Roleplay games require characters. Characters for your players. But also characters for your players to interact with. These are the cast of the show. These are your allies, enemies and those just passing by. Now as the Storyteller of the game, how do you deal with this cast, which can range from just a half dozen for some stories, or scenes, to over 20 or 30? How can we keep all those characters in our heads without either a) going mad or b) turning into Johnny Depp?
The thing is, it is all a matter of scale and importance. Some characters need elaborate histories while others just need a few lines of description. Some need a whole host of stats while others just need a suggestion on how powerful they are in the actions that they get involved in.
Let's work from the top down then.
At the top, are, after the player characters, the other main stars of the game. These characters are critical to the story, and to the plots that they engage in or even instigate. For this reason these characters need the most detail, both in terms of stats and background. We need to understand their motivations, their hopes, their fears, and just how far they are willing to go to see their plans come to pass. It is by being able to answer these questions, and determine their game stats that we now have some idea of the personality that is required to live through these actions and decisions. After all only a certain type of personality is able to commit to these types of actions and goals. And of course in turn they will only have certain stats. It's a lot of hard work, and of course you want each of these key characters to be different, but the pay off is big. These characters will stand out and are the signature of your game, and will be instantly remembered by your players. You now it had worked when you begin to describe who they spot on a video screen and before you have finished one of the players respond with 'Oh great it's that fucking bitch!' Job's a good 'un!
So what little things can you do that make these characters stand out? You have elaborate backgrounds, well thought out motivations, and stat lines. Well there are their physical descriptions. Now it is so easy to fall into using certain cliches here. All Daeva vampires become sooooo beautiful, sooo sexy. But really the best thing you can do is to make these descriptions fit with their backgrounds. The mundane is not boring, it is believable. And it is also the canvas upon which the more interesting character traits stand out. Too many strange and unique traits become confusing. More useful is when the players can hear a clicking of a case and next see a person who is known for always flicking open and closed a pocket watch. A vampire who smokes is also interesting and means that you can use the smell of that character's cigarettes as a storytelling device. It's these quirks that sell a character. Now quirks don't just have to be physical traits, they can be psychological. Perhaps the character prefers certain colours, or always buys the same newspaper each day at a certain time.
So let's move down the ladder. Characters at the mid and lower levels of importance require a decreasing amount of detail. But just because they don't have character backgrounds that cover every detail of their life, or have complete stat lines, doesn't mean they shouldn't have character. Not all taxi drivers are all the same. This means that even the pedestrians have quirks.
But why should they have quirks? Why should you try and have each character stick in the player's mind? Well in may turn out through the course of a game that even lesser characters become important and these quirks are what make once unimportant, stat free, background less, characters memorable. They suddenly remember where they met that homeless guy, or that cop who reads Shakespeare.
There are other tools for making characters memorable and stand out. We have their mannerisms and their voice. Something that I have seen is that all bad guy characters can end up being the same type of Saturday morning cartoon villains. Deep voices. Menacing stares. Now not all of us are good at mimicking accents. Some of us are just not that confident. But still, making the effort to at least describe the manner in which they talk, and their mannerisms (another clue to the personality of the character), makes these characters memorable.
Now we can even apply this on the fly for characters that we need at a moments notice. All you need is a few seconds to note down a few descriptions for each trait; Physical Description, Personality, Mannerisms, Quirk. Now for the time being you don't need to note anything about their background but if this character is worth using again it is worth going back to these notes and expanding these.
With our cast of characters ready what do we do in play to manage them? Well you know those quick notes for on the fly new characters? That can be applied to characters that have already been written up. We can think all characters in terms of a few descriptions for each of those categories. This means that in our head is a summary of each character, and we can then refer to their full notes if we need details. These summaries can be written down on flash cards and kept on hand if, God help us, we have to deal with many characters at once being spoken to by the player characters. Having to jump between personalities is not easy but the trick for you and the players are these short summaries. If they are memorable to the players then they will be memorable for you.
So there you go, my hints on playing characters, and really how to make a cast of individuals rather than cookie cutter Saturday morning bad guys.