So I saw someone ask a question that I myself have asked before. I have seen the problem take place all the time with no one really knowing what the problem is and whether or how to fix it. That question was:
How do I make a character that I won’t get bored with?
I have often seen people make characters that seem really cool and badass and have plenty of backstory and are incomparably unique. Yet, they will get bored of it after a session or two and want to kill off their special character to make a new one. This will go on with people making new characters and never getting attached to one. The solution to the problem is complex with many intricacies, but the main focus of the problem for many people, I think, is that their character has no story.
Creating a Character with a Story
A story, when referring to a character, is how that character changes over time; their character arc. D&D 5e tries to solve this by forcing players to choose aspects of their character background including their character’s traits, flaws, ideals, and bonds. This is all well and dandy, but this alone won’t define a character arc. To create a character arc, figure out how you want your character’s story to begin and how it should end using those four background characteristics.
Traits: A character’s traits could change over time. They don’t have to, but it can create an interesting character. Traits make a character who they are, and in an RPG it is often a reflection of the player. So while traits can change, I would probably suggest to change a flaw, ideal, or bond before a trait.
A trait could become more specific, like from “angry” to “vengeful” once they understand why they are angry. Think of the trait as evolving.
A trait could disappear or be replaced after some moral turning point, like a callous character becoming guilt-ridden or even benevolent after they see the sort of pain they have caused firsthand.
A trait can become reinforced or strengthened based on their decisions. An antihero’s traits would likely follow this route. “Do you see what happens when you trust people? They betray you!”
Flaws: A flawed character is a great character, but a character arc involves a person being confronted by their flaws. Their flaws directly oppose their goal. When faced by their flaws, they either choose to suffer their flaw or overcome it. This is why sequels are usually terrible. A character that heroically overcame its flaw in the first movie is now un-flawed. Be aware of this in an RPG. The character should always have a flaw, even after overcoming a flaw. The only time they should ever NOT be flawed is at the very end of a campaign, facing off against the main antagonist, using all they have learned on their heroic journey.
A flaw could be worsened. Usually a good early option in a character’s arc, as things seem bleaker and bleaker for your character until they manage to overcome the flaw later in the game’s story.
A flaw could evolve or become more specific, much like a trait.
A flaw can disappear or be replaced, especially later in the story once it has been challenged by the game’s story.
Ideals: A character’s ideal is what they believe in. Maybe it’s a religion, moral code, or instinct. A character’s ideal is a great concept that can change in a game. This is where you see tragic falls from hero to villain or redemption arcs from villain to hero. In an RPG, a good player will have strong ideals and a good GM will recognize those ideals and challenge them. This is the moral quandary, and it’s the player’s job to identify it and make a choice that will affect their character forever. Changing an ideal should always be some sort of turning point in a story.
Bonds: A character’s bonds in D&D 5e are their ties to the in-game world. It’s a fabulous definition because it’s sort of like asking “why are you playing this character?” right to your face. If your character has a family, then your character probably cares for them. Or not. If your character had a mentor, you are probably on a sort of hero’s journey from nobody to somebody. If you have no ties to any person in the game world then you are (or should be) finding a reason to belong, maybe a team of other heroes, perhaps? Your bond can affect how your ideals, flaws, and traits change, and they can change your bonds, in turn. Your character makes new memories, meets new people, and experiences new things all the time.
Update all of these things at the end of every session. Whether or not they ended up changing that day, making a habit of checking each session will keep you invested in your character and help to create a character arc. In addition, know where your character begins their arc and how it will end. Talk with the DM about your plans, and they should add some moral and character quandaries to test your character’s… character!
Examples of Character Arcs
Coming of Age: The character begins the game morally or psychologically immature or inexperienced. They grow into a more mature and experienced character by the end of the campaign. A ridiculously blunt way to put it is going from an angsty teen to a true hero. Such an angsty teen could be either a rebellious murder hobo or a distant brooding loner that when a turning point happens, they grow a moral backbone and answer the call to action. Look at Spirited Away, Dead Poets Society, or The Karate Kid.
Redemption: The character begins as a legit villain with evil intentions but finds a reason to change their ways after a turning point. Maybe they find a moral line they won’t cross and then start to wonder if what they have been doing all along is right. The character is not truly redeemed until other players and other people see them as a changed person, which should finally happen at the end of the campaign. Look at Wikus in District 9, Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, or Prince Zuko from Avatar, the Last Airbender.
Disillusionment: The character believes in one thing at the beginning of the campaign but slowly discovers that what they believe in is morally wrong, utterly pointless, or a flat-out lie. They may go back and forth between believes a few times before making a transition, or they might be in denial. But by the end of the campaign they have realized the true path. Look at movies like Office Space, The Truman Show, Conspiracy Theory, or Fight Club.
Tragic Fall: The character follows the hero’s journey only to make the wrong choice at every turning point. Their morality comes into question, and they just don’t have it in them to change or become a hero, usually thanks to a “fatal flaw.” At the end of the campaign, this character should either retire, die, or be killed by their flaw to be a true tragedy. Look at Hamlet, Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, and McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Corruption: Unlike the tragic fall, this character is not destined to die. They are destined to become a villain. Rather than refuse a call to action, they have moral quandaries which they make the right choice at first, but then they start to question their choices. They start to think evil is easier or better than good. Then they start making the wrong choices and eventually join or become the villain they were trying to stop in the first place. Look at Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight.
Cynic to Participant: This character is a loner and cynic and is miserable because of it. They eventually realize that they cannot accomplish what they set out to do without help. They become less selfish and more cooperative with the rest of the adventuring party. Look at The Incredibles, every buddy cop movie where the buddies don’t get along, and every Batman team-up ever.
These are the more common character arcs, but there are plenty of different changes that your character can go through to grow, change, or fall over the course of a D&D campaign. Again, talk with your DM about where you are starting and where you want to end up. That way they can insert those pivotal turning points and put pressure on your flaws and ideals!