The gods have it figured out. They pick out a small number of discrete, well-defined areas of interest, and then they concern themselves exclusively with those things. These portfolios might include the sun, healing, magic, undeath, or even something as specific as rice. It isn’t the subject that’s the important bit though; it’s the focus.

If you’re reading this you’re probably a real human being. That means you’ve got complex emotions. You’ve got a detailed history, likes and dislikes, and a thousand and one personal quirks that make you an individual. The problems come creeping in when you try to apply that same standard to your characters.

I don’t know about the rest of you guys, but I’m not a professional actor. I can’t evoke the full range of my lived experience with a subtle twist of expression or tone of voice. When I fill out one of those long character questionnaires, I’ll generally walk away with a few bits of interesting backstory. Unfortunately, somewhere between “how old are you?” and “what’s your favorite smell?” I’ll inevitably lose focus. That’s not an even trade.

This all leads me to one very important conclusion: When it comes to character, clarity is more important than complexity. Some of my most successful characters have been based on Taxi era Danny DeVito, Futurama‘s Zapp Brannigan, or Dr. Orpheus from The Venture Bros. These are not subtle characters. They are selfish, or arrogant, or melodramatic. But even though they started out based on stock characters, they grew and changed through the course of play. Remember how we just decided I’m not a professional actor? Well I’m certainly not good enough to nail a perfect DeVito impression for hundreds of hours worth of play. I didn’t have to though. That character became its own thing over time, and relying on the DeVito template as a start was vital to its success. My fellow players were able to understand who I was and what I was trying to convey immediately. Strong relationships and a satisfying campaign followed.

So here’s my advice: Don’t try to build a complex character. Build a focused one. The complexity will come as you play. Hell, that’s why we play. In the meantime, just pick something and stick to it.

Question of the day then: Have you ever based a PC on an existing character in pop culture? Who was it? Did it work out well? Let’s hear it in the comments!