Breathing Life in Characters Part 3: Personal Quirks and Histories

In parts 1 and 2 of Breathing Life in Characters, we have talked about how characters gain depth by being part of their societies and traditional schools of thought. This part will examine individuality and the ways that characters can develop as single entities among their fellows while maintaining the ties to the world that make them feel lifelike.

In addition to existing as part of a society, characters should have a degree of individuality. Everyone has a certain personal history and will have their own experiences within the context of the world, and as with the social and philosophical elements of a character these elements can be painted first with broad brush strokes and then refined further into individual elements.

When working with a society, you can easily create three or four standard “histories” for characters; for instance, they may have graduated from schooling straight into work. Military officers probably come from an academy or the ranks of aristocracy, while rank and file soldiers often come from lower class backgrounds. Having common backgrounds allows you to easily apply them to many characters: an officer may have gone through the academy, but done poorly due to being from a lower class. This requires very little effort, and can be done on the fly for minor NPCs to give them a little more edge.

Focus on NPCs that players are likely to encounter; in a modern setting at peace, characters are likely to encounter mostly people from their own society who look a lot like everymen in today’s society: there are a few levels of education (high school, apprenticeship, undergraduate, postgraduate), and distinctions between various industries (service, blue collar, white collar, public sector, private sector), and writing up basic explanations of each allows you to quickly create characters: you could have a rich CEO who was a college drop-out (high school education) with the talent to become a major industry figure (white collar career). With only a couple templates you can create a character who is meaningfully distinct from other rich CEOs; someone with a doctorate (postgraduate) degree in the same field may have social tensions with the upstart who was able to achieve success without the same level of training and knowledge.

Personal quirks also make characters memorable. These are somewhat dependent on setting, but common quirks include frequent behaviors or interesting physical features. The role of personal quirks is to give characters more depth; it is easy to fall into a rut of presenting the same character repeatedly. Giving quirks not only helps the audience remember the character, but also prevents them from becoming too accustomed to your style.

A character with a moustache and a stammer can be interesting, but quirks should go a little deeper, as a moustache and stammer in and of themselves don’t matter. A trademark phrase doesn’t work terribly well either; they have their role in defining a character, but should not be the sole defining element of a character. Instead, consider personal values or behaviors that a character does without really thinking about it.

One example of this working well is a character that paces: someone who is impatient may well pace around, but a character that paces in almost every situation has a different tone. They could be energetic, anxious, or distant. Associate movement with productivity for them; they choose to engage in fields where motion is important, and they hate sitting still for long periods of time. If they do, they fidget, or find some other habit to replace the act of pacing.

Trademark items and clothing also work well. A character who always wears gloves, for instance, has an air of mystery. Obviously, gloves are used by criminals to hide fingerprints, but they are also used to protect hands or hide blemishes. The character might have a background they wish to avoid, or they could simply be concerned with cleanliness, perhaps to the point of obsession. Characters that wear distinctive clothes often stand out; a detective who insists on wearing a trenchcoat and fedora is clearly evoking a certain genre and time period, but also likely considers the old noir detectives to be role models for their own life.

Objects that a character treasures can also be hooks to their life story. A character may be attached to a wallet, for instance, because it was a gift from their father. The artifacts that a character surrounds themselves with have some meaning to the character; even a hoarder attributes specific value to each of the objects they collect. Some characters may keep things they would normally get rid of due to social obligation, or value useless things due to the context they give.

Daily rituals often provide a wealth of information about a person. Many of these are going to be cultural; keeping up with hygiene standards, religious rituals, and so forth. However, characters often do things that define their preferences and tastes: do they insist on having tea each morning, to the point where they are willing to go to personal expense or risk to get tea or boil water while traveling? Does the character attend Mass on Sundays, or throughout the week? Do they have a scheduled time for prayer or meditation? Do they need to perform some action to maintain their abilities, such as preparing spells or recharging cybernetic implants? Many of these events hold significance to a character, whether it is philosophical, or simply a matter of family or social tradition.

Of course, all the preparation that goes into a character is meaningless if you cannot leverage it in storytelling. Characters need opportunities to meet, and a concert hall works as well as a tavern. If there is an opportunity for small talk, such matters might come up in discussion. Keep in mind that etiquette often demands that business issues be couched in daily life, and characters who are going to be doing any long-scale traveling together will gain insight into each other.

Be sure that when you give characters quirks and histories that they are actually relevant to the character; even minor characters can be given simple histories that are drawn from the norms for their society. If they later become promoted to major characters that see more interaction with the players, they can be associated with personal quirks at a later date, but having a basic understanding of their background ensures that they remain consistent as they receive more specific details, rather than forcing a sudden shift in attitude or behavior.

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