Life is like a grapefruit

Character development

Whether you’re writing a novel or playing a role-playing game, there comes a time when you have to develop a character. There are a number of ways you can approach this and this series of articles will explore some of those.

I’ll start with the character development that I’ve dealt with the most: Developing a character for a role-playing game, specifically DnD.

There are two directions you can approach character development from in DnD: The top-down approach, where you create the character from a mechanical standpoint, and the bottom-up approach where the concept of the character drives the decisions you make as a player while building the character. I have had most success with the bottom-up approach and I’ll start with that.

The bottom-up approach

The starting point for a character in this instance is a concept; perhaps you’ve been inspired by a character in a novel or a film, or maybe just someone that pops into your head and refuses to be ignored. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from, the next step is to start fleshing out their back story. For example, I was reading about gnomes in 3.5 edition DnD where they’re described as:

Members of this race have a great sense of humor, and while they love puns, jokes , and games, they also relish tricks — the more intricate the better.1

When I read this, I started to imagine a gnome who was a little different to the others. Perhaps he took things a little more seriously, and when another gnome played a prank on him he was more likely to lose his temper than laugh with the others. And thus a Gnome barbarian was born.

The basics down, you’re ready to start the character building process. As you go through the steps in building the character and are asked to make decisions about skills, powers, feats, or abilities, you can allow your decisions to be guided by your concept. As you do, other ideas may present themselves which will further shape the character.

Whenever I’ve used this approach, I’ve felt comfortable with the character before I roll the first die of the session which has allowed me to get into the game easier.

The top-down approach

Unlike the bottom-up approach, this method starts with you rolling up a character as per the character building rules in your chosen game. As you go through the process, or perhaps once you’ve finished, you’ll start to have a sense of a character in front of you. It’s then up to you to fill in the gaps between the numbers on the page to flesh out the character.

In one game that I played, I was asked to join the party to fill a particular role; a paladin or fighter. I chose the paladin, and reading through the description decided that a Dwarf would make a good fit for me. Once I rolled some dice and started picking some feats, as well as picking the deity that the Dwarf worshipped, I started to see a character revealing itself: Dwarf paladins lead an odd life as they are expected to put the duties of their chosen profession before that of their clan. Also, this particular paladin would worship the Raven Queen, goddess of fate and death. As such, he would be fatalistic, bordering on pessimistic, but also rather more bold given that he is more comfortable with the idea of his mortality than most.

Sadly, on the first session, he did die and was resurrected. This has proved to be somewhat of an embarrassment for him which has further rounded his character.

I’ve been less successful with this approach, but it is a method that provides more guidance if you’re devoid of inspiration. It also lends itself more to a power-gamer mentality as a player is free to pick the feats, powers and skills that will improve their character mechanically.

When I’ve used this approach, it’s taken a few sessions for me to start getting comfortable with the character and I’ve had to work harder to get into the character’s head.


There’s far more to a character in a role-playing game than the numbers on the page and while it’s possible to play and enjoy the game without filling out the back story of your character, it’s the interaction between the characters around the table (or at the various keyboards), more than that of the players, that makes the game fun.

Whichever method you use to come up with the initial character ideas, don’t be afraid to allow the character to change as you interact with other players. People in real life change depending on who they spend time with and their interactions with those people; characters in games should be given the same allowance.

For further reading, I suggest the great resources in the DnD Player’s Handbooks, especially the new Backgrounds section in the 4th Edition Player’s Handbook 2. I also found this guide to character personality and background development and more general character development tips here.

  1. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook v.3.5 ↩︎

Posted on 2009/04/02 in character development | Tagged Character, character development, dnd, role-playing | 1 Comment

One thought on “Character development”

  1. alt.universes | From paper to screen says:

    2009/04/13 at 22:11

    […] DnD the character sheet has been the entry point for the game. This is where you start to see your character form as you roll the dice, make notes, erase mistakes. This is the first thing your older […]


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