How do you build a character?

My characters tend to pop out and develop in one of two ways.

  1. Simple – I need an archetype character for a scene. I’ll take the extract characteristics for the archetype, trash what I don’t like about it, and add inconsistencies. Voila, minor character complete(ish). This allows for quick generation without the ‘archetype clone’ feel.
  2. Complex – For characters who will stick around a bit I want much more depth. For these I generally start by throwing them into the story and seeing how they swim. Once I’ve written a bit of them and have some dialog/activity to look at I figure out WHY they said and did those things. That then forms the character base; the things that I need to do consistently with the character.

Let me show what I mean. This is the opening for a chapter in Makers. Tyche is an established character en route with a caravan. I needed 2 people around a campfire with him so took advantage of this to introduce Muril, who will be a recurring (complex) character. I had no idea what to do for the other guy but figured Tyche had to be riding in a coach so poof – coach driver Dobbs.

Dobbs is a simple character, a quickly defined coachman. I decide he’s an independent, not part of the caravan owner’s people. He’s gruff, has an outrageous accent and a gambling problem.

Muril I just let happen at this point.

“An then ye add oop ol the cairds wi the same suit. And then ye double check Muril’s numbers. Te sonofabitch cain’t add fer shite.” So saying, the coach driver threw his cards down onto the pot and said “Fer en twenny”.

“Twenty seven” the aforementioned Muril said, tossing his cards onto the table. “And I add just fine, Dobbs. I can about do it from the marks on the backs of your cards.” Muril turned to Tyche as he raked in the pot. “Well then, sirrah. Stake is 5 chits. Are you in?”

“I think it would hardly be fair” Tyche responded.

“Muril’s jest tryin to rile me. The cairds are true” interjected the coachman.

“Be that as it may, with only 41 cards it would be frightfully simple to determine what is in each players’ hand. It would not be gambling so much as collecting a tithe.”

Muril laughed heartily. “Well then how could you refuse such simple coin? Come on then, man. I have most of Dobb’s money to lose. It’s not like there’s better entertainment available.”

“Very well” answered Tyche. “But please maintain your composure as the game progresses.”

After this I went back and looked deeper at Muril. I decided he knew Dobbs before this trip so I can infer from just that tidbit plus his actions above:

  • He knows Dobbs has a gambling problem. That means Muril is knowingly taking advantage of him. This speaks to his jovial nature being somewhat misleading.
  • Muril is a bit sneaky and preys on weakness.
  • He’s beating Dobbs, who has (presumably) some extensive experience with the game they are playing. So Muril is intelligent and perceptive, traits that do well for a roguish character and fit well with what I eventually want him to do.
  • He banters and speaks well. I decide he is at least fairly charismatic.
  • Why is he trying to get Tyche to play? To win more money or something deeper? I decided it was both. He’s an opportunist so responds to possible additional winnings. Since he is perceptive I figure he has noticed some of Tyche’s oddities and wants to find out more. That makes him a very curious man, something that also fits in well with where I want him to go later.

So I end up with a character with a strong core, an-archetypal, that I can base consistent future actions on as he continues to develop.

Where do your characters come from?

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