Give Your Character Personality

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 22, 2012

When you ask a gamer to tell you about their character they will usually begin with class and race followed by the kind of weapon the PC uses, a list of their best magical items and then finally some really cool attack power or spell in their arsenal. And for most people that’s the answer they expect. But when was the last time you described a character as being a know-it-all, or a suck up, or a dreamer, or manipulative, or unusually arrogant?

Personality isn’t one of the boxes you need to fill in on a character sheet so many gamers, me included, often overlook this important detail when we create characters. More importantly we forget that every character has a unique personality. Looking back at my last few long-term characters I realize that they all had pretty much the same personality – mine.

In my experience, very few of us define our character by who they really are at heart, resorting instead to what they possess and what they can do. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach, but if you play a lot of RPGs you realize that a character with a well-defined personality can be a lot more interesting and a lot more fun to play. After all, personality goes a long way.

Vincent: Do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?

Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy, but they’re definitely dirty. But a dog’s got personality. And personality goes a long way.

Vincent: So by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he’s cease to be a filthy animal?

Jules: We’d have to be talkin’ ’bout one charmin’ pig.

–– From “PULP FICTION” By Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary

It can be difficult to create a character with a unique personality, or at least one that’s different than that of the player. Many gamers feel that a PC’s personality must coincide with their alignment. If the PC is good he’ll be polite, nice and have a positive outlook. If he’s evil he’ll be a mean, arrogant, selfish jerk. For brand new players this kind of thinking is fine, but once a player has a little bit more experience they should break away from these overused stereotypes.

Just because a PC is evil doesn’t mean that he can’t be charming and likable. His alignment and his motives aren’t emblazoned on his sleeve; he can act however the player sees fit. Often the most evil characters are kind and well liked by the masses, at least until their evil intentions are exposed. Likewise a PC with a strong good alignment may be disliked or even hated. Perhaps the PC is working towards the greater good and doesn’t take time to explain his actions. The result is that onlookers think he’s an arrogant jerk.

Giving PCs a few personality traits helps the player quickly figure out who this PC is and how he’s going to play him. During the first few seasons of D&D Encounters many players used the pre-generated characters Wizards provided. On each character sheet were a few brief sentences describing the PCs motives and personal history. Since the players didn’t create these characters themselves they really latched onto these descriptions and it made for some excellent role-playing. In subsequent seasons most players now make their own characters and the role-playing has fallen flat. They worry so much about the numbers that they forget to bring the character to life.

With a new season of D&D Encounters about to begin and many groups getting together this week to cerate new characters, I implore DMs to encourage players to develop personalities for their characters. Ask them to list a few personality traits that they feel play a significant role in defining who this character is. If they’re having trouble coming up with a few off the top of their head, I recommend using one of the many lists available online. Although these are usually intended as random tables to help the DM give NPCs differing personalities, they work just as well for PCs.

By listing even a few personality traits or mannerisms about every character you play you’ll make them more memorable and will likely find that you enjoy playing them a lot more than characters who are just numbers. Remember that personalities can change over time so be mindful of how events in your game may cause subtle (or radical) shifts in your character’s established personality.

For a really radical approach to personality have your players actually roll on one of the random charts to determine their personality traits. No matter what the results, see if they can actually work that personality into the character they’re creating. It may not work all the time but it might get them to take the character in a totally different direction that they ever would have thought to go.

How often do you give your characters a distinct personality? Do you ever write personality traits on your character sheet? Would you be willing to roll randomly for personality traits or would you rather make a conscious decision about how your character behaves and acts?

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1 Megan February 22, 2012 at 9:48 am

I’ve only really had one long-term character, but she was dramatically different from me. I played a Deva Paladin, and she was a very cold individual, largely asexual because it just didn’t warrant any effort under her philosophy, almost fanatically self-sacrificing in battle, and definitely fit the full breadth of the “lawful good” on the character sheet. I’m completely opposite of that character in almost every way, and it made for some interesting role playing.
Our sessions were full of situations where I had to make it very clear that I thought my party’s plans were great, but that my character just couldn’t let them go through with something like that. I was partied with a nearly insane fire wizard, a chaotic good druid, and a neutral good bard. That sort of group dynamic made for some touchy situations, but we usually managed to agree to something everybody was comfortable with, and when we couldn’t, I made it clear that they needed to work behind my character’s back.

2 Alton February 22, 2012 at 10:22 am

I remember the fun I had playing my sorcerer of the same name – Alton. In the RttToEE, he played with a deck of many things and one of the cards forced his alignment to the opposite alignment. I WAS Chaotic Good and had to take the Lawful Evil alignment. Made for great roleplaying. He had personality; charismatic, helpful, kind – until we went to the abyss.

Anyways, good times, good times!

3 Quirky DM February 22, 2012 at 11:07 am

I have been using Aspects to stat out all my characters’ personalities lately, regardless if the game uses aspects or not. I have an extremely strong sense of the character before I sit down for the first session. After a session or two and some feeling of what felt “right”, I tweak the aspects and never look back. Even after a long break from the character, I look down, read the aspects on my character sheet and I’m instantly into character.

4 Quirky DM February 22, 2012 at 11:16 am

Actually, I just wanted to talk about the rolling for personality. I don’t like it. I might enjoy doing it for inspiration, but at the end of the day, how the character acts is the only aspect of the character you can fully control and call your own. If you take that away from the player, then you hardly need the player around. There’s a chart telling you what you’re supposed to do. The one exception is in one-offs and short games where the challenge is to experiment with an unknown personality trait. But for long term games, a solid connection is needed to the character, and that only comes from making meaningful decisions with him.

5 Chaotic DM February 22, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Whenever I come up with a new character concept, I try to do equal parts class and personality (race being tertiary).

I have a few character concepts now that I have been holding onto for just the right adventure. First, a swordmage with the personality of Captain Hammer from Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. Self-confident, charismatic, overbearing and usually able to backup his claims. Second is a tinkerer artificer based off Doctor Who. Inquisitive, adventuring and preferring peace to conflict. He always loves to meet strange people and find magical items for experimentation.

6 Lucas February 22, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I really only have one character since I am very new to DnD. I’ve made a few other characters for future games, and I have some ideas for them to make them not exactly like me. Though right now the character I play is a lot like me, a bit more annoying and cocky but he’s pretty much me. I think next time I need to make a character I might just roll for personality traits. It would be a fun challenge and I really love roleplaying.
On a side note, I love all the articles on here and hope you keep up the good work

7 Philo Pharynx February 22, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I usually begin making a character by playing with the stats to get somebody that is mechnically interesting. Then, when I’m lucky, my muse comes to me with an idea. When that happens she won’t let me rest (often literally – my muse usually strikes at 2-3am) until I work on the character to make it fit. Sometimes that involves completely changing the mechanics, other times I need to scour the internet for the right picture (or one close enough to edit into something that works). Sometimes I just have to imagine what the character would do in various situations. It doesn’t happen on all of my characters, but when it does, it’s a character that almost plays themselves.

@Lucas. Hi there, welcome to gaming. May you have great fun with great people!

8 Sunyaku February 22, 2012 at 8:42 pm

I always try to come up with some defining mannerisms and some backstory on my sheet. Last season, I played a Wild Elf leader/controller/fighter (hybrid fighter/druid) who was obsessed with consuming primoridial power. He wore “bullywug hide” armor, wielded a spear, and I gave him the long jumper feat and the ability to shift 7 through diff terrain to make him seem very bully-ish. In homage to battletoads, I named him Rash. Oh, and he had a swamp dog (wolf) named slime as well.

Another player at the table did something REALLY hilarious. Mechanically, he played a human druid with a bear, but thematically, the human was “the voice of shardik, destroyer of worlds” and the main character was actually the bear (and only spoke in growls). The bear was here to give us advance warning of the impending destruction he would wreck upon the world, and that we should enjoy our final days. Whenever the bear “died”, he was temporarily dispelled back to his native hateful dimension.

9 The Gimper February 23, 2012 at 1:26 am

One of the things that helps me to build a personality is choosing a Theme. One of the characters I’m currently playing is a Lawful Good Paladin of Torm. I chose the Chevalier theme for him. The code that he follows makes for some really good roll playing opportunities, and effects the tactical decisions he makes on the battlefield (not always to the delight of the party).

10 Rick Hansen February 23, 2012 at 8:27 am

The Gimper is spot on. I went through many different builds, themes and options, but ultimately I chose most aspects of my new PC not to make him the most powerful of the group, but based on who he is and where he comes from as a character. I’ve played the last two seasons of Encounters with a PC who had certain motivations and a compelling backstory, but this will be the first season where I’ve picked personality elements that I can roleplay as someone other than myself.

11 Ryan June 2, 2012 at 6:23 pm

I usually take a positive personality trait of my own and make it the biggest thing about a character I’m creating.

For Grimli he’s completely reckless with is life but not the life of others. He also has some anger issues.

For a new character I’m working on his personality will focus on being a noble and the posh lifestyle he is used too. He will be reluctant about going into filthy places and consorting with people who are well below his station. He will be great at his job though but will annoy the players with his issues.

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