Making a new D&D character live up to our expectations can be hard. We’ve got a concept in our head, we’ve got a tragic backstory and a multiclass plotted out to come online at 13th level…and something just feels off about them.
There are tons of great ways to flesh out a PC or NPC. Flaws, personality traits, relationships, and quirks can all add layers of complexity and believability to a character, but there’s a core element that helps me build characters that feel real and react in interesting ways: it’s in the title.
I like to give my characters at least one specific desire that’s core to their personality and backstory–a clear goal that they desperately hope to accomplish. Find my missing sister. Learn a spell that can resurrect my parents. Discover the people who cursed me with dark powers. This desire is a gift to your DM–an implicit promise that you’ll be automatically invested if they dangle this plot thread in front of you.
But we can go further than that. Characters who only want one thing (and it’s disgusting) can feel one-note very quickly. There have been compelling stories about characters with a clear goal who overcome challenges along the way–but there’s so much more internal conflict we can add with just one further step!
Give them something else that they want–something that can conflict with the first goal. This second goal can be looser, more nebulous, and internal. But this is where the sparks start to fly, as these conflicting goals force your character to make interesting decisions and suffer sacrifices. If you want two things but can’t choose both, then you need to make a character-defining judgment call.
Willen Falk, for example, is a gnomish Conjurer I’ve played–a master of summoning devils and demons. Willen grew up poor, but worked his way into joining the school of Conjuration. When Willen was a boy, his father had suddenly come into an unexpected windfall, making the family richer than ever. One day, he came home drunk and told Willen a secret: he’d struck a deal with a devil to solve the family’s financial troubles. This went great until his father was unceremoniously killed in an alley. Willen wants to find out what happened to his father, and to do that he needs to track down the devil who made the deal. He went to wizarding school and practiced summoning spells, even going so far as to steal a scroll of Summon Lesser Demons and injuring someone, resulting in his expulsion.
So Willen has a clear goal during the campaign: He wants to learn as much as he can about devils, demons, and summoning magic. Anything remotely tied to the Lower Planes catches his interest because he wants to know what happened to his father. On its own, this is a decent motivation–you have a character willing to do dark things to get what he wants.
But his second goal is a little more abstract: Willen is not a bad guy. He doesn’t want to see demons roam the world, and he doesn’t want to hurt people. He wants to be respected, he wants to be a hero, and he wants to be a good person. That is REALLY hard when summoning demons is your go-to battle tactic.
That’s a line that I love to play with. My characters tend to be “heroic” by default–that they want to be good people, just like every person I know in real life. But just like everyone else, their personal goals aren’t so noble. Is Willen strong enough to control his summonings? What if one of them goes free? How far will he go to learn about devils? Once he summons a devil, will he be tempted into a deal? These kinds of questions guide a character and really make them pop. Flaws and personality traits can help make them fun to play and bounce off other characters, but it’s great to start from a basic foundation of solid motivations.
Here are some more example concepts:
- A barbarian who seeks vengeance against the people who destroyed her tribe–but who must struggle with the code of honor that her people lived by, which resulted in their destruction.
- A con man forced into a warlock pact with a unicorn. They have an obligation to follow their patron’s commands, but a personal desire to get themselves ahead in the world.
- A druid who was raised to protect nature at all costs–but who can’t help but empathize with peasants and farmers who are just doing what they have to in order to survive off the land.
- An expert thief who wants to exact her revenge on a wizard who wronged her. She wants to collect a team of powerful allies, so she goes to great lengths to make friends and do favors for the party–all so they’ll owe her one in the end. The only problem? She also can’t bear to see her friends die.
- A noble knight who wants to live up to his family’s legacy as heroes–only to find that his family isn’t as heroic as he thought, once politics enter the game. Does he follow his heart, or the orders of his father?
- A hobgoblin warrior who was dishonorably discharged after running away in battle. Now he tries to avoid the hobgoblin armies entirely, believing them corrupt and dangerous–but secretly he wants to find a way to restore his own honor, both for himself and his former companions.
So that’s it! Find a character concept you like, give them a thing they want, and give them a secondary motivation that causes friction with the first one. Layer on a reason to adventure and some fun personality traits and flaws, and you’ve got a character ripe for exploring a D&D world and growing in a dynamic way.
If you like these kinds of character-building ideas, check out The Tome of Arcane Philosophy on the DMsGuild, which has tons of concepts for Wizards in your world! 95% of all proceeds go to charity, so if you purchase the book, your money goes directly to NAACP Legal Defense Fund,