Whether it’s designing an NPC or making a new player character, it can be hard to create characters with personality. Despite being a core part of the Dungeons and Dragons experience, many players and DMs create and run boring, one-dimensional characters. No one wants to do this, they often just don’t know how to build personality into a character. The trick is to really think about your characters, get in their heads, and figure out what sets them apart.
What Makes a Personality
A personality is the collection of attributes that an individual has that are perceived by others. This definition seems simple, but we really want to highlight that the core of that statement is the perceived by others part.
This implies that your character’s rich and storied history means nothing if it’s not perceived by the rest of the party.
When we look at NPCs it’s the same thing. The party only knows what they see. If you built an awesome NPC, you have to show off what makes them awesome.
Since perception is the thing that matters in getting personality to come through, we want to focus on maximizing what is perceived. This can be done in a lot of different ways very easily. The language the character uses, the way they look, their moral leanings, really anything. But there’s a catch. For players to really see anything as personality, the attribute has to stand out.
The more similar the character is to those around them, the less personality they seem to have.
In a way, since perception is a core component of personality, the less someone perceives something the less it shapes a personality. And people tend to perceive differences more easily than similarities.
Differentiating a Character
The characters who are the most memorable stand out from the crowd in some way. They are said to have the most personality because their differences are perceived as a blueprint for the character in the player’s minds. If an NPC has a strong personality, the players will have a better idea of how that character is likely to act in different situations.
If you want to differentiate a character from those around them, you can usually do this by distorting a stat or attribute away from the average. Make a character exceptionally strong or weak, incredibly smart or stupid. Even though the strength of the character isn’t their personality, a strong/weak character will act in accordance with their strength shaping how others perceive them. A smart character will solve a problem a different way from a stupid one.
Another way to differentiate a character is to push their values or beliefs away from the average. Loving or hating anything tends to make a character seem to have more personality. Loving or hating something invokes certain reactions which can be perceived by the people around them.
These preferences and statistics of your character are the building blocks of their personality and that comes from getting inside the character themselves.
Thinking Like Your Character
Now that we know what makes a character stand out, we need to take a look at why they ever would. To do this we need to think like our character and figure out what they think about the world around them.
When you’re trying to get in your character’s head, ask yourself some questions:
- What motivates them to do what they do?
- What do they like doing?
- What do they hate doing?
- Do they like/dislike others in general?
- Are they selfless or selfish?
- How do they think about wealth and material possessions?
- What’s their sense of justice like?
- Do they have any hopes or dreams?
You can go on asking these questions for a long time. The more you think about this the better sense of your character you’ll develop. Once you have a good blueprint in your head you’ll be able to put your NPCs in any situation and know how they’ll act.
Putting Personality All Together
A character is more than the sum of their parts. Individual characteristics, stats, and attributes all mix together in interesting ways to create more complex traits. These combined traits often come out as simplified adjectives about the character. They may be labeled as cowardly or brave based on how other traits drive actions that they take. These simplifications are hardly the whole story, but they are what stick.
Avoiding a Flat Character Personality
Flat characters are usually the ones that seem to have only a single defining characteristic. This does give them personality, but usually its this single characteristic overshadowing everything else that makes the character seem one-dimensional. These kind of characters exist often because of a simple design decision gone wrong.
Usually flat characters come from personality-driven character building, rather than character-driven personality building.
What does that mean exactly? If you start with a character personality you are trying to build, you will end up missing a lot of the things that drive that personality. If you miss out on the complex characteristics beneath the character, you end up with a caricature. This mistake can be resolved by going back and asking the same questions you would building the character from the ground up.
Why do they act the way they do? How do they feel about the things around them?
Creating Characters with Personality is an Art
If it was easy to make great characters with lots of personality, everyone would do it. It’s a skill that can be learned and improved upon, so don’t give up if you don’t get it right away. The characters you already built can be improved and each new character you make can be even better.
If you remember that the best characters are complex and try to consider their core motivations and characteristics, you’ll be making characters with personality in no time.