When was the last time your players actually talked to an NPC? Was it a rewarding conversation, or was the NPC made out of cardboard? Or, on the flip side, have you been yearning to have a session where the players do something other than kill people, but the numbers are the only part of the character that they’ve bothered to flesh out? Fear not– a lot of virtual ink has been spilled on the topic.
Question and Answer
One of the most popular methods of getting more detail about a character is asking and answering questions about the character. This can take many forms– take an online quiz as your character, write a diary entry from your character’s viewpoint, or just talk with the GM in character while she throws you curve balls. Players can help each other build up backgrounds just by roleplaying conversations where they ask each other about their past, their hopes and dreams… or even their favorite color. You never know what prompt will inspire a new direction for their roleplaying.
Heather’s questionnaire  has solid questions to start with. If you’re looking for even more, follow the link to the giant 365 question list in the post.
Rob Donoghue’s 52 card pickup  is a great way to turn a deck of playing cards into interesting questions. (The same questions are generated randomly here , if you’re at the computer when the need for inspiration strikes.) These questions make some strong assumptions, so they’re better used early, while you’re looking to incorporate interesting twists into your background.
During a game session, I’ve passed out five questions and asked people to answer the three that interest them the most. That isn’t a good way to do it– they’re at your table to play, not to do homework. Instead, the questions can be worked in as chatter around the fire, small talk at the market, or probing questions from your date. If you pass out questions, it’s better to do it at the end of the session and let them take some time to muse and write as they’re inspired during the week.
For NPCs, it’s often better to pick one or two questions to generate a few “bright spots of detail “. After all, the blade wielding PCs probably won’t pause to let you explain how your villainy was inspired by a hatred of the blue bedsheets your mother insisted on when you were seven.
During Character Creation
You can approach character creation in many ways– from a strongly visualized character that you’re just converting to the system, to a character that starts as a wisp of personality and gets made concrete with stats, or when using the prompt of randomly rolled stats a character emerges. This article  explores these and more approaches to developing a character.
Lifepaths can be a great way to add depth to a character. Many systems build in Lifepaths: from Traveller to Cyperpunk and Burning Wheel. If your system didn’t build Lifepaths in for you, several supplements (like the Central Casting series) provide them as add-ons. Lifepaths can be good at guiding a character from stage to stage, helping ensure that you remember that your character evolved over time. Plus it answers quirky questions, like how many siblings you have, and what you did for fun as a kid.
Another handy way to handle character development is in a structured system. Fate 2.0  guides characters through several phases; during each phase the character learns or improves skills and is marked by traits called Aspects. This was refined in Spirit of the Century, with each character going through two background phases and three rounds of starring and guest starring in pulp novels.
Get a Reading
A tarot spread can be a great tool for getting into a character’s head. Heather has a special spread  that she uses for characters, but I don’t have the skill to interpret Tarot cards well on my own.
I cheat and use free online tarot readings . For minor NPCs, a quick “Past, Present, Future” spread can suggest twists and experiences that don’t fit the mold. For more significant characters, a Celtic Cross or Ten Card Spread quickly suggests a whole lifetime of events and attitudes. Similarly, a player who is looking for the shape of a character’s life can benefit from any of the spreads– from a nudge to a whole concept.
Characters and Culture
Simon invented a different way of using cards to generate interesting characters. By generating twelve rules or customs for a culture, you can get a handle on cultural expectations. Then you use his NPC generator  and develop a character embedded in and reacting to the culture. Mo provides a good example .
A nice side effect is that NPCs reflect the culture– even if they turn their back on it at every step, it’s conscious and they’ll be treated accordingly. This can really make a culture appear different and consistent, which I ordinarily find hard to manage without falling into stereotypes.
Borrow an Actor or Friend
A good picture is worth a thousand words. If you have a solid picture of the character in your mind, see if you can find a picture online or in a magazine to match. A good picture of the NPC can really help people visualize the character. You can even skip the picture if you’re group is good at remembering actors– mention that the princess looks like Nicole Kidman, or that the footman looks like Harrison Ford, and see how the players react. If you prefer less well known stars, character actors  might be right for you.
You can borrow personalities too– and it’s usually easy to conceal what you’re up to. Jot a note that the character is “like Ross” and you’ll have a nerdy wizard in no time. People that you know (but that your players don’t) can be a great guide to realistic actions for your NPC. If you want the players to love their boss and you have (or had) a good one, copy the best mannerisms and see if it the characters agree.
Heather has fun exercises and games  to slowly expand a character concept.
If you want to create several interlinked characters at once, Mo has a great relationship builder  that tangles everyone’s lives together. Perfect for a soap opera game or for a love interest in any story. Or fill out a 3x3x3  and see what the character’s friends and foes say about them.
Fiction writing has a lot of great tips for making memorable characters. Give a character a habit– like snacking on gingersnap cookies– and make sure you use it when the players are around. Soon they’ll nickname him “gingersnap man”, and he’s ready to become a great recurring character.
Once you’ve come up with a great NPC, how do you make sure that you remember to bring them up? This handy guide for writing up NPCs  helps to make sure that the thought you’ve spent isn’t wasted.
The preceding advice and tools are only the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure many of you have great ideas– how do you make your characters more complex, PC or NPC?