The Art of Character Creation
I've found over the years that some people have an easy time creating characters, while others have a difficult time. I am one of the former much of the time, though it depends on the exact circumstances and the game I'm looking at. So this is an insight to the art of how I go about building a character. I'll be building a character in italics after each question/step. Something that I feel that I should emphasize is that character creation is an art. There's no right or wrong way to do it.
1) What is the setting? To me this question is first and formost of those that I ask myself. Am I working in an established universe or something that is going to be made up as we go? Is it science fiction, fantasy, historical, modern, or some mix of them? If its one of those, what precise version? Fantasy has dozens of layers within it on its own, and if you want a character that fits, you have to know what you're building it for.
I'm looking at a setting of high fantasy and a degree of science fiction aspects to it. There are few details about the setting, but the rough sketch we've been given is of thousands of worlds connected by chains of immense portals that travel from one to the next. At one point is a massive city at the nexus of over a dozen of these portals, known as Londinium. This massive city of spires, castles, and beings of all sorts is where are game is set. This is a true kitchen sink setting, from the sound of things, so anything goes.
2) What sort of game/story is it? This is another very important question. What is the goal of the game? is it a murder/mystery? About action and high daring? Or just a day to day socializing game? All of these influence what type of character you might play. It doesn't make much sense for you to drop an orbital commando into a peaceful college where everyone else is just worrying about classwork. It can work, but it can break immersion for some people.
The game in question is rather silly, mostly driven by the characters goals, so it can be action packed or nice and peaceful, so I don't have have to worry about much. The main thing to remember is to give the character some goal that drives them, or have a plot in mind from the beginning to draw them in. Better yet, it would be good to plot with other players, but none of them have gotten into things yet, so I don't have that option.
3) What do you want to play? What is the make or break point of the enjoyment of the game, in my opinion. The only way to get this step wrong is to play something that offends or irritates the other players, again, in my opinion. I tend to tell people that if they don't have an idea initially, they should focus their attention of one aspect they want to use, then build the character around that seed.
Thinking about the city it seems interesting, but nothing stands out to me. So, after thinking for a bit, I decide I want to play a warrior-mage of some form. And due to my own obsession with elves, obviously I should play one. After all, the setting allows almost everything. But an elf in a city? There has to be a story to this, and it leads to my next question.
4) Who is the character? How did they get to this point in their lives? Technically two questions, I know, but this is important to me, and the first one is naturally part of the second in my experience. But this is, quite simply, a question about the character's past. Certainly, one can play a character without creating a background, but all too often the character comes across as one or two-dimensional. A history gives depth, even though it isn't necessary to come up with everything up front. Doing that sometimes shoehorns you into a situation you don't like.
After some thought, I name the character Sylvia Skydancer. It's a pretty name that I enjoy, and thats all that matters there. Sylvia, in my minds eye, seems like something of a tragic figure, furtive and sad about something. Besides, I like putting my characters into truly tragic circumstances, and I like demons...my character would likely murder me for it, but I build her background. Sylvia was the daughter of elven nobility in an arranged marriage set to be held soon and was to be married into the family of the Royal Family of the elven world of Tyrlian. Unknown to her, her family were devout followers of a demon lord, a succubus. They hadn't told her due to her upcoming marriage, but that didn't help her when the King found out. She was a potent warrior, wielding a spear and magic, but the Royal Army descended on the family estate, slowly killing off those loyal to the family one at a time. As he was dieing, Sylvia's father told her to go into the basement, that the demon lord would help her escape. Desperate, Sylvia did as she was told and in desperation chose to accept whatever terms the demon lord placed upon her aid. The end result dropped her in Londinium, several worlds away, but the exact terms...those I'll think about in a bit.
5) What skills/powers/limitations does my character have? Few people like a character without flaws or strengths, though sometimes playing someone normal is refreshing. Knowing what your character is capable of is always useful, and allows you to make judgements later on without having to guess as to why they can do something. Of course, I'm coming from a Table-Top Roleplaying Game perspective, so perhaps it isn't always needed.
Sylvia knows much about Royal Courts, due to her position as a former noblewoman. She also was trained to a minor degree with magic, able to heal minor wounds and cast a few useful attack, defensive, or utility spells. Nothing huge, but useful when combined with her skill as a master spearwielder. Unfortunately, her heirloom spear was given up to the demon lord when she came here, and she has few applicable skills in a seedy trade city like Londinium. She might function as a mercenary, but things could become more complicated quickly.
6) What does the character look like? What changes do you make for the sake of plot? And, of course, tie it all together. Honestly, this step can be placed anywhere above, but I put it last because it is something I'm doing constantly with a character, revising and perfecting my understanding of how things fit together. Why, sometimes the appearance is what drives the entirety of character creation!
I've decided that Sylvia hasn't given up nearly enough to the demon lord. She got royally screwed by the demon, as she had to accept whatever terms were given. Yet if she doesn't have enough freedom, it isn't really from. Lets give her enough rope to hang herself with. First, Sylvia isn't her original name, as the demon took the knowledge from her mind, as well as the names of her family. This is to help keep her alive, as the elven royalty are going to be paranoid about her being out there. Also, her body got completely overhauled by the succubus demon lord. Now she's a five foot nothing elf with more curves than muscle, blood-red hair and huge eyes, far too voluptuous for her own comfort, and not likely to be able to do her previous activities easily. Clearly a new profession will be in order soon, which is why the demon dropped her into the lap of one of her cultists, whose job it is to convert her new 'exotic dancer' to the demon's worship. Of course, everything is complicated by the fact that some young elven paladin has been given a sample of the family's blood and given a quest to exterminate the bloodline...but that's what a good storyline is made of.
There you have it. This is how I come up with characters. Perhaps a bit simplistic, and without tons of advice, but only you can know what it is that you really enjoy playing. And perhaps the most important rule of building a character for a game.