A quote from F/X: the Series brought up an interesting point about movies. “What drives every horror story? The monster. And what drives the monster? Think about it, Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, even Victor Fries(Mr. Freeze). They all longed for a girl. At the core of perhaps every great horror story is a love story gone tragically wrong.” Another quote goes along with that to help with the idea of antagonists, “You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.” And if you think about it, when you look at it that way it can help make some unique villains. For example, Darth Vader, Keyser Soze, even SHODAN from System Shock series (for a great review of what makes Shodan so spectacular an NPC/Villain, especially in how System Shock 2 was done, check out this article) We all love the unique villains and there’s examples all over the place, even previous in this blog on creating villains.
But what about NPCs in general? How can we come up with some fleshed out characters that are more than a simple quirk or two and a few basic stats that will usually do no more than play a bit part from time to time? There are a lot of different options, and pretty much anyone has their own approach. You could read a dozen writing books and get a dozen different approaches. You just need to find what works, but I want to give a few different options.
The first three come from here and I have taken only the basics and added a bit of commentary, so you can check the original for unchanged details.
A 360 Degree Character Review, where you judge the character from the point of view of their ‘Bosses’, their ‘Peers’ and their ‘Underlings’. See how he treats them and how they think of him, and how people judge him based on what they see. Gru from Despicable Me appreciated all the underlings (granted, they were minions), but you could see how his Bosses and other Villains didn’t think much of him. Darth Vader had little respect for failure from his underlings (given he killed people for failure), most of his peers didn’t have much faith in him (if you use the meeting scene as an example), but his boss had a lot of faith in him.
Describe your character, hero or villain, as a best friend would describe him when setting up a blind date. Then try it from the point of view of a co-worker who hates his guts and is complaining to his wife after work (or maybe given a chance to sink the character on a job recommendation). This way you can see how some of the same traits may be given different meanings and different values. For example, I can see the best friend commenting on a character’s perfectionist trait as a benefit while a co-worker may not like it, or if they have a more laissez-faire approach it would affect the co-worker as they never take anything seriously enough/
Flip your hero and villain, and write your villain as the ‘I admire this character and want to see him succeed’ protagonist and the hero as the the villain of the story. Doing so will force you to come up with virtues for your bad guy, even if you need to invent them, same with the darker aspects of your hero. Some examples I would like to use is General Hein in FF: Spirits Within. He felt everything he was doing was justified and right and good, even though others may paint his actions in a different light. And maybe your hero does drugs and abuses women, but he gets thrown into a situation that put him into being a hero. I was just recently reading Marvel 2099, and one of the comics is of the Daredevil. Of course, this Daredevil is a descendant of the Kingpin, and thus the current Kingpin. In the opening of the book, he’s fighting crime, and then he trails his SO as she leaves and finds she’s sleeping with someone else, and at the end of it, he kills the guy as the Kingpin So, the good guy is also a bad guy, or is your bad guy also have redeeming aspects? Half empty or half full?
Another example, try taking a personality test online in the mindset of your character, and you’ll get an idea about how they might act in situations that you have never thought of. Try some unusual ones like the Ultima IV personality test which was a character generation process to see what character you were most like.You can find all sorts online, beyond the standard Myers Briggs type tests.
Some people will use images like the Friends and Foes deck to get some ideas for the personality they want to go with based on the look; after all Dead Poet Society brought us the ‘Sweaty-toothed Madman’. Others will use personality cards Tarot or Background tables like this custom one or the ones the PCs use to make their characters. In most copies of the Gamemaster books there’ll be something to help make random NPCs like this post by the IdDM. I still have my old AD&D DMG that has a chart to create NPCs.
You can base it off people you know, just hope that the people don’t make the connections. To quote from ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel, Volume I – A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling’, Grace Metalious, it’s been said, peopled Peyton Place with friends and neighbors in her hometown, and everybody she knew had no trouble figuring out who all those rakish, bed-hopping characters were. She lost a few friends, got the cold shoulder from a few neighbors, but wrote a damn good novel.
So, you can see there are a lot of options to making characters, some details, some as simple as rolling a die or just pulling a placeholder. It all depends on how comfortable you are with them and how often you need to come back to them, since you need them to be consistent if they’re reoccurring.