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Creating a Unique Character Concept

Source Ultimate Campaign pg. 8
Sometimes, creating a character that feels original and stands out from others of the same class and race can seem like a challenge. It’s easy to fall into playing the stereotype of a race or class—the ale-swilling dwarven fighter with the battleaxe, the quick and wise elven ranger roaming the woodlands with a longbow, the sneaky and childlike halfling rogue, and so on. While there’s nothing wrong with these, and they can be a lot of fun—after all, there’s a reason they became cultural archetypes in the first place— sometimes you want to try something new. Presented here are some techniques you can use to help you break away from stereotypes.

Originality: If you strive too hard to be original, you’ll likely be disappointed when you discover that someone else has already implemented your idea in a book, film, game, or other kind of media. Yet, while original ideas are hard to come by, every person you meet is unique, shaped by his or her individual experiences. Rather than strive for an original concept, try focusing on the experiences that define your character’s life and give him his personality and point of view. Specific experiences will help move you away from the stereotypical and cliche.

The Third Idea: When you’re brainstorming ideas, it sometimes helps to reject the first and second ideas that leap to mind, and instead consider the third, fourth, and fifth ideas you come up with. This way, you’re challenging yourself to explore wider, more interesting possibilities full of unexplored story potential. The easy ideas that spring to mind first probably do so because you’ve seen them before.

Opposites: When you’re stuck on an characteristic that strikes you as boring, plain, or stereotypical, decide that the opposite is instead true of yourself. For instance, if you’re playing the aforementioned dwarven fighter, perhaps one of the following holds:
  • You have taken a vow against drinking, can’t hold your liquor, or act in a peculiar, eccentric way when drunk.
  • You can’t grow a beard.
  • You favor a weapon that is not a hammer, axe, crossbow, or other typical dwarven weapon.
  • You live in a forest or on an island rather than in the hills and mountains favored by most dwarves.
  • You are a pacifist who loathes violence.
  • You deeply pity or love orcs and goblins.
Any one of these character quirks can prove ripe for character development and story hooks in the campaign.

Steal Shamelessly: Sometimes when starting a new character, you just need a good template or foundation from which to build. Characters from literature, comics, history, real life, or television and film can provide that foundation in an instant. The key is to alter various aspects of the model character until you have changed enough to have an altogether different concept.

How would Count Dracula be different as an elven wizard? What about as a halfling cleric? Are you obsessed with feasting on blood, or are you simply ancient, creepy, solitary, and mysterious?

What about reinterpreting Julius Caesar as a human rogue or a gnome illusionist? Is this human rogue one of three mobsters scheming to eliminate the competition and rule a city the way Caesar eliminated his competitors to rule Rome? Has your gnome illusionist received a prophetic message predicting his own death, as Caesar did from the soothsayer?

Building on the foundations of established characters or people gives you a framework, at which point you just need to give yourself different circumstances in order to inspire a new idea, one that will grow on its own as you continue to play. The initial inspiration or model you choose helps you come to grips with your character quickly without feeling like you have to reinvent the wheel.

Another way to accomplish this is to combine notable traits of two disparate characters from media or history. For instance, how would you play a character with Sherlock Holmes’ skill at deduction and Hamlet’s indecision? Achilles’ battle prowess paired with Nikola Tesla’s inventive mind? Merlin’s magic with Marie Curie’s search for scientific truth? Joan of Arc’s faithful conviction and Napoleon’s overwhelming ambition?