The “Why” Method

16 07 2008

In the years that I’ve spent roleplaying, I have found myself more than once struggling with the character creation process. More than anything I think it’s because the more I play, the more I find that characters will indeed make or break the game.

We have all been through it, we have some new and exciting game to play but we dread having to sit down and write down something interesting for our leads. We scratch our heads thinking that our ideas are just “not cool enough” or just simply amazed at discovering what a blank mind really was. What I want to do here is simply to tackle a method that is fairly easy to employ and that can help you make a richer and more interesting character, and has the added benefit of being quick, easy and painless.


The way I usually created characters was with some sort of variation on the classical write-up process. It basically means sitting down and writing stuff about your character, the usual things include physical appearance, biography, deeds, family, friends, contacts, blah blah blah. The problem I personally had with doing this was threefold: a) it can take a darn long time and in the end it’s hard to locate the information that will be most relevant for you to actually portray that character in the gaming environment b) you might get so lost in describing this or that, that you later realize that you’ve spent a lot of time and energy on things that are not immediately useful to you and (this is the most personal one) c) getting everything there in prose makes it look like it is set in stone and you might get the feeling that you need to “get it right.”

What we will be doing here focuses on sharp and to the point data. That does not mean that it’s not about feelings or details or whatever else. It means that you don’t have to pull it together in a wrapped package, and can actually change it and expand upon it at any time. I’m going to explain the idea first but you will also have an example at the end, so don’t worry too much for now.

Time to get rolling!

First step: get a name for your character, a random one if possible. I’m not kidding around, names are vitally important to generate a sense of wholeness. We name things as a part of making them part of our reality and names themselves can tell us a lot about something. So go and pick a name way before you decide anything about your character. Plus, you can always change it later.

Second step: we need to start with a basic question about our character. Does it matter which question we ask? Not really, although you might find (very soon) that there are some questions that will prove easier to work with than some others, and you’ll probably start using those as a start point or to continue if you get stuck. However, don’t rule out possibilities since the unexpected can also bring out the creativity that we need. What I usually do is to ask myself, “What is my character doing?,” usually I’m going for his means of making a living, but really it can also take the form of “What is my character doing … right now?”

Go ahead, write an answer to that question. It can be any answer really. Actually I want to make a big point before we go on. What I need you to do is to write answers. What I certainly don’t need you to do is think about the answers making sense or not, or the answers being coherent with what you wrote down before. That will come after we’re done. Once you write it down (one sentence, two at most), ask yourself ‘Why?’ and write a short, one sentence answer to that. Continue to ask yourself ‘why?’ and write the answers until you feel a little dry about that line of reasoning or you feel you’re going too far away from your character to answer the question.

Here’s an example:

Name: Arnald Fowler

What is he doing?

Studying to be a priest. (Why? …)

Because he is at a Monastery. (Why? … etc)

Because he is hiding.

Because he does not want to face the fact that he cared about his father.

Because he also hates his father.

Because his father never said he was proud of him.

Because his father felt he was a bad parent and was afraid of sharing his feelings with his son.

There we go. I stopped at that last one because I would start talking about Arnald’s father if I kept going. I will probably want to do that at some point but not now. It’s something Arnald probably didn’t know and thus wouldn’t be able to react to. When you get to this point you have a three options:

a) Get the first answer and ask ‘why?’ again, although this time, think about it as the main topic and work it from there. You can make it a more detailed version of the broad strokes you outlined earlier (although you don’t have to) and maybe some lines will be harder than others but if you can’t think of an answer to the ‘why?’ question, skip to the next line; if you’ve run out of lines go to …

b) Ask another question. Again, any question will do. What’s his favorite meal? Is he in love with someone? (or, who is he in love with?) Does he like parties? Any question that you think you can answer in a sentence will do. Then you start the ‘why?’ process over. If you can’t think of anything, go to …

c) Grab one of the answers and start writing about it. Just get a pen or a word processor and start typing about it. Give yourself three paragraphs of just brainstorming about it and see if you can ask ‘why?’ about some of what you typed.

Those three options should make it so you don’t really get stuck here. Quite frankly I’ve never used the third one yet and rarely had to use the second one (except when going for deeper content). Here are some more examples from Arnald:

Why is he studying to be a priest?

Because it was the best way to stay at the Monastery.

Because they offered shelter and food.

Because they care about the poor and the ill fortuned ones.

Because their God commands them to, and because they believe in protecting the weak.

Why is he at a Monastery?

It was the best place he found to disappear.

He had been running away, he was tired and hungry and desperate.

Because men had killed his mother and his sister while his father was away and were trying to kill him.

Because a couple of them wanted to have their way with her and she fend them off, hurting one of them.

Because his father had left them and his mother was left alone with two kids to feed and she had done many different things to feed them.

Because his father fell in love with a blonde young one he met while battling a foreign country.

Because his father was a soldier.

Those should give you an idea of how this works. That is just part of the write up I had for the character and it still took about 25 minutes for the whole thing. That’s also part of the process. If you can’t think of an answer go to a different question. If you don’t you might get into the idea of trying to get the ‘right’ answer and that will really hinder you.

After you’re done (by the way don’t go typing 10 pages of this thing, do a few items at the time, you will always have time to add more), read your list once more. If you notice any really big contradictions, put a mark next to them. Now remember I told you we would deal with tying up all the ends after we wrote the lists down? Well I lied. Don’t write anything else down although feel free to think about all the possible ways that these things could make sense. Remember if it’s written there, there’s a reason for it … you just don’t know it yet.

Final Words

Take these notes that you took and bring them to your roleplaying session, they will be your guideline for playing the character. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want you to write anything specific. What you need is something to provide inspiration and ideas. If a situation comes up in play and you’re reminded about one of your answers (for example, in my case an easy example would be a mother struggling to feed her kids) just ask yourself how would the character behave and act accordingly. Also, if you can, write down the general decision you made at that point (another example: my character feels compelled to aid that mother, or maybe she makes him feel lonely, or maybe he is even sexually attracted to her), these things will serve as prime material for more ‘why?’ questions that you can ask later on. If some situation comes up and you can’t think of anything you’ve written down that would allow you to extrapolate the logical reaction to it, just select something that seems right, or just select a random reaction (again, I mean it). Write it down, and after the session run it nice and easy through the method. You’ll see that, whatever your answers might be, the process of thinking about them and ways of applying them to real roleplaying situations will give you more material than most character write ups I’ve ever seen. Try it out and tell me what you think.

And of course, if you liked this, why don’t you subscribe? That way you make sure not to loose any new tips and methods you can use in your games. Take care!




6 responses

17 07 2008

An interesting method. I’ll be sure to try it out the next time I create a character. I normally don’t start a character with anything about their personality set in stone, other than a few adjectives. Sometimes I end up with a fully rounded character and other times a hollow bag of numbers. I think this ‘why’ method is a nice half-way point between writing complete biographies and rolling on a random personality trait table.

18 07 2008

interesting method……i tend to start with a why is she adventuring, the name happens in the middle to the end of the process, when there is more of a feel to her……your method would create a lot of history for the character i imagine, which would be a good thing it is then role playing and not roll playing.

18 07 2008
role or roll playing? « tenletter

[…] info By peasantbutcher Categories: deep & philosophical and rpg this post lead me to some interesting ponderings…… get those that role play and you get […]

20 07 2008

Thank you for your comments lads. Just a quick answer to a few things you said…

@jatori: I find that having adjectives does help, but is usually too ‘dry’ for me and does not help me to portray the character. I think the ‘why?’ method is something that could very easily be applied to adjectives (the same way you apply it to questions and statements) and it would create interesting results. I plan to write a post about the elements of a character where I’ll address the elements that I want to have in order to be able to play a character soon.

@peasantbutcher: First, I’m sorry that your comment didn’t show up sooner … apparently WordPress marked it as spam. As far as the name goes, it is really not a rule set in stone. I chose to put it as the first step because I do believe that you can get some ideas from a name (usually names will either remind you of things or you will associate specific things with them) and, as I said, it’s one of the easiest things to change later on if you feel you have a good reason to do so. Good or bad, I usually focus on developing the lead and I want the mechanics that I choose to support those design decisions … rather than having to go the other way around.

11 09 2008
How to Create a Magic Item « drop the dice

[…] Enter the ‘Why’ Method […]

14 08 2017

Reblogged this on DM Dungeon and commented:
Loved this. When creating that amazing background for your new character keep this in mind.

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