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A Question of Character

By David Astley

In this article ‘she’ and ‘he’ have been changed to ‘they’. I know this is grammatically incorrect, but I like it and it offends no-one, except maybe English graduates.

With a final clattering of dice and scribbling of pencil, you complete your character. Abilities have been generated, skills chosen and equipment acquired. You’re completely ready to explore a new world of excitement and adventure. To your surprise you discover that your first challenge is when someone asks out of the blue, “So, what’s your character like?”

In this day and age of cathartic roleplaying more and more games are focussing less and less on the game system. By and large I consider this to be a good thing as many games shift their emphasis to the setting. But this still ignores the most important aspect of roleplaying- the characters. Until your character acquires a personality and background it is still just some notes on a piece of paper. And therein lies the challenge of roleplaying- to bring that character to life and portray an original and unique personality. This is not done, however, by describing your character as a thief.

People are complex and multifaceted creatures and there is no reason why your character should be any different. People have friends, family, history, achievements, loves, desires, hates, opinions, beliefs, successes, failures and much more. So too your character has all these things.

Below are over 26 questions about your character. Some are simple and others hard but all of them are relevant. As you answer them your character will take shape and form and grow before your very eyes and hopefully you will be left with not just some scribbling on a piece of paper, but a fully formed character, ready to explore the world.

If you have problems writing character stories and backgrounds, or you just seem to have a mental block, try working your way through these questions and you will be amazed at how quickly the character comes together in your mind. You can answer these questions in any order you wish and you will often find that the answer to one question will give you ideas on how to answer other questions.

There are, of course, hundreds more questions you can ask about a character. The more detailed your character background becomes, the richer your character will be. And the clearer you see your character’s personality, the easier you will find it to show that personality to others. If a person really is the sum of their experiences then a solid background and history will add up to a great character.

An entire article could be written on each question and how it affects your character, but let’s just start with an overview for now.

Many names mean something: Smith, Johnson, Brown. When naming your character, keep in mind who named them and why.

AWhat is your name? Many people leave a character’s name until last. There’s nothing wrong with this and often it’s easier to name a character once you know more about them. This is because names often reflect the people they belong to. Names also reflect the society that the character grew up in, and names may even reflect on the persons who named your character, who may or may not be the character’s parents as that society dictates. Characters may be named after relatives, friends of family, heroes of old or events that happened in their childhood. They may have one name or many. They may be known by different names to different people or in different cultures. They may have family names, nicknames, true names and aliases and their name may have changed over the course of their life.

B.What is your height and how much do you weigh? Beyond short or tall, very few people worry about their character’s height. But even height affects personality. Does the character have a complex about their height? Have they ever been made fun of for their height? Do they wish they were taller or shorter and do they take any action to appear so?

Similarly to height, weight can also affect personality. Is the character trying to gain or lose weight? If so how successfully? Has this affected their self esteem? Are they proud of their body? Is their weight due to them being rich, or poor, or athletic, or studious? And if your character’s weight doesn’t fall within societal norms is that because of genetics or upbringing?

Many studies have linked colour with behaviour and people have expectations that a person’s favourite colour will somehow reflect that person. Often a person will tend to dress in that colour or colours. Give your character a favourite colour that you feel reflects their personality.

C.What do you look like? How much of your character’s appearance is due to their heritage and how much is their own making? Clothes are the most obvious way for people to express their personality through their appearance, but people also express themselves through hair, tattoos, piercing and scars among other things. If your character is conservative or rebellious, this will almost certainly come through in the clothes they wear. Are they trying to draw attention, show off or make a statement? A practical character may have short hair, a proud character long hair. What are the societal norms and how do they affect your character’s appearance? And how does your character’s personality affect their appearance? Laugh lines around the eyes? Edges of the mouth turned downwards? Not a hair out of place? A character’s appearance is so much more than what they carry and what they wear.

Optional - What is your favourite colour? This question is often used as the standard question to see if a character is more than just a bunch of numbers on paper. Most people have a favourite colour and few advantages are gained from this behaviour. And when asking why a character likes that colour, remember that aesthetics doesn’t have to be the sole reason.

Optional - What does your home look like? People surround themselves with what is important to them. Your character will have favourite possessions, clothes and items around them. Do they live in an apartment, a hut or a mansion? How important are the creature comforts to them? Are they living alone or with friends? Are they still living at home even? What have they done to personalise their space? Are they messy, neat, chaotic, Spartan or a hoarder? Do they own their own abode? Do they care for it or have others to do so? After all, a person’s home is their castle, and if they are going to show their true personality anywhere, it will be at home.

D.How old are you? Does your character possess the wisdom of the ages? Have they seen it all before? Or have they yet to discover what the world is really like? Older is often wiser, often more cynical, but youth can still have street smarts. Has your character come of age? What is your character’s reaction to their age? What is the society’s reaction to your character’s age? And what is your character’s reaction to that reaction? How old does your character look? And how old do they feel?

Optional - When were you born? Sometimes this question seems foolish after "How old are you?", but if the character comes from a different time or has stopped aging, this question can be particularly important. Additionally, there are popular beliefs about the effect on your personality of the date, or year, of your birth. Almost everyone knows what sign of the zodiac they belong to, whether they believe in it or not. And many people claim it wouldn’t be surprising if the time of your birth did have some impact on your personality.

Desert nomads and Eskimos won’t always see eye to eye.

E.Where were you born? Like time of birth, place of birth also has lasting repercussions on a person. One expects a child born in a private hospital to turn out differently from a child born on a remote farm. Again society will strongly impact on the character. Does your character live near their birthplace still? Are they widely travelled? Did they move a lot as a child or have they had the stability (or boredom) of the same house their whole life?

Optional / Going deeper - Will you ever go back there? What does your character think of their birthplace and where is your character now? Are they glad to be away exploring the wide world or are they on a desperate quest to return to their own time and place. Whatever your character thinks of their birthplace, why do they think this?

F.How were you educated? On the streets, apprenticed, with a guild or at a school? Or something else? In addition to what they learn, the learning environment will also affect your character. Do they expect harsh punishments for failure? Did they develop a dislike for authority figures? Did your character learn social skills, including how to interact with the opposite sex, or were their studies purely information based? And how much of your character’s learning was practical or theoretical?

G.What have you learnt since then? This question is a good opportunity to think over life experiences that have already happened to your character. Why do they always sit with their back to the corner? How do they harness their talents and abilities? Where did they learn to speak that obscure language so fluently? How confident is your character in what they know and does this come across to others?

H.What were you doing a month ago? What major changes have happened recently in the game world and how have these affected your character? Were there clues that the character’s adventuring life was about to start? Did your character make any preparations and if so, what? How will, or how did adventuring affect the character’s life, and what do they think of all this?

Optional / going deeper - What were you doing a year ago? What was the character’s life like before they started adventuring? How were their hopes and dreams different from their current goals? Were they living the peaceful life of an ordinary citizen, or were they performing an earlier quest, and already fated for greatness? What challenges did they face back then, and how were these resolved (if they were)?

Today people are expecting to change careers multiple times and many people are re-educating themselves constantly. Consider all the things your character can do, and has done over their life.

I.What do you do? If you character works, what job (or jobs) do they perform? Are they at the top or the bottom of the ladder and where do they want to be? If they don’t work, how do they present themselves to others? What does the character think of those that do and don’t work?

Optional - Do you work? Is your character an honest citizen trying to make a living or a con man trying to make a quick buck? Do they have an income and where does it come from? Does your character take pride in a hard day’s work or do they avoid it like the plague? Or do they get others to do their work for them?

Optional - Do you have any work experience? Not just what does your character do (which was covered earlier) but what has your character done? In the past people were generally trained in a single profession, but they still possessed many other skills from cooking and sewing to farming and hunting.

J.Do you have any scars or handicaps? And what events led to their acquisition? Many children hurt themselves when playing, adolescents often take risks and an adventurer may have already faced countless dangers. The character themself may not even be responsible. Some marks are distinctive, others more subtle, some are natural, others not. Scars and handicaps are as many and varied as the people that possess them, from Harry Potter to Indiana Jones.

K.What do you enjoy most? A person’s likes speak volumes about that person. The personality of someone who most enjoys a game of cards is likely to be completely different from a person who most enjoys helping the sick, though as always, anything is possible. Ideally when answering this question, you should have in mind at least a couple of things your character enjoys. After all, people try to make time for their enjoyments, be it exploring abandoned mines, or growing vegetable gardens.

Optional - How do you like to spend your spare time? Is your character someone who is always on the go, someone who is never happy unless they are in the thick of things? Or do they prefer sleeping in and afternoon naps? Are they a socialite or a workaholic and how do they prioritise their duties and leisures? Do they get enough spare time, and if not, what would they do if they did?

Optional - What are your favourite hobbies? Most people have a favourite team, sport, game or past time. So should your character. Things your character is good at they may well participate in. Things they’re not so good at, they may just spectate. Whether they have time for their hobbies or not is another story. Few people feel as if they have time for their hobbies. Varying the degree of fanaticism a character has for a hobby can make for a very memorable character though.

Optional - What kind of art, music and reading material do you prefer? One of the best ways to find out about someone is to go through their book collection. It contains a treasure trove of their likes, their tastes and their interests. The same is true of art and music. Your character will like art, music and literature that will express themself, or allows themself to be expressed. Even simple choices, like do they prefer modern or classical, will allow assumptions (maybe incorrect) to be made about your character’s personality.

L.What do you like least? What your character doesn’t like is often harder to answer than what they do like, but this question is no less important. Also important is why your character has this dislike, whether it’s something simple, such as they don’t like the taste of coconut, or whether it runs deeper, such as coconut reminds them of an awful medicine they had to take as a child. (They were sick? Was it serious? How did they cope? How do they treat the sick now? Etc)

M.What makes you angry? Why? How does it affect your character’s judgement? Might your character risk themselves and others if suitably enraged? Has this happened before? If so, you have a good idea how your character will react the next time they are angered.

Friends, lovers, family, acquaintances and strangers all play parts in a person’s life, some more so than others.

N.What experience has made the strongest mark on you? It has been said many times that a person is the sum of their experiences. Your character already has their lifetime of experience. Here is your chance to explain one of those many experiences and how it has shaped your character’s life. The experience need not be important in the grand scheme of things, just to your character. Something small and seemingly trivial can be just as meaningful to a person as a massive event of some kind.

Optional / going deeper - What person has made the strongest mark on you? One of the main things that will affect a person’s personality is other people. Pick someone who has impacted strongly on your character, be it a stranger with idle words of wisdom or a true love who held the meaning to life. Explain how they affected your character.

O.What have you done that you are most proud of? Not only what has the character done, but where does their pride lay? Two people can be proud of the same event but for different reasons. For example, one could be proud of slaying the monster while the other is proud of rescuing the prisoner and yet their tasks may have been identical. And again, the event need not be important in the grand scheme of things. The character’s greatest pride could be a badly carved piece of wood. As always, telling why will reveal more of the character’s personality.

P.What have you done that you are most ashamed of? Everyone makes mistakes. What has your character done and why? What have they learned from this event? As before, tell why the character is ashamed of what they’ve done. It will reveal as much, if not more, of their personality as the actual event itself.

Q.Do you have a religion? In a world where the gods did exist, it would be a rare and foolish person who ignored them. This question, like many others, may require collaboration with your GM if you’re not sure how your character’s world works. Wherever your game is set, the inhabitants will most certainly have beliefs regarding greater powers. It’s up to you to decide where your character stands with those beliefs.

Going deeper - How strongly do you believe in your religion? If gods are known to exist an apathetic character will do the minimum to appease them and get on with their life. The character may even resent them. Or your character could be a member of a faith, practicing or non-practicing, moderate or fanatical or somewhere in between. Even among atheists there are those who tolerate beliefs held by others and those who will try and destroy those beliefs whenever they encounter them.

Optional - Do you have a philosophy of life? A simple person may have a simple philosophy. Again, the type of answer may tell more about the character than the answer itself. You should also think about a character’s priorities, morality and ideals. Peoples’ philosophical discourses on life vary from single sentences that could be found in fortune cookies, to entire volumes of endless books.

How do you feel about money? Is your character greedy or foolish where money is concerned? What are their spending habits like? Are they generous or stingy? When and why? Are they rich or poor and how does their degree of wealth affect them? And what would they do to get more money?

How do you feel about knowledge? Does your character regard knowledge as just another commodity, like money? Or does your character consider knowledge innate and unchangeable? Do they respect it, flaunt it or distrust it? How much do they believe that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?

How do you feel about power? Power is central to many roleplaying games. Who has it? Who doesn’t? What do they do with it? Why? And so on. Many games allow you to advance your character giving you more experience, skill, ability and power. This is fine. It’s fun. It’s part of the game. But what does your character think? While they challenge the power of others, how much of that power do they want for themselves? And what do they think as they do gain power and abilities through their adventures? This isn’t so important when starting out, but as the character acquires power they will have to decide what to do with it. Have they thought this far ahead?

R.Why are you out adventuring? A sense of adventure and curiosity are rarely enough to get someone to leave their stable job and head for the wild blue yonder and into life threatening danger. Even in games where the characters are different from normal people (vampires, mutants, gods, etc) there are still non-player characters who don’t travel round in a group facing constant challenges. Why has your character chosen not to be one of these? The character themselves may not even realise. They may wish to be a hero to fulfil an unrecognised need for acceptance. As always, this is up to you.

S.How does fighting & killing make you feel? If the game you are in has a lot of fighting in it, making your character a pacifist is probably a bad idea. But even in the midst of a fight there are plenty of opportunities for your character’s personality to be expressed. Does your character move in cautiously or charge recklessly? Are they slow and methodical because they are thorough, or do they actually enjoy the fight?

Killing is a big thing. Really big. Today it is almost universally condemned as wrong. In the past it has been seen as everything from a capital offence to a rite of passage. If your character has never killed before you should consider under what circumstances they might and how this reflects on them. If your character has killed before, how do they treat it? Killing often traumatises the perpetrator, but in a harsh and deadly world it can become a way of life for the few. How does your character’s view of killing fit in with their society’s view of killing?

Optional - Name something naughty that you did when you were about 12 years old that you got away with? Does you character now think they can habitually get away with things? Or have they decided that it is best after all to follow the straight and narrow? What was your character like as a child? Were there any signs, even then, that they would one day be someone special? What was their life like as a child? How have their hopes and dreams changed since then?

Friends know and say more about your character’s personality than virtually anything else.

T.Do you have any friends? Before your character started adventuring, they had a best friend. Who were they? What did they do? Why were they your best friend and what happened to them? A good GM will use this information, sometimes to your detriment, often to your advantage. In the unlikely event your character never had a best friend, why? And who would they like as a best friend?

So often overlooked in character creation, friends are not just non-player characters, but roleplaying opportunities, resources and plot devices all rolled into one. We are invariably drawn to people like ourselves, and a character’s friends, while each being unique individuals, will share many similar qualities with your player character. Your character’s friends may even include past or potential love interests.

U.Do you have any enemies? Enemies don’t necessarily want to kill your character, and could easily include rivals or just people that don’t like your character. Obviously enemies have some impact on your character or they’d just leave them alone and wouldn’t be enemies. In a civilised society they may just spread lies and attempt to undermine your character’s plans. There would have to be a powerful reason for an enemy to actually want to kill your character. Why are they your character’s enemy? What sort of things have they done to your character? And what sort of things has your character done to them?

V.What about your parents and family? Far too many characters have lost their family. Like friends, family are an important resource that clever characters can tap into. Unlike friends, your character didn’t get to choose their family. But the player does, and this is yet another opportunity to bring your character to life. Escaping parental authority, searching for lost siblings, striving for acceptance, proving one’s worth or running from destiny. Nothing impacts on a person’s life like family. Even as adults, parents and family continue to exert themselves on our lives. Why should things be different for your character? As most characters were raised by their parents, those parents should feature strongly in any background. After all, those parents are the ones who have tried hardest to shape your characters personality.

W.Do you have any present problems? Here you can feel free to throw in character hooks, ideas, where your character is in their life and where they want to go. Is your character’s peaceful life about to be shattered or has trouble been brewing for months? If you create some problems for your character, it immediately gives them some short term goals to strive towards. These problems can be as trivial as trying to get a letter home, to as large as trying to throw a powerful artifact into a volcano. Best to check with your game master first. They may have some problems for your character already.

Optional / going deeper - How could this get worse? This question looks at your character’s foresight and gives the game master some fun ideas to play with. You can also use it as a vehicle to suggest which directions you’d like to develop your character in. Remember that worse for you and worse for your character may be two completely different things.

Rarely do people see themselves as they are. Many people instead see themselves as they would like to be.

X.What are your strongest and weakest character traits? What is your basic nature? A brief summary of your character’s personality will help to stay focussed. As long as your character stays consistently within their basic nature, no-one is going to complain that you aren’t pulling off an award winning performance. The aim after all is to have fun. Look past your character’s ability scores and look at their personality. Few (if any) systems have numbers for things like kindness, greed, honesty and loyalty. Remember that flaws are a part of every personality. Even the noblest hero can have a weakness for money and even the lowest scoundrel may stick by their lover.

Optional - How do you see yourself? Your character may only recognise some of their faults and virtues, or even mistake one for the other. They may have a definite self image, or they may still be searching for themself. Just how much insight does your character possess?

Optional - How do others see you? Again, your character may answer this question incompletely, or even be just plain wrong. Few tyrants consider themselves as such and many would be genuinely surprised to find out they were unpopular. How much does your character listen to the opinions of others? How much does your character care about the opinions of others? Again, how the question is answered can reveal as much about the character as the answer itself.

Y.Do you have a sense of humour? Cruel, kind, slapstick, sarcastic, sardonic, ironic? Would your character prefer Monty Python or Jerry Seinfeld? Do they have a favourite joke and what might it be? In character jokes, while harder than out of character jokes, are certainly much more satisfying. Is your character quick to laugh, or above such open displays? Like anyone else, they will posses a sense of the ridiculous and the ludicrous. And like anyone else, they will have their own unique way of expressing themself.

Z.Do you have any ambitions? Your character may have many ambitions both simple and complex. Ambitions are very useful motivators, both to the character and the game master. By using the character’s ambitions they can be led through an exciting and entertaining story with a hopefully satisfying conclusion. However when the character reaches those goals things don’t have to stop. Like the character’s personality some of those ambitions will change over time. And even if the character does fulfil all their ambitions, there’s nothing wrong with retiring them. After all, they probably deserve the peace.

David Astley

Use this handy crib sheet summarizing the above

From 26 to over 50 Questions

  1. What is your name?
  2. What is your height and how much do you weigh?
  3. What do you look like?
    1. What is your favourite colour?
    2. What does your home look like?
  4. How old are you?
  5. Where were you born?
    1. Will you ever go back there?
  6. How were you educated?
  7. What have you learnt since then?
  8. What were you doing a month ago?
    1. What were you doing a year ago?
  9. What do you do?
    1. Do you work?
    2. Do you have any work experience?
  10. Do you have any scars or handicaps?
  11. What do you enjoy most?
    1. How do you like to spend your spare time?
    2. What are your favourite hobbies?
    3. What kind of art, music and reading material do you prefer?
  12. What do you like least?
  13. What makes you angry?
  14. What experience has made the strongest mark on you?
    1. What person has made the strongest mark on you?
  15. What have you done that you are most proud of?
  16. What have you done that you are most ashamed of?
  17. Do you have a religion?
    1. How strongly do you believe in your religion?
    2. Do you have a philosophy of life?
    3. How do you feel about money?
    4. How do you feel about knowledge?
    5. How do you feel about power?
  18. Why are you out adventuring?
  19. How does fighting & killing make you feel?
    1. Name something naughty that you did when you were about 12 years old that you got away with?
    2. What is your favourite colour?
  20. Do you have any friends?
  21. Do you have any enemies?
  22. What about your parents and family?
  23. Do you have any present problems?
    1. How could this get worse?
  24. What are your strongest and weakest character traits?
    1. How do you see yourself?
    2. How do others see you?
  25. Do you have a sense of humour?
  26. Do you have any ambitions?

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