Building a Compelling Character

Building a character in a World of Darkness game takes about five minutes.

Building a character in a World of Darkness game takes about six hours.

Usually it’s a superposition of both.

Mechanically you can fill out your character sheet in about five minutes. Anyone can learn it and get going right away. But then comes the hard part, where you have to come up with a character that will be interesting enough to bother playing for a few months or years.

See, in other games you have some training wheels that make playing a character a little easier. You have levels. It might take three or four levels to figure out who the character is, and what they want. You might never figure it out and just tag along with the rest of the party and have a great time. Nothing wrong with that. Vampire complicates this a bit.

In Vampire, you’re dropped into a web of distrust, occult dealings, moral failing, and political fuckery. Every NPC is trying to manipulate you to their own ends, playing you like Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, if Toshiro Mifune had no idea what was going on. If you don’t know what you want and why you want it when you hit the ground, you’re going to end up feeling like you’re getting jerked around by the Storyteller. Worse yet, you could find a bit of freedom and have no idea what to do with it.
 
You could build a hardass power climber, which will solve the self-direction problem. But if the rest of the players aren’t interested in seeing what shit you get into, it’s not going to work. That’s why we’re trying to build a compelling character, not just a self-directed one.

What is a Minimum Viable Character?

In a way it’s incredibly simple: a viable character is one that other players and the Storyteller want to interact with. They have a clear point of view and their choices are informed by their past.  They have layers of personality, quirks, motivations, and inconsistencies. The minimum viable character fulfills these requirements in as efficient a manner as possible. You don’t have to engage in a Jungian ritual journey into your soul to create an interesting, believable character.

If you Google ‘how do I make an interesting character’, you’ll find a bunch of articles and videos aimed at writers. Most of it is about creating a likable character. The thing is, likability is a crutch, and an insufficient one at that. There are dozens of fascinating, completely unlikable characters. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Hannibal Lecter. Beetlejuice. It’s not even work to find characters you’d never want as a roommate but who keep your attention. It turns out writer’s advice is pretty worthless.

Actors, on the other hand, have to make the best of what they are handed. Any of the above characters are on page strange, off-putting, and grating. A good actor fills in the gaps of the character and breathes life into it. And it turns out, when an actor talks about what makes an interesting character, they have a pretty good idea. As a player, you’re one part writer and three parts actor. You can take the slimmest concept and fill it out into a fully fledged character. Most of us learned this through trial and error, but let’s see if we can’t codify the folk knowledge a bit.

The process and purpose

Finishing a Minimum Viable Character is a four step process that shouldn’t take more than an hour, potentially much less if you already have a concept ready. Please keep in mind, the goal of these steps isn’t to give you a fully fleshed out character with a long backstory and a million nuanced positions. These tools are designed to create a set of behaviors and motivations that are playable at the table, without constraining a character to a single dimension.

The first step is the character Concept. Concepts are the stepping off point for the player, the initial push that lets the character gain momentum.

The next step is the Pivotal Event. At some point in the past something happened that evoked and emotional response in your character, and the emotion was not, and cannot be resolved. This creates the underlying drive to your character, the dissatisfaction that pushes them to try harder.

Third, we have the Habits, behaviors of the character that illuminates their history, social class, or profession. You’ll build Habits as a pair, one that reinforces their background and another that subverts it.

Finally, we build out the Signposts, emotional triggers that act as a guide for your character at the table. Knowing what angers your character or what inspires hope in your character gives immediate impetus to their actions.

Step 1: Concept

The character concept tells you what your character does and how they do it. Most of us are pretty good and forming a concept. In DnD, it’s as easy a picking your race and class. In Shadowrun there are pretty tightly defined roles. In Vampire it’s a little more open ended- you can ‘play your clan’, but after someone’s 14th punk rock Brujah they might get a little bored. Instead, build the person first, then think about who would embrace this kind of person.

Roll 1d10 three times on the chart below, once for each column.
Chart 1-1: Concept Builder
Roll
I’m a...
...
...who was/is...
1
Depressed
Cop / Detective
Imprisoned (Wrongfully ?)
2
Surly
Social Worker / Activist
Disgraced and cast out.
3
Straightforward
Doctor / Nurse / EMT
Seriously Injured.
4
Timid
Banker / Money Launderer
A failure at life.
5
Clever
Office Worker / Academic
Hiding from someone.
6
Bold
Soldier / Rebel
Stepping on the wrong toes.
7
Inquisitive
Artist / Musician / Performer
Pushing the envelope.
8
Circumspect
Con-Artist / Politician
A rising star.
9
Outgoing
Hacker / Information Warfare Specialist
Respected and admired.
10
Optimistic
Stick-up Kid / Armed Robber
At the height of my field.

Example: I’m starting a fresh character here. I have no idea what I want to play, so I’m going to use the concept chart to spur some ideas. I roll a 3,1,3 : A Straightforward Cop who was Seriously Injured. Well I think I can work with that. Maybe the character is a former cop who blew a knee out and now isn’t afraid to talk about the problems with modern policing. 

Step 2: Pivotal Event

Backstory can be a trap for players. Building a massively in-depth backstory for your character can be fun and informative, but when it comes to gaming and performance we need surprisingly little. The Pivotal Event covers just the moment that informs your performance the most. 
What we’re looking for with the Pivotal Event is unresolved emotion.  The event itself could be resolved- the criminal who stabbed you was arrested, the move across country went without a hitch- but the emotions this event provoked aren’t resolved. Creating a Pivotal Event has three parts.

1) What Happened? 

Tell us about a singular event or chain of events in your character’s life. It can be mundane but it should be enough to provoke a response from someone. It could be anything from seeing your family die in a car accident to getting fired from your job. What you choose tells us a lot about your character, so most any choice is valid.

2) How did it make you feel?

You have an event in your history that made you feel some way, made you feel strongly some way. How did you feel? Describe in a couple words the feeling you had after the event, but don’t worry about it making perfectly logical sense. In fact, it’s better if the emotion is unexpected. What if after seeing your family die in a car accident you were filled with a feeling of overwhelming joy? As you try to cross that gap between the response and the event, you’ll learn what makes your character tick.

3) Why can’t you let it go?

This is the reason why this emotion matters to your character at the table. If the emotion was resolved and the character was satisfied with how they grew and changed as a person, there is no drama or tension in the character. When the feeling persists, even long after  the cause has passed, it drives the character to act. It is important that the event itself doesn’t need to be ongoing, just the emotion. Something, sometimes external to your character, stepped in an arrested your development. 
We don’t need to make more than one or at the most two events. If you’re playing Vampire, the Embrace is a giant event that you’re still learning how you feel about it. Knowing how past events affected you will inform your choices in the here and now.
If you’re stuck, try using the chart below. You’re not beholden to it, but it can clarify your choices. Roll 1d10 three times to generate an Event, Emotion, and Unresolved Reason

Chart 1-2: Pivotal Event
Roll
What happened?
How did it make you feel?
Why can’t you let it go?
1
I fell in love with the wrong person, who dragged me into an exciting world I never knew existed. I freaked out and left them.
Endless Regret- I didn’t comport myself with any dignity or honesty. I thought I was better than that.
It never ended, I just move forward and try to put the past behind me. But when I look back, it’s right there, chugging along.
2
My best friend accused me of a crime I know I didn’t commit, but they have photos that prove otherwise.
Simmering Rage- They know what they did, and they did it knowing what would happen.
The responsible parties died before they could be confronted about their part in it.
3
I ended up in a literal warzone, bullets flying all around me. If it weren’t for a dangerous psychopath I befriended I’d be a corpse.
Miasma of Confusion - I can’t square this circle. Nothing about this makes any sense and the more I think about it the worse it is.
Things keep repeating, the same situations keep appearing in my periphery and reopening old wounds.
4
My parents were deranged on some basal level and I grew up in chaos. I escaped as soon as I could.
Arrogant Certainty- I was there for the whole thing and it didn’t beat me. Nothing can stand in my way now.
Some problems are too big, systemic things that won’t budge to one person’s will.
5
Somehow, through no fault of my own, I ended up with money and status. I don’t know what happened to it all.
Bleak Joy- It’s funny when you think about it. We’re all just stuck here on this planet and absurd things keep happening.
Forgiveness is earned, and the person or people responsible haven’t earned it.
6
Someone once took  me out into some isolated place and showed me something that gives me weird dreams to this day.
Numb Disbelief- Did that really happen? I can’t have happened. It doesn’t feel real.
I can’t put it right, because what is done is done.
7
I had a talent that showed itself at an early age. Everyone told me I would be famous for it, but here I am.
Renewed Purpose- Everything lined up for me. I know what I have to do with my life now.
The system stepped in, the state or family, and took it all out of my hands.
8
I look a job with no experience that no one thought I could do. After a few years, I quit and didn’t look back. I can’t say why.
Frail Hopelessness- Nothing matters, and the more I look at it the more I feel like the universe is a great, crushing wave.
I don’t understand how it happened, and because I don’t understand it I can’t resolve it.
9
Someone very close to me died. No one would tell me what happened, and the people around me refused to talk about it.
Unsleeping Vigilance- This could happen at any moment to anyone. I keep my head on a swivel for the next time it happens.
Everything returned to normal on the outside, and just underneath that veneer of normalcy it sits.
10
Work. Sleep. Work. Sleep. Forever. One day you’d had enough, and in the middle of the day exploded in a rage. You left that life behind and never talk about it.
Overwhelming Oneness- Have you laid in the grass and felt the Earth spinning around you? That’s how I feel all the time when I think about it.
Other things took priority, but there it is, still in the back of my head.
Example: Continuing from the example above, our straightforward injured cop needs a pivotal event. I roll 3,2,2 - The cop ended up in a literal warzone and befriended a psychopath. This filled them with a simmering rage, but the responsible parties died before they could be brought to justice. Now, notice there’s no time frame on this event. So I decide that the character grew up in 1990’s Reno and their best friend was a gang enforcer who kept them out of the crosshairs. Now everyone they knew growing up is either dead or in jail, and they're left raging at nothing.

Step 3: Habits

Each personality tick you play at the table reveals something about the character. No matter how mundane it is, if the quirk illustrates a deeper experience, opinion, or story to the character, the audience will want to know more.  But just like with our Pivotal Event, we don’t want to create a character with a singular throughline to their personality. We want a character that can surprise us and the other players. 
We do this by building Habits in opposed pairs. Both habits tell us something about a particular aspect of the character, but one of them establishes the aspect and the other undermines people’s expectations. For example, if we have a character born and raised in the deep Alabama South, we could decide that she’s never quite lost her country Alabama drawl. This establishes the character trait, and sets some expectations for the other players. Now we want to subvert those expectations. Perhaps our Southerner has an intense love for science and technology, and will bring up articles she read whenever she gets the chance. We’ve now created an element of tension in the audience’s perception of the character-- they have a set of assumptions about a country girl from the deep south, and we challenge those assumptions with her love of science.
Pick one or two character traits you want to illustrate with affect. It can be where the character was raised, what their profession is, who they associate with, or what their ambitions are. The important thing is that we look at how the character fits into society. Then we choose a Habit  that establishes the background trait, then another that undermines it.
Roll 1d10 three times, once on the first column and twice on the second column for establish / undermine, respectively.

Chart 1-3: Habits
Roll
I establish / challenge my ...
...through my...
1
Profession
Speech and Accent
2
Regional Background
Clothing and Aesthetics
3
Social Class
Hobbies and Interests
4
Formative Years
Critical Opinions
5
Political Ideology
Taste in Art/Music
6
Opinion on Authority
Positive Opinions
7
Religious Beliefs
Nervous Behavior
8
Family Status
Indulgent Vices
9
Sexual Preference
Outward Ambitions
10
Gender Identity
Confident Behavior

Example: Continuing our wounded cop, we know she grew up in a rough part of town at a rough time, and it’s filled her with a slowly growing rage at the world around her. To find her habits, I roll 9,1,4.  So I demonstrate my sexual preference through my language, but undermine my sexual preference through my Critical Opinions. Okay, this is interesting. We have to decide what this means- so I make my ex-cop a queer woman who is constantly talking about dates she’s been on, bars she goes to, that sort of thing. But she uses her critical opinions to undercut what people expect from her sexuality. She talks mad shit about other women. Everyone she’s ever dated gets criticized and picked apart. 

Step 4: Signposts

You’ll notice that we’re focusing a lot on the emotions the character has, and there’s a good reason for it. A character without emotion is a flat, dull, lifeless character. One with all the charm in the world and no emotional resonance will strike people as a deranged psychopath. 
Signposts mark out clear reactions the character has towards events around them. They are by nature abstract and extreme, because we cannot control the events of the game and subtlety often gets lost at the table. We’re not expecting you to become a method actor, though, and each reaction has a more common emotion tied to it. Think of it as a roadmap-- not everyone can jump to Rage, but most of us know what irritation feels like and can depict that.
When you’ve built out these reaction, don’t feel beholden to them forever. The goal is to give you a guidepost for your character, a true north to aim at. If you know your character is enraged by abuse of power, that tells you a lot about how she’s going to interact with authority figures. If the character feels desire for respect, this will also guide your character. 

Roll 1d10 four times, twice for each column. Feel free to change the positive or negative connotation of the results: if you end up with a death obsessed lover of abuse of power, you can change the sentence to reflect a resistance towards abuse of power.

Chart 1-4: Signposts
Roll
When I witness/engage in...
...I react with...
1
Abuse of Power
Hatred - They want to destroy you for existing.
2
Disrespect
Disgust - The smell of sour milk.
3
Violence
Rage - They cut in front of you and laugh about it.
4
Degradation
Vigilant Distrust - You think you’re being lied to.
5
Death
Admiration - One day you’ll do what they did.
6
Wisdom
Bravery - You stood up to the bully.
7
Beauty
Amazement - Someone has to see this thing!
8
Intellectualism
Acceptance - All this is according to design.
9
Respect
Attraction - If you can just get a little closer...
10
Justice
Zeal - You’re reminded of what is good in the world.

Example: Let’s build out our character’s emotional signposts. I roll 9,4 and 8,3.  This results in “When I witness Respect I react with Vigilant Distrust” and “When I witness Intellectualism I react with Rage.”  So here we have someone who gets irritated when people start discussing abstract things. She doesn’t trust the academics she’s met, because they spend all of their time talking around problems. She also has trust issues. Maybe it’s here years as a cop, but when someone addresses her with respect she immediately wonders if they’re pulling a fast one on her.

Putting it all together

Once you have these steps, your character should be coming into focus. There are three things to look out for: The first is to avoid cliches. This is something of a controversial opinion with screenwriters, because some will swear by cliches as quick ways to get the audience involved with the story, but 1) the audience here are friends around a table and 2) we don’t have producers to please. So if something ends up sounding a little too common, re-roll it or just twist it 180 degrees.

The second is to avoid straight lines. If the character has a unified set of Pivotal Events, Habits, Concept, and Signposts, the character will end up being one-note. Randomness is your friend, it provokes choices you might not make normally. People, interesting people, are never exactly what we expect and never singular in purpose. Let your character surprise you with their interests.

The last, and most important thing is to see if you are interested in this person. If the character rubs you the wrong way, or you can’t make sense of them, don’t push it! Just toss them aside and start over.  Keep the pieces that work for you and reroll the rest. There is no cost to mixing and matching your results. In the end, you don’t want to struggle with this character, you want to inhabit them.

Final Example: Let’s take a moment to look over the character we just built. I don’t have a name yet, but I know enough about her to get her moving at the table. She’s an ex-cop who got kicked off the force when she blew out her knee in a pickup basketball game. She grew up around a gang enforcer who had probably killed people in the double digits, and if it weren’t for him she’d be in prison or dead like the rest of her friends. She’s never gotten over the chaos of her childhood, and she feels a deep anger at her past and the friends she lost. She’s bisexual, but probably newly realizing this, and tends to talk about dates and who she thinks is cute as a way to broadcast her sexuality. It might be her upbringing that makes her overly critical of the people she tries to date, though, and I don’t think she can hold down a relationship very well. Add to that he intrinsic distrust of anyone who approaches her with immediate respect (she trusts someone she has to win over more than someone who immediately takes a shine to her) and you have a full blown romantic disaster.  But she’s a direct, blunt instrument kind of person, taking the shortest route between two points and cannot stand it when nerds philosophize and debate instead of acting.
When I look at her, I can see this woman being embraced by a few different clans: the Brujah are obvious, but her ex-cop status might make some of them wishy-washy on the embrace. The Ventrue are likely as well, where her aggressive directness and comfort in a hierarchy might make her an extremely valuable enforcer. 

Comments

  1. Wow, really cool article. I used this and in 30 minutes came up with this guy (I normally wouldn't make a character with political views, but this was gold).
    Name: Michael Struck

    Concept:
    I'm a Clever Activist who was a failure at life. Member of the Occupy movement who saw the movement failing and tried to get the organization needed to make the protests a success.

    What happened?
    I look a job with no experience that no one thought I could do. After a few years, I quit and didn’t look back. I can’t say why. The job was a charity organization dedicated to pushing progressive ideals and making them mainstream. The charity folded after 2010, and I was out of a job. It made me feel Frail Hopelessness- Nothing matters, and the more I look at it the more I feel like the universe is a great, crushing wave. I can't let it go because I don’t understand how it happened, and because I don’t understand it I can’t resolve it. The current US Administration is a huge trigger for my anger and remorse over my failure.

    Habits
    I establish and express my Political Ideology with my Clothing and Aesthetics. I often wear a Bernie pin, and have a Fuck Trump sticker on my car bumper. It's easy to identify my politics at a glance. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I undermine my Political Ideology with Critical Opinions. I tend to go overboard when I discuss politics or policies, and don't listen to the other side's arguments. Everything is a fight for me.

    Signposts
    When I witness true Wisdom, I react with immediate Hatred, I feel like they want to destroy me for existing. If they were so wise, why don't they fix the problems in our society? I'm really angry with the previous administration for their failure to protect the country from Trump! I'm actually attracted to the idea of my rivals and political opponents’ death. I try not to let people know, but I'd be 100% okay if Trump were assassinated. I think the entire right wing should die, I hate them so much.

    Character Design
    This guy is an Anarch. No question about it. He hates everything about those in power. And someone preaching patience (wise words) infuriates him.

    Traits
    He's a Social/Physical/Mental kind of character, without question. An idealist who ended up becoming so disgruntled with the world that they've started to contemplate using violence to achieve their goals.

    Abilities
    Most likely, the character would have Knowledge/Ability/Skills as their breakdown. He studies his point of view thoroughly and is almost an expert in his obsessions. Skills and Abilities are close in terms of points. Combat skills are probably minimal, but social skills would be higher.

    Clan
    While most people would immediately think Brujah, Malkavian is just as likely. Maybe his obsession with politics has reached fevered levels and a Malkavian saw true potential in his barely pent-up rage.

    Backgrounds
    Generation would be interesting, but he’s more likely to be a thin-blooded character (or at least 13th).
    Allies and Contacts are almost a no-brainer, he has a bunch of friends from his Occupy days, and more than a few political allies on the Left.
    Influence – Politics if it’s available is also a good choice at one or two points. Another influence would be Street to represent his small pull and respect he gained during Occupy.
    Finance – None. This guy is broke, he spent all his time/money fighting the system and has nothing to show for it. This adds to his fury over the “unfairness” of the US system.

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  2. This is my favourite article on the Internet. You've nailed it! This system just churns out awesome character after awesome character!

    I'm planning to use this to generate NPCs, which meant I needed a few more options for variety (can't have a bunch of Seriously Injured NPCs straining credibility ;) ). Figured I'd share them if others are interested, and if anyone has any ideas, please comment!

    Chart 1-1, Column 1: "Agreeable", "Wise", "Misguided", "Gregarious", "Jaded", "Analytical"
    Chart 1-1, Column 2: "Lawyer / Fugitive", "Priest / True Believer", "Witness / Whistle-blower", "Representative / Lobbyist", "Runaway / Wanderer"
    Chart 1-1, Column 3: "With a secret they're ashamed of.", "Burnt out but still going.", "Famous for a thing.", "Reluctantly breaking the law."

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