Tips To Create & Write Better Non-Protagonist Characters
For the purpose of this article, the term “NPC” and “PC” shall refer to “non-protagonist character” and “protagonist character,” respectively. Not only will they refer to PCs and NPCs in the traditional sense (“non-player/playable character” and “playable/player character”), but also to to non-protagonist characters in non-interactive fiction (eg, TV, books, movies). The reason being, the advice in this article applies to both RPG NPCs and non-protagonist characters in non-interactive fiction, and some forms of roleplay (eg, fandom and play-by-post roleplays) can blur the distinctions between the two.
Table of Contents
- They need to be treated as people with their own lives, and not merely as stepping stones or obstacles for the protagonists.
- Let the NPCs react to PC actions realistically and dynamically.
- Beware of making characters with gimmick personalities.
- Don’t use the flaws of your NPCs to contrast and highlight the virtues of your PCs.
They need to be treated as people with their own lives, and not merely as stepping stones or obstacles for the protagonists.
Many times, NPCs aren’t treated as actual people who have lives, dreams, and problems of their own but as little more than walking, talking objects that have little purpose other than helping or hindering the heroes somehow.
Now, it’s wholly legitimate to have a character who serves as an obstacle for a protagonist, or helps move the protagonist along in xir journey. But it’s also important to remember that these characters are supposed to be people. Real-life bullies don’t come from a bully factory pre-programmed to pick on skinny misfits. Guards and soldiers aren’t created as adults in alchemical vats imprinted only with the desire to serve their superiors and oppress the peasants. Teachers, mentors, old folks, and witchy people living in the woods weren’t minted out to educate or help you the young ‘uns.
What they are (or should be) is people with parents, grandparents, possibly even siblings, aunts, and uncles, friends, children, and grandchildren. They have hobbies, passions, dreams, opinions, ideals, and ambitions. They get frustrated with difficult people at school or work. They have people they love, and people they can’t stand to be around. If you fail to keep this in mind, it can become far too easy to make the “good” guys callous, cruel, exploitative, and manipulative, which in turn can make your “good” guys unsympathetic and unlikeable.
Of course, it’s unnecessary (and actually pretty obnoxious) to spill out each and every detail pertaining to your NPC’s personal lives in an infodump. However, an allusion to something personal (eg, a loved one, hobby, pet, or empathizable frustration) can make the character seem more human to you and audiences, and can be elaborated or expanded upon as it becomes more relevant. (For tips coming up with character ideas as you go, see Quick & Dirty Characterization Tips & "Cheats".)
Even if you never plan to make these details clear (sometimes there’s just no need), coming up with a few personal and sympathetic details about your NPCs can keep you a little more grounded when it comes to writing them, and the PC’s interactions with them.
Let the NPCs react to PC actions realistically and dynamically.
Stop a moment and put yourself into the shoes of the characters the PCs are interacting with: if someone you knew as well as the NPCs would know the PCs did that to you, your friend, your car, or your property, how would you feel about it? Happy? Angry? Confused? Threatened? How would you react? How might people with your NPCs’ personalities react? Would you or most people you know trust or stick a neck out for someone you or they knew as well as the NPCs know your PCs?
If they're reacting to perfect strangers, have them react to strangers - don't have them treat the strangers like trusted allies or longtime enemies. If your PCs do something that any reasonable person would press charges for, let the NPCs press charges. If your PCs manipulate and exploit the NPCs, let the NPCs start getting resentful and even refuse to deal with the PCs in the future. Likewise, if the PCs do things that could make the NPCs act more positively, have them react accordingly. And remember - as your PCs’ actions become more and more noticeable or dramatic, the more people higher up are going to notice and react.
Beware of making characters with gimmick personalities.
A lot of TV shows are pretty fond of this where depictions of minority and subcultures are concerned - if someone belongs to anything that isn’t mainstream, their entire persona will revolve around it, usually with a liberal sprinkling of popular stereotypes. For example, if there’s a comic book nerd around and a gruesome murder happens, you’ll find the comic book nerd gawking at the scene and babbling on about how it’s “just like Captain McStrongarm #72!”
Players of tabletop RPGs will be portrayed as if tabletop RPGs are their lives. They’ll be so consumed by it that they’ll frequently bring up roleplaying adventures as if they were as valid as real-life experiences, and be so out-of-touch with reality that they’re unable to appreciate the difference between people who engage in real combat and people who sit around a table rolling dice. (For contrast, if a character is a fan of something like football or baseball, it will typically be portrayed as as just another aspect of an otherwise three-dimensional and multifaceted personality.)
Goths are frequently portrayed as nothing more than sullen and moody people who have no identities or personalities outside of being dark, broody, and snide at non-goths. Where gardeners are perfectly normal people with perfectly normal pastimes, organic gardeners are obsessed and obnoxiously outspoken about the superiority of their ways.
This is because, in a nutshell, the characters don’t have personalities outside of their ‘freak-of-the-week’ gimmicks. Not only is this poor and lazy characterization, it’s also usually pretty xenophobic.
If you want to add someone who is a member of a subculture or someone with non-mainstream interests, try not to start by trying to think of a fan or member of whatever, but try to start by thinking of a person who happens to belong to a fandom, minority, or niche group. Someone who balances a dayjob, chats with co-workers about shared interests in travel, and unwinds after work watching a few episodes of Black Lagoon before socializing with other people who happen to enjoy anime is just as legitimate and credible an anime fan as the stereotypical basement-dwelling pocky-gromming weeaboo who greets everyone with “konnichiwa!” Not everyone has to be a caricature to convince the audience they belong to a group that isn’t widespread and/or mainstream.
Don’t use the flaws of your NPCs to contrast and highlight the virtues of your PCs.
Some people try to highlight how their PCs are (supposedly) good and virtuous people by creating utterly awful NPCs to contrast them against. However, this is a bad idea because:
- If your PCs lack credible flaws, and the NPCs have both flaws and virtues, the NPCs will be more interesting and even sympathetic than the PCs by virtue of being better-rounded, more believable, and even more sympathetic. (It’s easier to root for with a sinner with your flaws than a saint with no flaws.)
- If your PCs lack credible flaws and your NPCs are nothing but flaws, the entire situation will seem contrived and incredible.
- If the NPCs are canon characters whose flaws you’ve exaggerated (or even made up) in order to make the PCs’ virtues stand out more, you’re going to look petty, and fans of the original material will not appreciate how you’ve derailed their favorite characters to make your OC look good.
If you want us to like and root for your PCs, give us reasons to find your PCs interesting and compelling, not reasons to hate everyone else.
Also, take a look at:
Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You
Character Creation & Development Theory (Or, How To Make Characters 101!)
Character Development Questions
Creating Semi-Randomized Characters