Sometimes, a character in your campaign is unforgettable. You and your friends talk about them forever. You might forget everything else about the campaign, but that one character was so interesting or funny, that it becomes what everyone in your group thinks about when they think about that campaign. They become the most memorable character ever.
Well, good news: a memorable character can be created intentionally with good storytelling, creativity and a little patience. A fiction writing background can be invaluable in order to make sure these stars align. But I have more good news: I have that background so you don’t have to.
Let’s get into it. Some of them are just tips to make slightly more interesting characters. Others are tips for how to roleplay better. Some of you will already be familiar with some of those ideas. But work through the whole list!
Let’s start with character creation tips.
Have an Occupation that’s Separate from Your Class
A Wizard who studies divination in school for their entire life and then becomes adventurer is a fine character. But what if they spent a few years using their scrying spells to work as a Cartographer? Or if they used divination in employment of the mafia fix rates on gambling events, like horseracing? What if they never found a use for their degree, and was employed in an unrelated skill, like mathematics? What if your Rogue used their skills of observation and investigation to work as a detective?
Don’t underestimate how interesting it can be to lean into the mundane, especially if that will give your character insight into something that will eventually become relevant: a cartographer will be useful eventually, since D&D is full of maps. Maybe you run into a fake treasure map, or you have some sort of insight when reading a map that helps your team avoid trouble.
Give Your Character a Unique Cultural Viewpoint
D&D makes a pretty big mistake (in my opinion) of assuming that race and culture are a package deal. In the real world, they are far from. Cultures mix in shades, so when an outsider lives in a place, they learn some customs, and hold onto others. Other roleplaying games do better, but none of them present a full and compelling suite of cultural options.
Where you live is the most important part of culture. It makes no sense that dwarves in every part of the world believe in the same things, and act and dress in the same way, and speak the same languages.
But that’s okay. Most DM’s will let you invent cultures! A desert dwelling group of high elves, focused on self sufficiency despite living in the most hostile desert on the planet? Go for it. A nomadic society of dwarves who fixate on leaving nature undisturbed? Hell yeah. Making cultures that contradict D&D’s traditional cultural values of that race are powerful. Not all members of a race will value the same things and that’s a fact. The contradictions make it interesting.
And for “permanent loner outcast” races, like tieflings, they’re in an odd spot. My personal advice is that you’re allowed to ignore any cultural information the race section gives you, and let them be an accepted part of whatever culture jives with you, or part of a minority community. etc.
Make a Backstory with Hooks
The most compelling backstories gives that character a web of relationships and memories, with people, places, objects, etc. And so when a Dungeon Master chooses to, something from your past can come back into the game. It’s an easy way for a dungeon master to give a moment emotional weight, make the world seem more real and connected, and to give a player a spotlight.
But it’s not exactly clear to a lot of players what counts as a hook, it’s not exactly a term that’s even used in the RPG world an awful lot. So let’s define what makes a good hook.
The most important part is that a hook is something unresolved. If your character fled a marriage for some reason, the man your character left at the altar, is a good example of an unresolved moment, or a hook. If you haven’t spoken to him since, speaking to him is what you need to do to resolve it. The dungeon master has many ways they could choose to use that hook: perhaps he has spent years tracking you in order to prove that he wouldn’t slow you down. Perhaps your adventure brings you back to the city where you both lived, maybe you run into your best friend who was supposed to officiate your wedding. Whatever it is, it adds a dimension to your character and tension to the moment when your DM chooses to use it.
But the dungeon master can’t use a hook if your backstory doesn’t have any. The orphan child who grew up on their own on the streets, who moved from city to city, stealing undetected, until they became an adventurer, is a character who has no hooks whatsoever.
I do want to differentiate between hooks and character goals. Things your character wants to do are super important, but they’re not hooks, they’re part of your adventure because your character is making them happen regardless of anything else. Hooks are tools for the DM but they work much better when a player comes up with them. The DM can add them forcibly, but that’s way less fun.
Here is a list of easy hooks:
- People you’ve hurt or betrayed looking for revenge or to understand why you hurt them. Unkept promises, broken weddings, something you stole from them, etc.
- A goal your character once had that has since been abandoned (because of your character’s flaw perhaps).
- There is a person you care about deeply, such as a family member, a lover, a lovechild, etc.
- Things you might encounter if you went back to the city where you grew up
- Any Bond from the D&D Player’s Handbook, works as a hook. That is the entire reason the book asks you to come up with bonds.
Re-theme Your Class, Spells, Items, etc
Typically, re-skinning/re-themeing/re-flavoring existing pieces of a RPG is just fine by most DMs. But do be sure to ask! Sometimes, your DM will want to make slight mechanical changes to match your re-skinning, but it’s often possible without any mechanical changes at all.
For example, if you reskin your gelatinous cube familiar into a sourdough starter familiar, it’s funny, full of roleplaying opportunities, and mechanically, it could be exactly the same.
Or, if you built an artificer who used Brewing Tools as their arcane focus, you could make a mixologist bartender as your character. Can you imagine healing a character with a Mezcal fat-washed in coconut oil, with maple caramelized sage, topped with a stable ginger coconut foam and lemon zest? That character would write themselves.
Spells are a great thing to re-theme too. Say you wanted a knitting themed Wizard, “Cloud of Daggers” could be “Cloud of Needles” and “Grease” could be a field of writhing yarn, that actively tries to trip anyone who passes through it. That character could even use “Mage Hand” for knitting twice as fast.
And not all re-themings have to be silly, either. An artificer could be a Geppetto type carpenter, whose’s wooden creations come alive. A shaman might take a volcano spirit instead of an animal for a more animistic approach to the character (which make the Ash and Magma Totems perfect).
Make Sure Your Character Has Something They’re Excited About to Keep Them Busy During Downtime
In some campaigns, you’ll have downtime from time to time. Being able to know exactly what your character is up to is awesome. Especially if it can become a tiny subplot.
For example, if your character researches insects, they can spend their free time writing and submitting papers to academic journals (and for any DM’s out there, be sure to give that character an academic rival). If your character has a craft/art, they might want to practice it to become the very best at it.
You can even make a story out of how you obtain class features/abilities. A monk who reaches level 5 gains Stunning Strike, but maybe when they were at level 4, they began studying that skill by meditating on how ki ebbs and flows in a river for hours and hours, and realizing that’s its just like how ki flows in people. It’s a small change, but even pretending to work for your new skills is really fun, especially if your DM lets you get that skill early, when it need it most in combat. It’s even more exciting if you’re studying something that doesn’t apply to your class in anticipation of secretly multi-classing.
Give Your Character a Flaw, and then overcome it!
Nobody is perfect. Giving your character a flaw gives you something interesting to role play from, something where you latch onto to find the personality of your character. A fun flaw might be that your character can’t control the volume of their voice, but when I say “character flaw” I’m talking about something psychologically deeper than that. A lie that your character believes that distorts their vision of the world. A psychological explanation that makes the flaw understandable.
It’s easier if I can just give a few examples for very common character flaws in fantasy RPGs:
- I steal because I only feel like I, as a person, am only worth the monetary value of my things.
- I act recklessly because someone like me doesn’t deserve safety, that’s something only for smarter/prettier/higher class/etc people.
- I am a loner because no one could love me unless I become the strongest fighter.
A flaw can be an interesting thing to play out on its own, but in the fiction writing world, flaw’s are done in service of character arcs. Character arcs aren’t something most RPG players worry much about, but they are just about the most satisfying part of a story, and if you can make it work, it will blow everyone’s minds.
In order to properly overcome a flaw, first you need to make it clear that your character isn’t willing to overcome it on a whim: it’s not a big deal unless you fail a few times first. If your character is too reckless, be reckless in a situation even if it’s dangerous for you, etc.
After that, wait until you find yourself in an important situation where it is your character’s flaw that is holding them back from solving a very serious problem.
Give your Character a Quirk (Bonus Points if it Helps You Solve Problems Cleverly)
A lot of people think “memorable character” means “strong quirk.” And yeah, it can be a memorable part, but don’t let your character lean too hard on it.
A chracter who is always drinking is a fun quirk. And one day, there might be a problem you can solve by dousing it in alcohol and burning it down. See, realizing that having alcohol with you means you always have arson fuel, which makes the quirk way more exciting.
Now, let’s say your character is really into bookbinding (maybe they love books for how they’re bound but has no interest in reading them), and as part of that, your character is obsessed with different kinds of glue. It’s a funny quirk, but glue is also a legitimately useful thing to carry around. One day, everyone’s jaw will drop when you save the day with some glue after you’ve been talking about it for the last dozen sessions.
Quirks with gameplay applications tend to be more fun, and create more interesting stories. If you want to maximize how memorable it is, be sure to wait until the perfect moment to solve a problem with your quirk.
Consider Putting Your Character’s Desires at Odds with How the Game Expects you to Play
This is a simple one. The game expects you to fight, so a character who bends over backwards to prevent combat in every situation can be fun. The game expects you to horde treasure for yourself, so Robin Hooding it all away is an awesome subversion.
Don’t go too far with it though. It can be frustrating with your allies if you don’t participate in combat at all, for example.
Secretly Conspire with the DM to Make Cool Things Happen
When I DM, I always tell my players to tell me about cool ideas so we can make them real. A player with a crazy elaborate plan to do something unbelievable is probably not going to work out. But if the DM knows thats what you want to do, and agrees that it would be awesome, then they can conspire with you.
If you’re considering making a character who’s secretly a villain, and is using adventuring as a cover story while they coordinate their evil plans, that’s an awesome idea! If your dungeon master likes the idea, you could secretly be the main villain of the campaign, while you and the dungeon master slowly gives hints that you’re the villain until it ramps into a final showdown against your own teammates.
Know How to Give and Take the Spotlight Graciously
In order to make memorable moments, you are going to need to take the spotlight all for yourself sometimes. That’s not a problem, that’s half of what roleplaying is. But if your character hogs the spotlight, then people won’t remember how cool your character was, they’ll remember how painful it was to play with you. Knowing when to take it, and when it to share it is such an important skill. The golden rule is when in doubt, share it equally.
Or better yet, find a way for your character to put other characters into the spotlight. Help them be clever. If a character has a skill like ropemaking in their background, suggest they use it to style your character’s hair before sneaking into a ball. It’s dumb and its funny, and why not? If your character rolls high on a knowledge roll for a monster’s weakness, suggest that the weakness be something a teammate can excel (or struggle!) at exploiting. If a character in your party is vegetarian, and you’re a carnivorous barbarian, hunt a rabbit but also bring your vegetarian teammate whatever plant the rabbit was gnawing on. It will give both of you a funny, memorable moment. Just remember to do it in character, since its so much better that way!
Be a Character You’d Want to Hang Out with
Sometimes, people make a character thats super unique, but also super hard to play with. If your character is insufferable, reconsider. If your character has one note, and that note is annoying, reconsider. If your character wants to brood nonstop at the meaninglessness of it all in a way that drains the energy from the group, reconsider. Hog the spotlight with irrelevant antics? Reconsider.
Go Down on Your Own Terms
Nothing is more memorable than a death, and even more so when it feels poetic, when it completes a character arc, or when it’s wholly unexpected.
Characters in D&D aren’t disposable, but they’re also not a commitment for life. Once a character has the opportunity for a really great moment that will inevitably lead to their death, sometimes, you should take it.
If you’re playing a rich noble character who never saw value in the lives of peasants, sacrificing yourself to save the life of a peasant will be really powerful. But don’t suicide your character for no reason, wait for things to get really bad. The party doesn’t know what to do. Maybe they’re bound to the floor of a cave with a magial binding spell, while an evil wizard tries to carry out his plans to steal the souls of thousands of peasants. You have the opportunity to escape, but you sacrifice yourself to break the wizard’s concentration and save the peasants.
You don’t have to do this, but giving a perfect end on a character is perhaps the best thing you can do to make them live on forever.