This entry is part 2 in the series The Characterisation Puzzle

This is technique number 1 for getting inside your character’s heads. It’s something I was taught in a Graphic Design course that I completed back in 1992 – so here we are 18 years later, and it’s still fresh in memory. That speaks volumes of its usefulness!

Step 1: Prep

Get a couple of pencils and a sheet of A4 paper. Divide the paper into rough squares – 4 down the short side, 8 along the long side. (It can be helpful to have a couple of them on hand in case you get really inspired and run out of room). You’ll also need some sort of stopwatch that makes a sound at the end of a countdown – either software, or a kitchen timer, and some lined paper for notes. Two different colours of pen can also be useful.

Complete your preperations by listing, in one coloured ink, on the note paper, all the things you already know about the character.

Step 2: Relax

Spend a full minute calming yourself, and relaxing. Try to keep in mind anything you know about the character already, but don’t fret if you can’t think of anything or find your mind drifting. Breathe deeply and slowly.

Talking to the subconscious is like listening to a whisper; the activity of the conscious mind is like a noisy party in comparison. The subconscious is easily drowned out; to hear what it has to say, you have to turn down the volume at the party.

Some people suggest two minutes, and some even suggest a full five minutes, but in my experience, one is usually enough.

Step 3: Skim

At the end of the minute, and taking care not to disturb the state of relaxation, skim through that list of known information and then set it aside. Read it once only, and then turn it face down so that it can’t distract you while you work.

Step 4: Thumbnail

Take the sheet of paper that you’ve divided into squares and start drawing or writing the first thing that comes into your head in the first box, and then the second thing in the second box, and so on. Spend no more than 5-10 seconds on each box, but don’t try and time yourself.

It doesn’t matter if your artistic skill is nil, or worse. It doesn’t matter if what you scribble has no aparrant relevance to the character, or in fact to anything at all. These thumbnails are quick and dirty expressions of ideas, and you don’t have time to render a masterpiece even if you have the skills.

When you’ve gone about 30 seconds with nothing occurring to you, stop drawing thumbnails, and number the boxes.

With 8×4 panels to a page, that’s roughly 3-5 minutes to fill a page.

Step 5: Translation

Turn to a fresh sheet of the notepaper, and using a different coloured pen to that of step one, write a “1”. Then list all the one-word descriptions of what you’ve drawn in box 1 – not just what you meant to draw (if you know what it was) but what you actually did draw. If you don’t think one word is precise enough, use two, but no more. Do the same for all the thumbnails – but you aren’t allowed to repeat a word. If two different thumbnails suggest the same word, put a star next to it. That usually means that you’ll get faster as you go, because there’ll be less writing.

Don’t spend more than about 20 seconds per box. With 8×4 panels to work on, that’s roughly 5-10 minutes – but since you’ll spend less time (in general) on the later results, the real average is going to be toward the lower end of this scale.

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Step 6: Interpretation

So here’s the fun part. Everything you’ve written is potentially relevant to the character you’re trying to define. It may be literal, or metaphoric. It may relate to how the character relates to the subject of another word from either the current box or the ones immediatly before and after it. It may relate to his appearance, or personality, or personal history, or motivation. The more stars something has, the more likely it is to be relevant.

This step is about converting that list of descriptive terms into ideas for the character’s personality. Don’t bother to try and vet them at this point, that will come next. Abbreviate as necessary, but try to generate as many descriptive sentences as you can. I will often spend 5-15 minutes on this step. Don’t be afraid to go back and add an idea you missed the first time around, quite often a later idea will suggest some other interpretation of a preceeding item.

The goal is to get somewhere between as many lines as you had boxes filled in, and twice that number. With 32 panels to a page, that should be 32-64 ideas, or about a page-and-a-half.

Step 7: Connection

Next, I will go through the list of sentences and try to connect them. I do this by numbering them as I write them, then writing the number of any ideas that connect to them afterwards.

These connections should jump out at you quickly – I’ll only spend a minute or so doing this.

Step 8: Analysis

We’re on the home stretch at this point. The next step is to start picking and choosing from amongst the ideas that have been generated and finalising the relevance to this particular character, interpreting their relevance, and transferring them to the main page describing the things that are known about the character.

I start by looking for anything that seems particularly connected to what is already known about the character. I then write a relevant interpretation of the statement, and any connected statements, onto the list of things known about the character. I’ll then do the same thing for the statements that seemed to connect in some way to that idea.

When I’ve finished with statements developing the known, or if there weren’t very many known facts to start with, then I’ll move on to the second tier of priority: ideas that particularly appeal to me.

Then I’ll do a third pass through the list focussing on ideas that derive from heavily-starred interpretations of thumbnails.

This step can be very quick, or it can take a while; it’s hard to judge except on a case-by-case basis.

If you do this work in a word processor instead of with pen-and-paper, it’s easy to copy and paste and drag and drop.

Step 9: Fill & Polish

When I’ve finished the Analysis stage, between 1/4 and 1/2 the ideas will have been transferred to the character concept writeup. A large number of pieces of the character jigsaw have just been identified. The next step is to rewrite what is known about the character into sections like description, history, personality, motivations, and objectives.

it’s at this stage that this ill-digested morass is reconciled into a consistant picture. Every choice in the character’s history should be justified by a personality trait; every even in the character’s history should make it’s mark on the personality; motivations should logically lead to objectives, and vice-versa, and both should be consistant with the personality.

Ideally, I will be able to boil all this down to a single paragraph with no need for further research or idea generation, but if more is needed, at least there is a lot more foundation that’s been completed apon which to base that further development.


A small example

So here we have a quick example. Because it’s purely for illustrative purposes, I’ve only used a 3×4 grid, giving 12 thumbnails, rather than the full 32 I would normally use. These were sketched using a paint program so that I could include the graphic here, and the first thing you’ll notice is the crudity of the thumbnails (I’m a better artist than this when using pencil and paper, or taking a little more time)!


This was prepared for a Merchant who is going to appear in my next Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire scenario. So it’s for D&D campaign, in a pseudo-Asian setting, and a vendor of some sort who is located in a small town. He is somehow going to arrest, or lead to the arrest, of two NPC members of the party, and is going to accuse them of theft. That’s all I know about him at this point. What does he sell? What’s his personality? What’s his motivation? What does he look like? Given that he’s a member of a population of mixed Living and Undead, which is he? Lots of questions without answers, a situation tailor-made for this technique.


I managed an average of about 5 meanings to every panel, giving me 60 interpretations to pick from. Because there were fewer panels than usual, there is also less redundancy and fewer starred entries as a result.

Panel 1:

  • Sunglasses
  • Disguise
  • Avoiding Light
  • Dark Eyes
Panel 2:

  • Lampshade
  • Night (implied)
  • Hat
  • Fez
  • Middle Eastern
  • Bazaar
Panel 3:

  • Moustache
  • Tree
  • Branching
  • Growing
  • Untrustworthy
  • Oily/Greasy
Panel 4:

  • Money
  • Wealthy
  • Leans Forward
  • Looks Forward
Panel 5:

  • Change
  • Greedy
  • Barrels
  • Vials
  • Luxuries
Panel 6:

  • Fire
  • Hand
  • Fist
  • Aangry
  • Messy Hair
  • Right Hand
  • Backhand
Panel 7:

  • Hovel/Shack
  • Safe
  • Protection
  • Solid
  • Hole In It
Panel 8:

  • Crowd
  • Loner
  • Family
Panel 9:

  • Bird
  • Freedom
  • Dove
  • Peace
  • Eagle
  • Hunter
  • Noble
Panel 10:

  • Dark
  • Night
  • Mess
  • Cage
  • City
Panel 11:

  • Electric
  • Lightning
  • Fast *
  • Energetic
  • Strike
Panel 12:

  • Transport
  • Fast (star on panel 11 entry)
  • Too Fast
  • Flat
  • Spare Tire
Interpretation & Connection:

That’s a lot of ideas, but some of them clearly don’t fit the setting, at least not literally. Some of them seem dull and unimaginative, while others seem somewhat cliched. One thing my subconscious was clearly telling me was that this merchant might actually be a disguised agent or policeman, but that doesn’t seem logical unless there are secret police everywhere – and that doesn’t fit the game setting. While there’s a lot to dislike and mistrust about the Golden Empire, there are also some notable and laudable qualities about the place, and a near-total absence of crime is one of them. (Notice that the exercise is already sharpening my mental image of the merchant).

So, ignoring my own instructions (because I can), the following list will omit any literal interpretations that don’t fit.

To save repeating the list twice, I’ve also incorporated the results of the following step, Connection.

The NPC:

  1. is not what he seems
  2. is a Vampire
  3. appears to be a vampire (1)
  4. has dark eyes
  5. is moody
  6. always wears a Hat
  7. sells hats
  8. always wears a Fez (6)
  9. is Middle Eastern (8)
  10. sells in a Bazaar
  11. is bizarre
  12. has a prominant Moustache
  13. sells timber
  14. is branching out
  15. is still growing
  16. NPC’s business is growing
  17. is untrustworthy
  18. appears untrustworthy (1)
  19. is Oily or Greasy (9)
  20. wants money
  21. is wealthy (14)
  22. appears wealthy (1),(14)
  23. leans forward
  24. looks forward (14)
  25. is methodolical (24)
  26. is a coinchanger
  27. counts every penny (20),(21)
  28. is greedy (18),(20),(21),(22),(27)
  29. appears greedy(1),(18),(20),(21),(22),(27)
  30. sells produce
  31. sells potions or poisons or perfumes
  32. sells luxuries
  33. feels the cold
  34. is hot-tempered
  35. is always sweaty (1),(18),(19)
  36. fears fire
  37. sells fire or flammables
  38. is a hard worker
  39. performs manual labour
  40. is violent
  41. is abusive
  42. has hair that’s always messy
  43. is somebody’s right hand
  44. is furtive (17),(18)
  45. appears furtive (1),(17)(18)
  46. is secretive (17),(18)
  47. gives backhanded compliments
  48. lives poorly or cheaply (1),(27),(28),(29)
  49. sells from a run-down store (1),(27),(28),(29)
  50. has fallen on hard times (1),(27),(28),(29)
  51. is insecure
  52. appears insecure (1)
  53. is very secure
  54. appears very secure (1)
  55. makes safe choices (25)
  56. is protected
  57. is a solid citizen
  58. is popular
  59. appears popular (1)
  60. is a loner
  61. appears to be a loner (1)
  62. has a family
  63. wants a family
  64. sells birds
  65. likes girls
  66. wants freedom
  67. feels free
  68. appears free (1)
  69. is peaceful
  70. appears to be at peace with the world (1)
  71. is peace-loving
  72. appears peace-loving (1),(34),(40)
  73. is noble
  74. is nobility
  75. has dark skin (9)
  76. has dark hair (9)
  77. likes the night (3)
  78. is messy
  79. is disorganised
  80. appears disorganised (1)
  81. feels caged
  82. comes from the city
  83. is energetic
  84. is a quick talker
  85. is fast-moving
  86. is energetic
  87. strikes without warning (25),(34)
  88. moves too fast
  89. is overweight

What a jumble! Full of contradictions, and (1) doesn’t help (though it may permit the reconciliation of some of those contradictions). But, like looking through a kalaidescope and seeing the patterns change, I can now vaguely see 3 or 4 different directions for this character to go; some elements are common to all, others are not.

The first direction is a typically greedy merchant, very much a stock figure, who appears to be kind and generous but would sell his mother for the right price. He captures the NPCs and turns them in for a reward. This is very much the direction I was initially heading in, I now realise.

The second is a good citizen doing what is right, a succesful merchant dealing in a variety of smallgoods, who might even be a potential ally to the PCs. This is an option that didn’t occur to me when first concieving of the scenario. This alternative brings a touch of irony and of tragedy to the situation.

The third permits the character to be played for light relief. This notion is not incompatable with either of the other broad notions. Perhaps the character has a fear of the undead? That would be amusing – left a good job in the city because there were too many dead people around.

To be honest, I have a mild-to-rabid dislike of stereotypes, so the combination of the latter two ideas has a solid appeal to me. Even without undertaking the final step, the key pieces of the puzzle have now become clear. What has also become clear is that the scenario itself will have to change slightly to ensure that the personality of the merchant plays a more central role; from being merely a facilitator, a justification for the PCs to get into a jailbreak scenario, he has now graduated to a central figure of the scenario.

Analysis, Fill, and Polish: Abdul el-Kasigama

Abdul el-Kasigama (a completely invented name combining middle-eastern and asian elements) is a merchant in the small village of Tang-Pek (another name off the top of my head) within the inner fringes of the outer Golden Empire.

Abdul has dusky skin and dark eyes and hair. His face is dominated by a drooping moustache. Other than this pristinely-maintained moustache, his hair is permanently disorganised, always looking like a bird was trying to nest in it. Extremely overweight, he is always sweaty and his hair is naturally greasy. He wears a simply but richly-decorated silk robe with voluminous sleeves and a red fez. He dislikes bright light and during the day his eyes are narrowed and perpetually shifting back and forth; when combined with a grin that’s a little too toothy and artificial, he presents an extremely untrustworthy appearance.

When bargaining, he leans forward intently, but his expression never wavers. You can never tell what he’s thinking. His movements are sudden, very quick, and precise, giving the impression of a snake striking. These traits, in conjunction with a reputation for greed, have not made him very popular or trusted by the locals. Abdul gives no indication that he cares what they think, he appears in every way to be at peace with the world and with his public persona.

He is always respectful, even submissive, in dealing with the Imperial authorities and is even believed by some of his peers to be an Imperial Agent placed in their midst as a spy. He obeys every law, custom, and tradition, of the empire to the fullest extent within his power, and appears in every way to be the “perfect” Imperial citizen.

el-Kasigama is not actually the solid citizen that he appears. The grandson of the former rulers of a Kingdom which surrendered to the Empire in an earlier phase of it’s expansion rather than fight against overwhelming odds, his father (the former Prince) attempted to lead an uprising aimed at freeing his former Kingdom from the imperial yoke. When the coup was crushed, Abdul was exiled by the authorities within the former capital of the Kingdom as untrustworthy even though there were no evidence he was in any way connected with the plot. In fact, up to this point, youthful rebelliousness had made him solidly pro-Empire in his opinions. Since his exile, he has changed his position, but his family remain in the former capital as hostages to his good behaviour. It is under these circumstances that he has endured for the last 20 years, and that has dictated his public persona into middle age.

Abdul lives very poorly and cheaply, counting every penny. He sends the bulk of his profits to support his wife and family. His stall in the bazaar appears run-down and disorganised, a permanent state of confusion, but he knows precisely where everything is within it. Despite this seeming lack of prosperity, his neighbours have seen the steady stream of customers to buy the exotic luxuries and smallgoods that are his stock-in-trade and know that he is by far the wealthiest merchant amongst them; resentment and jealousy have only heightened his unpopularity and the perception of greed, and speculation is rife as to where Abdul hides his fortune. Abdul seems (to them) to have an uncanny knack for knowing what the next trend in fashion will be, and is always ready to meet the needs of the wealthy land-holders of the region.

In fact, there is no great insight required; Abdul is intelligent and methodolical, and his wife keeps him apprised of the latest trends and styles within the city. By the time these social patterns spread to the outlying region in which he resides, Abdul has had ample time to stock the necessary items to accommodate the needs of his customers. So familiar has this pattern become to the inhabitants of the region that whenever Abdul begins to stock a new line of goods, the automatic assumption is that these represent the latest fashions. Abduls neighbours and rivals may dislike, mistrust, and resent him, but their wives and daughters all purchase from him. Poisons, perfumes, fashions, and exotica may all be found under his roof.

The Encounter

Abdul will recognise Arron as one of the individuals being hunted for subversion by the Imperial authorities and assume Leif is another of them. He will have no choice but to alert the local garrison, because if he does not do so and is found out, his family will be punished or killed. However, he is secretly in sympathy with the PCs alleged cause, and so he will fabricate a false charge of robbery, which will lead to their confinement being in the local jail instead of their being whisked away by the Imperial Garrison to more secure holdings.

In so doing, he will reinforce the perception of his neighbours that he is a plant amongst them and their resentment, and is smart enough to know this. On the alert, he will keep a lookout for other members of the wanted group and seek them out to warn them. Since they will be paranoid after the betrayal of Chrin (which I described in Campaign Update: Fumanor: Seeds Of Empire), they will probably also distrust him. All of which should set the stage for a comedy of errors.

Perhaps one of the locals will approach the PCs and warn them not to trust Abdul as he is a spy for the Imperial Authorities.


The example of Abdul el-Kasigama shows how the various ideas generated can be linked together to form an interesting character that fits the needs of the encounter. Reading over the final description, it can be clearly seen how the list of ideas have linked together to form a cohesive and coordinated whole, with only a few additional tweaks here and there. Going over it, you should be able to identify each item in the final description of el-Kasigama with the number of the item or items that has inspired it.

Afterword – reconceptualising existing characters

One of the consequences of running campaigns that run for a long time is that shallow characters can quickly run out of depth. For that reason, my Superheros campaign places a heavy emphasis on character design, development, and coherant concept. When a character “runs out of depth” it means that every aspect of the character has played a part in at least one scenario, all the “hidden truths” have been revealed, and the character is a completely known and predictable quantity. Either the referee has to repeat himself (Lois Lane needs rescuing by Superman – Again), or there needs to be some effort placed into reconceptualising the character.

A good character is the sum of it’s parts, plus connections that bind those parts together with an internal logic and cohesion. Character-based scenarios explore those connections, either revealing them, or detailing an unexpected consequence of them. While some of these connections are fairly obvious or even spelt out in the character background, it’s often the case that they are founded on basic assumptions.

Reconcptualising a character involves challenging those assumptions and finding something deeper.

Ichigo: An example

The character Ichigo was the result of a cult summoning an alien that they thought was a demon, and forcing it to mate with the daughter of the cult leader, using black sorcery to produce a viable offspring. The pregnant teen escaped and fled the country, hiding her daughter in a cloak of anonymity, before resuming her flight as though she had never stopped, knowing that her father (the cult leader) had the resources and will to track her down if she ever stopped. The child, a born telepath, grew up amongst an adopted family and eventually became a superhero.

Obvious scenarios revolve around the fate of the mother, confronting the cult, the relationship with and history of the adopted family, and the nature and destiny of the “demon”. Once these are resolved, this part of the character’s background has no further direct contribution to make to the campaign. Sure, you can trot out the occasional childhood friend in trouble, or have the cult resurface somewhere, but unless these developments are part of a bigger picture, there won’t be a lot of impact on the character – who will simply stop developing and begin to stagnate.

While the player of such a character may continue to enjoy running it for a while once this has taken place, this enjoyment is largely a nostalgic legacy of past experiences when the character was fully immersed in campaign events. As the character lingers without such depth of involvement, the enjoyment will pall; the character will become progressively less interesting to play as it becomes less involved. The thrill will be gone.

When a character reaches this point there are three choices: put up with a declining character (ie, do nothing); retire the character and start a new one; or reconceptualise the character, reinvigorating it and providing fresh opportunities for involvement within the game.

By the time Ichigo became an NPC, the character had been in a state of decline for some time. I suspected that there was a lot of depth left to explore, but the links to connect the character to scenarios were not part of the existing characterisation. And so, I applied thumbnail technique, boiling the existing background and established facts down to simple sentences and avoiding all the assumptions I could about how they connected.

The results contained some new ideas on why it was that the extra-dimensional gate opened by the cult just “happened” to reach the dimension of these particular aliens, but the real meat of new development focussed on the character’s reaction to being adopted, and how it impacted her ambitions, self-respect, romantic aspirations, and psychology; how her being a telepath compounded and complicated those aspects of the character; and how her alien heritage could biologically, mentally, and psychologically impact on her.

Some of these have acted to completely revitalise her relationships within the campaign, leading her to abandon everything that she had spent the last decade working to achieve as a member of the hero team in order to persue an impossible romance with the one person she had encountered that was completely and willingly open to her and completely comfortable with her being a telepath; this has led to her being a central NPC in the spin-off Warcry campaign. Others have yet to play out.

These possibilities were always inherant in the character, but were being hidden beneath the established persona and the assumptions of the character background.

Eventually, these will also be exhausted as a source of material, and it will be necessary to again reconceptualise the character – a task that becomes more difficult each time. But the results so far has extended its life as a prominant factor in the campaign by decades, so even if I come up dry next time, I will have been richly rewarded for the effort invested.

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