Compelling characters make for a compelling story. Just think of the difference between the games run by a Storyteller whose characters can make you laugh, make you cry, make you fear for them … and the ones who would make a piece of cardboard look deep and interesting in comparison. The same can be said for the protagonists themselves — your player characters! After all, the PCs are what the game is about and they, by definition, have more screen time than anyone else. So if they’re boring then it’s not going to do the game any favours.
I’m not saying that every player character should be a work of art nor does a character need to be realistic to be interesting. Some of the most compelling characters ever made were larger-than-life characters. And, obviously, different game genres and player / game master preferences are going to have an impact on the game’s needs for PC complexity so you don’t need to have layers of detail to make that character compelling.
So what makes a character compelling?
Motivation is a big one. Your character needs to *want* something, ideally something related to the main arc of the story. This motivation needs to runs deeper than a simple list of goals. This is what your character is searching for and it colours everything about them as the game gains in tension. It can change over the course of the game, and you may need to change it pretty early on in reaction to early plot points. A strong motivation often pulls from a powerful internal core such as an ideology or a base need for safety, companionship, trust, recognition or power. While this central motivation won’t be the only thing that motivates your character, it should inform the other goals.
A good quirk can make a character compelling when it adds depth and contrast to your character. A character who snarks all the time or always makes goofball comments just because it’s funny isn’t going to add a compelling vibe. A healer whose snark covers their compassion when they’re truly driven to help people or whose goofball commentary comes from a place of pain where they feel guilt over the death of their son adds significance to these quirks.
Not every quirk needs to be powerful to be worthwhile, but the more it defines your character’s interactions the more important it is to figure out why. Smaller quirks can also be very worthwhile if they provide contrast to the character (the torturer pats the dogs head when thoughtful), defines the character (lips a coin in the mean streets of a Noir Fantasy), or adds a touch of historical or cultural realism (feels naked without hit hat outdoors).
Dare to be different. Take a clichéd expectation and twist it to help give the character new depths. A rogue who learned their skills as an archaeologist from an arcane university or due to their work in a city police force can lead to a more interesting backstory. Taking an exceptional skill or useful niche can also help your character stand out from the crowd — especially in games where character sheet building are a very important part of the story.
Embrace your character’s flaws. The moments when your paladin struggles to face their fears are every bit as interesting as the times they are automatically brave. Give your character a trait they wish they didn’t have and perhaps something they don’t realise they have. Perhaps they really wish they could be a classy diner but they get too eager to eat to pay attention (or just don’t know the rules) or maybe they think they’re funny but the jokes always fall flat whenever they try it.
Finally, let your character change. Let them be influenced by the other characters and the storyline itself. A character is most compelling when you get to watch as the highs and lows of war affect your personality, revealing and concealing different traits and potentials as time wears on.
So what do you think makes for a compelling player character? What other handy hints could we bear in mind when creating and playing our characters?