A character is more than a collection of stats, which might describe how good a person is at something, but doesn’t tell you who they are. Character is what you do and why, it’s where you came from, what makes you tick — strengths and flaws.

When coming up with a character concept, you can start with something simple — a human fighter for a fantasy campaign, a fighter pilot in a science fiction game, an exorcist in a horror game. From there you can build up stats and build the character around what you take — it’s a perfectly viable way of doing things — but I’ve found that building the mechanical aspect of the character around a richer concept makes for a more consistent character in the end.

Let’s start with the notion of the human fighter. Why is he a fighter? Is it part of his culture, like Spartans, where men were assumed to be warriors, first and foremost? Did he come to it because he wanted to “give something back” for his people? Is he a “protector” sort, wanting to rent his sword to aid those who can’t help themselves, or is he enamored with violence and blood? Is he a fighter because it’s all he knows how to do? (In a more modern or sci-fi campaign, is he on the college plan — hoping to get college cash and not fight?) Right there you’ve got the basics for a character. From there you can add more background, as you feel is applicable. You don’t have to document the guy’s past from zygote to last week; fill in what is necessary and applicable to help you grasp the “why” of the character.

An example of the kind of detail you have would depend on what is needed for the game storyline, or to under stnad the motivations of the character. Case in point: James Bond. What, from the movies and books, do we really know about him? We know he was an orphan and got through school on the good graces of others. We know he was a naval officer. Everything else we know comes from behavior (there are schools of acting and psychology that would say behavior is character…anything outside of the unobservable is theory.) — Bond is a womanizer, but why? Is it because he’s a misogynist bastard? Is it because he is looking for something that makes him feel alive? Is it a vague attempt to even the scales for all the people he’s killed? He drinks — a lot. Is it simply because he’s Scottish (in the books)? Is it anesthetic for his soul?

Does it matter? It could if a villain was looking to use those traits against him. Here’s another example of a character we only really know about through behavior: Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly…we know from the pilot he was a religious man (the kissing the cross prior to the raid on the antiaircraft gun in Serenity explains much about his relationship with Book later.) He has his dreams for freedom, and his believe in the Almighty crushed when the Browncoats surrender. We know nothing about his background before the war other than his mother had a place on Shadow and that it’s gone. Everything we glean from his desire to stay free and to protect his crew. He’s consistent, and he’s that way because the writers knew who and what he was when they began.

The benefit to a decently fleshed out character like Bond or Mal is that you can build in subplots as the campaign continues without having to worry about your continuity. However, in games where the character’s background is part and parcel of them, it’s a good idea to flesh them out more.

We have a character in our Suipernatural game that is a walking pile of subplots waiting to be used. He’s a former FBI profiler whose wife and son were killed by a “copycat” of a serial killer he brought down. The character has mild ESP — this is how he’s been such a good interrogator; he knows the murders weren’t a copycat, but he can’t quite figure out how it is he “missed” the killer. (Demonic possession for 500, Alex!) the name of the killer and his description is important, as is some of the character’s career at FBI.

Part of his family matters to the game plots, but his father and mother, not so much…they’re only slightly detailed by their names and professions; the wife and son matter in the psyche of the character — they’re more fleshed out in description. He’s a drunk, and had the propensity before they were killed, but it spun him out and made him a barely functional alcoholic. Eventually it cost him his job, and causes him trouble with contacts he needs for his job.

That brings us to the most important part of creating a character: flaws. Perfect people are boring (just look at the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation) for the GM and the players; strong, charismatic, bold, and unstoppable means there’s no challenge. That might be fin if you game for self-aggrandizement, but it doesn’t make for good role playing. Bond is interesting not because he’s a suprahuman killing machine — it’s because he occasionally does stupid stuff because he’s a sucker for women, he’s driven like a cruise missile after his target, sometimes to distraction. Mal is interesting because he makes bad decisions in his desire to stay free, avoid the Alliance, and in his attempts to protect his crew.

Flaws might detract from what a character can do, but they make the character interesting.