D&D — How to Make Interesting Player Characters

A couple of friends have asked me recently (for different an unrelated campaigns, even) about how I make a player character that I am excited to play. It’s worth noting that they were relatively inexperienced, and while they knew what D&D is and how to play, they didn’t have enough experience to know their options and how to capitalize them for maximum anticipation. I’ve talked about this a bit, but haven’t made a full blog post about it, so here it is, oh friends of mine from the future that have asked me this same question.

That said, this guide will be geared towards those players. I would say the majority of people who play D&D regularly as a hobby tend to have a backlog of possible characters they would like to play and are simply waiting for the opportunity to pull them out (like me). Even if that is the case, though, maybe they’re not as fleshed out as they could be, and this guide will help you learn more about that cool idea.

Here we go.

Step One: Identify your Rule of Cool. This can be anything. Maybe your cool thing is casting spells on your enemy to make them think you’re their friend. Maybe it’s the too-cool-for-school rogue that only feels happy when she’s stabbing somebody. Maybe it’s a backstory, like your parents were murdered by birds and now you are on a quest to kill every bird for revenge. It doesn’t matter what it is, just search deep inside your soul and find the answer to the question “How do I achieve maximum coolness?” because everyone should be able to feel cool when playing their heroes.

  • To follow along with an example of my own characters, one of my Rule of Cool things was that I wanted to play a Lawful Evil character. Somebody that is selfish and manipulative, but still helps the party. (We’ll get to that part.)

Step Two: Identify how your Rule of Cool manifests. How much of that thing is narrative, and how much of it is actually gameplay mechanics? Wanting to murder every bird is narrative, because it doesn’t have any influence on what race or class you are. Wanting to mind control all your enemies does inform your class, though. You’d be hardpressed to make a barbarian whose main purpose in combat is to mind control, for example. Once you figure this out, you can more easily identify what parts of your character you still need to figure out.

  • My Lawful Evil character was a dark elf, or a drow, because in most common lore, dark elves are lawful evil. So this Rule of Cool informed race, which helps inform backstory, but there is no hint of class yet.

Step Three: Find the ‘But’. This is the critical point in which your cool idea becomes an interesting and nuanced character. The idea here is to fill out the rest of your basic character concept with something that significantly contrasts your Rule of Cool idea. Maybe your mind control character is a big dumb goliath. Maybe the guy that wants to kill all birds is, secretly, a bird. Maybe your edgy rogue character secretly just wants to be loved. It doesn’t have to make sense (yet), it just has to be interesting enough to get you interested.

  • My drow still didn’t have a class here, so that’s what I used for the ‘But’. Lawful Evil drow? What if he’s a bard that sings songs and inspires people around him? How does that work?

And now for Step 4: Use those two mismatching ideas, and find a way to make it work. This will pretty much always tell you the basics of their backstory and make filling out details easy. How did this dumb goliath get mind control powers? Why did your edgy rogue turn to stabbing people when really they’re just lonely? Why does a bird and his parents get attacked by other birds? The idea with the ‘But’ here is that it allows you to ask specific and direct questions that inspire their own answers. The Cool idea and the But idea should be mismatched in a way that asks these obvious questions.

  • How does a lawful evil drow become a bard? Easy, he found himself orphaned on the surface (for reasons that aren’t important so I don’t care yet) and was adopted by a nice noble family. They loved him and cherished him. Gave him an education and taught him music. He hated it, because he wanted to have a cruel, twisted life so that he could use that hatred to be edgy and drow-like. Instead, he had a cushy lifestyle he was too embarrassed to talk about. Which is a fun secret to keep from the rest of the party!

And you’re done! …ish. It’s important to note here that none of this process actually nails down anything concrete. It can, but really the point is to figure out all of the important basics for your character and then decide what you want later. Our friend that murders birds still doesn’t have a class, for example. Our mind controlling-goliath has a few different options regarding class. Our edgy rogue can still be any race, and there’s lots of room for growth and exploration regarding their backstory.

That’s pretty much it. Getting interested in your character is really just a matter of brainstorming the right questions and coming up with answers that add depth and dimension to your character. The specifics can always be more refined later.

Me — Committing to Writing

I’ve been writing since I was 12 years old. Not trying to brag, as I don’t think that it’s even all that impressive, but at this point it’s nearing half my life. I’ve written loads of things, listened to podcasts on how to write, read books and blogs on how to write, and I’ve been attending a writer’s group for roughly three years as well. Throughout a lot of my journey, one specific post stands out: Jim Butcher’s last Livejournal post about writing.

I’d recommend reading the whole post, there’s a lot of gold in there, but out of everything, these words have been in the back of my head for years.

In fact, the vast majority of aspiring authors (somewhere over 99 percent) self-terminate their dream. They quit. Think about this for a minute, because it’s important:

THEY KILL THEIR OWN DREAM.

And a lot of you who read this are going to do it too. Doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It’s just human nature. It takes a lot of motivation to make yourself keep going when it feels like no one wants to read your stuff, no one will ever want to read your stuff, and you’ve wasted your time creating all this stuff. That feeling of hopelessness is part of the process. Practically everyone gets it at one time or another. Most can’t handle it.

But here’s the secret:

YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD WHO CAN KILL YOUR DREAM. *NO ONE* can make you quit. *NO ONE* can take your dream away.

And for me, 2018 was pretty much the year of failure for me. I started a very ambitious project—12 Lisa Stenton novellas, one a month, with the intent of publishing them as one book around this time. Well, I wrote one good one, one bad one, and got halfway through the third before I ran into that roadblock the Lisa Stenton universe still has. (The huge question of “How does the supernatural work really?“)

A few months after that I stopped writing short stories altogether. I did a few neat things, but I’ll leave it at that. As you probably know I even stopped writing the blog for the last months of the year. The only writing I was doing at that time was short scenes of plays for school.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently, with Jim Butcher’s words rattling my brain. Am I doubting myself because it’s natural for a writer or because writing isn’t my path? I genuinely don’t know. I think, as a creative person, I have some good ideas.

But I have never enjoyed sitting down and writing. It’s always a chore. A chore I can feel accomplished for doing when I’m done, but it’s more of a necessity out of needing to put the ideas in my head onto paper than a love for the craft.

That said, what I do love is those ideas. I never get tired of playing around in a world and coming up with cool ideas, whether it’s the infinite, soundless tunnel of the Passway or the enormous interplanetary structure of the Spear Gate system. I love squishing inklings of ideas and molding them into sculptures of “Whoa, that’s cool”. I recently joined a collaborative project with some friends that have a lot of that, and after every meeting I’m left driving home with a stupid grin on my face because of all the cool new pictures and scenes that are now floating in my head.

I have never enjoyed the act of writing. It’s very difficult for me to envision myself as an author a decade from now. But a developmental editor, or somebody who does the story writing for a game or some such… Well, I don’t know what that job would entail, but I think I could sit in meetings doing brainstorming for 8 hours a day.

Me — My Love for Brainstorming

So, even with my conspicuously missing spark of inspiration, and my consequential lack of fiction writing, there is quite a lot of aspects to stories I do enjoy, which is why I’m so confident I’ll find my career somewhere in this giant field. I’m pretty good at editing when I’m really doubling down on it, and I’d say I have a pretty solid grasp on story structure.

What’s weird is that as much as I dislike outlining stories I plan on writing, I love outlining and brainstorming stories. A friend and I have been working on the plot to a story for a few months (totaling to about two and a half real discussions), and the outline is coming together very well.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, listen to an episode of Rocket Jump’s podcast Story Break. For those of you that don’t want to take the time to do that, I’d describe it very simply as taking a simple idea and fleshing it out into a story, randomly spitballing until you get that spark of “Oh, that’s cool”, and then writing that down and spitballing again until you find something that thematically ties in to what you’ve already got. You repeat this process over and over and by the time you’re done you should have a full story plot complete with strong themes, recurring symbols, and dynamic characters. Or at least it looks like you do on paper. Then you write the first draft and it turns out to be crap.

But that part’s an altogether different story. Right now I’m just talking about being in the headspace of brainstorming. The mental office in which you have no clutter, no restrictions, no rules, no anything. You just have a blank piece of paper and a giant bowl of primordial essence with which you can create this masterpiece. Plus, since it’s all just in your head, it’s automatically perfect. Converting concept to product is never as simple as fun. At least, not for me. When I’m creating something new I don’t want to spend time thinking anything other than what’s cool and shooting for that.

And you know, the funny thing about writing blog posts like this is that you sometimes discover things about yourself. I often tell people that creativity is the ability to justify things under constraints, and that it’s pretty much just a muscle that you need to train (you know, just like literally everything in life). But writing about this now has me realizing that the thing I love most about creating something new is the lack of restrictions other than the ones I impose on myself.

With most larger concepts I start with the one idea I like and then throw in the opposite of it. “The Cool” and “The But”, as I’ve begun to call them. (Maybe I should do a dedicated post on finding the Cool and the But sometime in the near future.) Once I have those two things, I spend the rest of the time marrying them in a way that looks like they were meant to be together from the start, and often I’ll find some neat things along the way.

So, I don’t know if there’s any occupation that is literally just brainstorming, be it plots, scripts, worlds, whatever, but if there is, I could totally see myself doing that all day every day for a living.