you think your PCs are very distinct or do you have a 'type' ?
Let's talk about characters!
I break down their personality by designing its flaws first. Is this person headstrong? Are they arrogant? Do they have any addictions (not just physical, but compulsive behaviors)? Stuff like that. Then I sort of shape the rest of their personality around that cluster of flaws, and find ways to add positive things that stem from or in spite of those flaws.
I never go out and seek out ties before making the character. I think this is more about my own personal shyness/general idea that no one wants to play with me by default, more than anything though. I let those connections happen in game. Or they come in later as a retcon when I start discussing things with a player interested in playing with me.
Looks are super important to me. It's pretty much a thing that's done immediately after I think of their personality. I go try to find someone who looks the part that I'm trying to convey. So, for my vamp yakuza ninja dude, I wanted someone who looked like they could be beautiful, if they weren't so cold and cruel. Tattoos would be a bonus, but since it's easy to just use pictures of someone completely clothed, it wasn't necessary. I found exactly what I was looking for in Miyavi, a J-rock star and actor. With my current possessed, I spent hours combing through models looking for someone who looked handsome and warm, with wise eyes, but also the capacity to look sinister and manipulative. It was hard for me not to fall back on to David Gandy, because he's used so often, but eventually I found John Halls, and he was really super perfect.
So for backgrounds, I usually just think of one core thing, and let it explode from there. For my vamp, for example, it was "Embraced in the trenches of Iwo Jima", which spun into this whole giant tale of cat and mouse game in caves lasting for months, between a solider gone awol and an ancient monster awakened by mortar blasts. I even constructed his entire belief system based in actual Japanese mythology, fused with actual VtR Lore. For my Possessed, I just thought "Trailer trash turned into Doctor Phil", and it became a whole story of rags to riches, with a kid that went through juvie, to growing up and learning how to manipulate people and how that led to his burgeoning psychopathy to sort of manifest completely, which led to his eventual fascination with the concept of evil and then finding real evil.
So I do giant background stories that tend to run on and on. My wikis are sometimes atrocious as a result.
And I'll reuse a concept if I didn't feel like I mined it for what I wanted when I first used it. I often use my characters to explore certain viewpoints or psychological factors, and things like that. So my vamp, for example, Ryuhei, is a refinement of a character concept I made on RfK long ago that I never really got much up and off the ground with. He's worked out a lot better this time. My first MU* character was Dorian on TR. As a character for a player, he was flawed, so later I went to Reno, made a new Dorian (different PB, and bloodline so not the exact same), and sort of took what worked from the previous iteration and kept it, and changed the things that didn't work. That version worked out well, and I feel I did enough with it that I haven't made that character in any form since.
I definitely have a type, though. My type tends to be social based, smooth talking types who like to wax philosophical. I tried to break that with Ryuhei, but he's kind of become that anyway, organically, through RP. Go figure.
@arkandel So many times, for me, it's a picture. Just a picture. A face, usually. (Edit: And I usually run across it when just browsing around for something else entirely. This is super annoying 'cause it still happens in 'retirement' and I whine at myself a lot about it.)
I couldn't really describe the process, because it's not really any sort of question and answer session going on in my brain, unless it's happening at such blinding speed that I miss it.
I just see a face, and metaphorically speaking, it hits some magic button the back of my head, and boom, I'm having a Zeus-grade migraine and something not so clever as Athena is whining in my face about getting my ass into CG right now, whaaaaaat's the hold-up, typist lady-person?!
The questions tend to arise in situations or in response to external questions -- either circumstances in a scene, someone asking the character something, or even a CG question -- but they're just... there, boom, rolling right off the fingers without really having to think about it at all, because they're natural and intuitive.
Even before the 'nawp, not feeling it' of the past year, I have gotten to the level of 'old and crabby' that I won't play something that doesn't sproing into being like this in my brain, because things that haven't, er, sproinged this way just never worked anywhere near as well anyway.
If I had to describe it in simple terms, it's like recognizing a picture of someone you know really well -- just with the imagination running at sonic-boom inducing speed instead of the eyes.
My process starts with figuring out what the character will be doing. The most interesting PC in my head is useless if there's no way to utilize them in the actual game; how will he interact with others? What makes him interesting for them to play with? What can he do in a group, why would other people go to him? What would his preferred role be in plots?
If the game supports distinctive factions and/or templates (Bloodlines, Legacies, etc) I definitely look at that at this stage as well. While it can be fun occasionally to shoehorn the 'wrong' personality into an archetype they're not a good fit for, it takes some special circumstances to make it happen. If that's the path I'll choose then it needs to be part of his progression (starting with a peace-loving bookworm who's shaped by in-game tragedy to slowly become something else), but since that can take a while I'd reserve it for games I expect to be playing long-termly.
I have some idea of those things before I enter CGen since it's then that I figure he's functional. A bookish loner is no good though, even if his stats could make him useful for others, so that's when I start gearing his background in my head - the guy needs to either want or be compelled to be social to some degree. At this point I know about what his skills and attributes should be geared towards, so I pick them and move on as soon as possible to the next stage; the background.
I don't like making characters with a very wealthy history. It can easily lead to a too-cool-for-school IC outlook which I abhor; the guy should never look at in-game events and go 'meh, I've seen worse' just based on his past unless that's somehow interesting on its own (and it rarely is). I prefer thinking of those as foundations for the future, stuff to build on - maybe he's seen some shit but he's not prepared for this. Or he has seen even worse yet now he needs to re-interpret his role and carve a new place in the world (which may not let him)... but there should be a wealth of options in there I can use to propel him forward. The worst case scenario here would be a stagnant character whose potential is capped by his own background story.
I freely admit I don't have any idea who a new character is during the first few sessions with him; I know what he is but his personality is under development. It's taken me anywhere from one to... many scenes before I went hah! and found a PC's voice when he allowed me under his skin. I sometimes read my own logs weeks or months later and I laughed because it was basically all wrong, but that's just a byproduct of this process. I start generic, try things out, probably make him more irritating or know-it-all than he tends to become later on, but it's never right off the bat.
I also hate redoing things I've already played. It feels like a failure if I have a 'type' that I like. I'm already prone to making characters who talk a lot because that's just my style (I know, stop gasping) so the last thing I need is to also play the same personality over and over again. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with it, but I'd like to think I can pull different things off.
Finally... I don't like making characters who're too... in-your-face with their weirdness. I do like them being strange but not when it's anywhere near Fishmalk levels; there need to be subtleties, intricancies, stuff you don't see at a first glance. The character can be flawed as hell but I don't like that being in your face. I also enjoy playing them the less likable types sometimes; the idea everyone I play needs to be super liberal, free-thinking and fair doesn't sit well with me. They don't need to be assholes - people should still like them - but not perfect.
As for the appearance... I can't say I work on it too hard. I used to like artwork, but it's fallen out of fashion so I just pick someone who looks appropriate, but it's an afterthought at best for me.
First, I think about what I wanna do in the game. How I want to spend my time. Do I want to be a snarky barfly, or do I want to try and get into politics, or do I want to play with X code system.
Then I get distracted by a random inspiration for a name, and build a character around that for awhile. Maybe work up a theme song, do some google image search for a played by so I can think of a desc.
Then I tell myself to stop dicking around and be more reasonable and I go back to thinking about what type of personality I want to play.
Then I get an idea related to the name again and start merging all these influences into a skeleton of a character.
Then I decide to just rework a character I've played before, because it'll be easier. Commence waffling.
Then I stall out on desc for about an hour, browsing old descs and realizing I'm not great at writing interesting ones.
Then I just throw some shit together, whatever, they've got eyes and they are tall (probably).
Then I get into CG and flail at the code (and maybe give up).
My characters are usually just made after a concept, and then their sheet is built to accomodate that. If I'm going for a fighter pilot? I'll put their points into what makes sense. Fighter pilots typically have awesome reaction times (if they live long enough to talk about it) so, I jack that up. Then, I usually look at published NPCs for a system to see what they have and stat accordingly. I wanted to have a stand out veteran pilot in a starwars game, so I looked at the typical rebel pilot NPC, and added 1d to thier piloting stat. That sort of thing.
I've gone back and forth on my opinion on 'well rounded' vs 'specialist' characters on mushes. I find it frustrating to GM for specialists who are all combat specialists, but it's also frustrating when the lone guard with book published stats mops the floor with 4 PCs because they're so generalized and well rounded, that they're playing basic citizens rather than heroes. I'm currently of the mind that specialized heroes with one extra focus are more fun, my veteran rebel pilot also has streetwise jacked up after working the mercenary pilot/smuggler circuit for a few years.
For backgrounds, I typically hate backgrounds beyond a 2 sentence concept. If background stuff comes up, I'll make it up during play, but I don't think I've ever had my required CG background stuff being used by a GM as a source of fun, in my experience, it's pretty much always just a lame exercise to get through CG. My most background developed character is Salvae on Ares, and 90% of his background is post CG.
For me I decide what mechanical role I want the character to fulfill, then I figure out this history for the character that build to him being where he will start out mechanically, and once I have that history I can build the personality.
That is the general process sometimes other things come up like my most recently made character was because I wanted to use the PB so came up with the character around that.
Like @SG and others, I start with a concept: rules-bound fighter pilot, foppish swashbuckler on an info-gathering mission, flirty mercenary out only for himself, defecting Imperial Army officer. This will usually also suggest what the character is going to do (the pilot is going to try to make sure others follow the rules and is going to fly, the swashbuckler will get involved in everything to get as much info as he can, the mercenary will flirt and will do most anything he's paid to do, the defector will join up with the Rebels and try to instill some professionalism into them), as well as their primary skill set. Alternatively, I could have a story that I want to tell (an honest Republic Senator seduced by the Empire), but in many ways that's a concept all on its own.
After that point, I start filling in some details in their background (the pilot's mom is a local politician so he grew up in relatively high society, the swashbuckler learned how to buckle swashes with the circus, the mercenary is hideously burned which makes it hard to flirt and makes him harder for it, the defector is a grav-ball nut and a closet geek with a tabletop wargame army he had to leave behind), which also lends itself to background skills if the system allows for them. This work also tends to inform a character's weaknesses (the pilot probably isn't much of a brawler, the swashbuckler probably doesn't go in for stealth, the mercenary isn't good at empathy, the defector isn't particularly doctrinially flexible). Some of these may be mechanical, some may be RP-only. This is also when quirks come up (the pilot is a stress smoker, the swashbuckler loves his hat, the mercenary has a gorgeous voice, the defector uses proper titles for everyone).
I like to leave the background relatively open-ended, because that's the best way to leave holes to fill with other players (get your minds out of the gutter). If you know exactly what your character has done in the past and why, not only do you get into the problem @Arkandel mentioned about having already done everything, but it's harder to mush around events you do know happened to arrange connections with other characters.
Sometimes I see the character's looks in my head immediately -- sometimes I even have a PB in mind while I'm designing them. Sometimes, however, I get to the end and have to think "What are the character's defining characteristics," like @ShelBeast was mentioning, and come up with a look based on that.
I will often re-use concepts, but the differences between games always make the character themselves different: I've used the flirty burned mercenary on what... 4 games now? 5? But on one, he was a hidden Seanchan agent infiltrating Andoran society as a Domani mercenary, on another he was a straight-up Seanchan warrior (who ended up a Rebel Warder, oddly enough), on another he was a simple Domani mercenary with no ties to the Seanchan, on another he was a Viking warrior traveling to England... I think that's it, just 4 versions.
There are a couple of tropes that my characters often fall into, because that's the sort of RP I like to get involved in. The plurality (maybe majority) of my characters are either a bombastic politician or a hardened soldier. That lets me get into either politics or combat storylines, and I enjoy playing those tropes. Luckily, they're pretty broad tropes, so the characters within them can be wildly different. I've also been known to go wildly outside them, like the naive would-be Aes Sedai, the sneak-thief, and the utter fop with no interest in combat and no skill in politics.
My characters also tend to talk a lot. I've played a few who don't, but I always have to struggle to cut words out of my poses and replace them with body language. Apparently, I like to communicate through text. Go figure.
As to @SG's comment on specialist vs well-rounded, I like to be "good" at one thing, and then 'not bad' at a bunch of others. This lets me be primary (or often secondary due to someone who really specialized) at one thing, and back people up at others without being useless. This is why I like open sheet games... it lets me see how specialized other characters are, and how well-rounded I can make my character while still being "good" at their specialty.
Um, I sit down and they immediately spring forth fully formed in my brain?? I am so unhelpful to this line of conversation despite the fact that character creation is one of my favorite things to do.
Sometimes (often) I know exactly what 'flavor' of thing I wanna play, and that just informs everything else through the filter of a game's theme and current census. Sometimes I'm lazy and recycle a basic concept, and it never turns out the same way as the thing it's based on, anyway.
There are only really a couple of things that are important to me to sort out, no matter how or when I figure them out; bold for tldr:
-Their name/appearance fits my mental image of their 'presence'
-I'm able to look at a bunch of music and go 'this is them; this is them also' etc. I find if I can't pick out even a single song for a character, they're usually not mentally sorted for me yet. If I can do this, I have enough to get started.
-They have an agenda -- probably the most important thing for me for not only getting started, but also long-term staying power? Having this, I know I can generate my own fun without relying on anyone else to entertain me. Most ideal: the goal is not simple to achieve, and the reason they can't achieve it is at least partially their own fault. Obvious preference is for agendas that involve interacting with other people.
-They will probably have a suite of flaws, but they have to be flaws that don't get in the way of RP.
I think a lot about what kind of storytelling I can do with any character I create -- what kinds of fun things they can push on a grid that people can get involved in. What they have to offer OTHER characters. It's always going to be true that people are more invested in your character if you invest in theirs. (Plus, it's just fun to give people cool moments.)
I decide what sort of general flavor thing I want to play. Then I find a suitable picture for thing. I come up with a few hooks based on what that picture creates in my head as a story, and flesh it out as I go on grid, usually allowing others to come into play via past hooks we can mutually work out. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it's always fun. I don't usually put a ton of thought into the background until some of that other stuff has been fleshed out.
I do not like to repeat concepts, but sometimes I make variations of the same thing based on how much I enjoy it.
First, I ask myself what's the conflict of the character. Did he leave something behind? Did she kill someone and hide the corpse in a wardrobe?
Then I stat them out based on what I think they would be like. THEN I write the background based on the sheet I built, because the sheet gives me more insight on who the person was and who they want to be.
And then I more or less have the character, since descriptions don't come easily to me and I more or less write them using mental ad libs.
because that's the best way to leave holes to fill with other players
I've tried off and on for years and you've not let me smash. What's up?
Do you have a process about breaking down their personality? Do you consciously think about giving them flaws and what kinds interest you the most? Do you prefer to seek out other people and design ties with them or is that something you prefer to happen circumstantially or in-game?
Skipping the 'what do I want to play?', concept, or whatever as you've asked my method usually takes a day or two. Once I have the concept in mind, I think backward. It's also why I tend to mildly hate that your average CGen demands that you set the mechanical aspects of your sheet before the character's background/history/etc. In those systems where the mechanics come first, when I get to my background an change could be made that demands that I then have to backtrack and make a change(or, in some systems, start over entirely!).
So what I mean by thinking backward: I'll just use one of my current characters that I know you've had interaction with, Rybread on Arx. He grew up in a family that for the last couple hundred years has been on a decline. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. His (birth) family is an exercise in Murphy's Law. Brother killed when he was kicked by his own horse, another younger brother that drowned for no discernible reason, bandits hit a supply train just before Winter and nearly resulted in a bunch of people freezing and/or starving to death, family members dying young(not limited to adults) for one reason or another. Just rotten luck, right? Well, how would that affect someone growing up? Sure, there are some who could laugh it off and move on their merry way, and some of those types are reflected within his currently rostered family. Another option is that you become generally very serious about life, prudent, low tolerance for nonsense, develop an eye for efficiency, a bit overbearing perhaps because of a need for a feeling of control, Constant Vigilance, and likely a dash of paranoia. So there we go, a personality has taken form. Well, he was trained as a knight, by a whitebearded old man who had trained all of them as knights; so he has a sense of duty ingrained in him, which he likely takes very seriously because he takes almost everything seriously. He's been trained with a martial mentality for much of his life so more than likely he respects and adheres to a chain of command, deferring to who is or whom he perceives to be his superiors, while taking command of those who are or are deemed beneath him or his dutiful purview.
So, I've got his personality and background worked up. That usually takes a day or two(I think for the character described above, I was in CGen for about a week, being nit-picky). By then I've got a very good idea of what the character is and who they are. Some CGs are a bit more limited than others, so the mechanical aspects are frequently a case of Set What You Can With What You Have. After that and once the character is in play, then it just becomes a matter of filling in the gaps or guiding the character along the path that I think makes sense. Sometimes, even well after CGen, I'll sit back and think hard about the history of a character. Speaking on a different character, I've got a privileged noble who has lived a largely easy life who has a point in Agriculture. Why did I buy that? Isn't that largely useless for him? Yup. But to me... this guy grew up with the best education, being doted upon, and had the world at his fingertips. If his parents were smart(which, by all accounts, they were) they'd have afforded him the absolute best education that they could have. Which means it would have provided him with a versatile education, which means that even if it was purely for the purpose of him being able to do more than nod along with glazed eyes during a conversation about crop yields with some peasant(he emphasizes with joking condescension), that should be represented. His parent(s) weren't idiots, they paid damn good money to ensure he was properly educated in the world, even in ways that he wouldn't necessarily need to be an expert in.
So in short I put a lot of time and effort into background, concept, and (I think especially) personality. To me all of that isn't done when CGen's done. It's a constant process of digging into the meat of your characters, no matter how different they are from one another. Understanding what makes them tick, what makes them choose the choices that they make, their ambitions, and even the mechanical choices that you make for them. They continue growing into the future, but their pasts shape them just as much.
My process is similar to what @Seraphim73 mentioned. I start with an "elevator pitch" - or what Fate would call "high concept". This usually has three parts: a professional hook, a theme hook and a complication.
For 100 MUSH: "veteran archer (prof) who served in the Ice War (theme) who's all 'I'm too old for this s----' while saddling up for yet another conflict (complication).
For BSGU: "mob doctor (prof) for the Space IRA (theme) forced to work with the enemy for the greater good of defeating the Cylons (complication).
From there it's just a matter of fleshing out a few key details to make the character three-dimensional - family, career path, hobbies, that sort of thing. I use my character creation article as a guide but rarely hit every point for every character. Unless some important bit of personality falls out of their background, I usually don't figure that out until I start playing them.
I'm somewhat leery of pre-existing background ties with other characters. It deprives you of a lot of the MU bread and butter "getting to know you" RP, and it strains my inner sense of continuity because there's so much about the relationship that my character would know that I don't. I'm not the best at winging it and often feel off-balance playing that sort of thing. But I have done it sometimes - siblings, cousins, old comrades, old flames - and it can certainly be interesting.
I will totally replay concepts, though the theme hook and complications usually help me put a fresh spin on it each time.
I take ideas from anywhere and everywhere as jumping points. Sometimes it's about how I want to play a particular concept in terms of their profession or talent, sometimes I see a PB that intrigues me and makes me wonder what kind of life this person would have, or how they might fit into the genre I'm playing in. This is especially true for Changeling, looking at playedbys from various fantasy and scifi shows that make me wonder how they'd translate visually, what could they be?
This is making me want to start a PB Challenge thread; someone posts a PB, and other people come up with concepts/histories/pitches in various systems, genres, etc - serious or funny, whatever suits.
I think about the play I want to have on this character, and I usually take into account what I've played in the recent past so that I can mix it up a bit. Also, I look through the mechanics and character-related fluff of the setting, to see what inspires me - this is one of the reasons that generic systems and settings without much uniqueness often frustrate me in character creation, because I get really excited about having a character who engages with a specific part of /this/ setting and /this/ system. My characters are often meant to explore or address a question or a thought I have upon reading the game, while also being built with the intention of being able to 'hit the ground running' for that particular game.
Once I have that, I build with the goal of creating a character who is competent in their specialty, and well-rounded otherwise. I try not to min-max, but I do enjoy when a clever and evocative combination of abilities can be found. I go back and tweak the character's concept to the level of competence that the mechanics are able to convey - if I can't afford to be 'the best' by the stats, then I make sure to adjust the character's expectations of themselves accordingly, unless it's part of their concept to be boastful or overcompensating.
Finally, I try to think of one to three things, based in the setting and game theme, that the character WANTS. Things that I can keep in mind as driving the character, especially in those first few scenes.
I try to decide what might get me the most booty. Then I make it.
I am obviously backwards from everyone else, in that I will build a sheet first, and then tweek it as needed. Because we can all say in the background or whatever that you are competant or excel at x, y, or z, but if the cg method prevents you from doing so? I dislike the disconnect there.
As I emphasize the sheet in my mentality, I also take advancement into account. I don't care about min-maxing from a stat/dice efficacy standpoint, but if it is better, xp-wise, to do it one way, then that is the way that I do it.
I find that this helps with some aspects, as it makes flaws almost easier to pick (wow, you are heavily invested in social skills? Let's grab some things that mix that up, or something else that plays up the lack of physical stuffs even more), with a drawback of being hyper-focused and lacking in some depth.
I am my most free with 2e WoD, because I don't HAVE to min-max for xp. Also, the beat system encourages giving yourself goals and directing your rp, gping so far as to reward you for being a go-getter, instead of just slumming it in a bar for votes.
The first thing I do is think up a concept.
Then I look for a picture that rings true.
Then I go through whatever hoops games put me through: writing backgrounds, describing personality, etc, won't help. I endure it to get approved.
Once I'm approved, then I start making the character. Oh, I might have decided some facts before, but a character is real to me when I hear his Voice. I can't do that except in roleplay, and it comes to me sometimes very fast-- the very first scene maybe-- or if it never comes to me, the character is lost.
The Voice is... a segment of my brain which instantly and completely knows whatever it is the character would do in any given situation, without me having to think about it at all. I can imagine myself hearing the character talking, reacting.
To quote Douglas Adams, I stare at a blank screen until my forehead bleeds.
Sometimes I make a character based on an idea.
Sometimes that character idea survives character creation.
Sometimes I just say that I’m going to play somewhere and hope to find a hook. These are the worst characters I’ve made.
Sometimes I put a lot of time and planning with others about a character and have the staffer flip out about a minor detail, where I flip the table and make a character just to get one done and end up playing it for five years and adoring it.
Sometimes I have a sense of my character after five years.
Usually I just wing it and hope people have fun with it.