What's the minimal amount of data needed for a character?

I'd like to determine the actual usual amount of data the human brain stores about characters, to turn it into a procedure for a game I'm working on, so I'm making this poll here.

Do not think of it as a PC character sheet; players can handle a ton of info about their characters and every single detail will be important for them. This is more like the things we notice and remember about NPCs or other player's characters.

Would you say that 3 adjectives are enough? Would you say that those are instead the anchor of a memory thread that could bring up more info on the character? Does it make it easier to remember if the character's behavior is associated to a particular emotion?

Basically, how many words would you need to describe an NPC or another party member?


  • For me personally, 3 adjectives aren't nearly enough. For a description of an important character, I'd personally want at least the equivalent of several paragraphs, if not the equivalent of several pages of description.
    Some of that might spread out a bit through a scene, but it would be there.
    And then I would need a scene or two of seeing that character roleplayed for them to really stick for me.

    But I also need stuff to feel like a story with no disparate loose "wasteful" elements, so for me, if a character is getting described at all, I want it to be a strong description like you'd find in a novel for a main character.
  • This is a very interesting question. In my opinion, the amount of information will vary dramatically.

    For instance, someone like Gandalf or Ben Kenobi might be easily summarized as "Wise, mysterious mentor, ready to teach the hero humility". (And possibly a note on their fate to sacrifice themselves for the good of the Future.)

    In a story where characters all fit strong and familiar archetypes, that's often enough.

    However, some "characters" are complex or nuanced enough that you need a lot of information - possibly pages and pages, or more.

    For an example of the latter, try someone you know really well in real life - a family member, a best friend, a romantic partner, a boss or employee you've worked with for years. Chances are that, to describe their "character", you'll need a lot more nuance and detail. They (usually) defy categorization, archetypes, stereotyping, and so forth.

    So, it really depends. What kind of medium or story is this? (Do we need visuals as well as character archetype, for instance? Then we need another type and level of detail or description.) What depth or nuance does this story (or this type of story) require? Are recognizable stereotypes or archetypes desirable or to be avoided?

    I see a wide range.

    Here's one handy and easy trick I like, however:

    * To create the illusion of depth, use contradiction.

    Give a character two opposite/contradictory traits, like Coward and Brave, at the same time. That already makes them seem far more involved, interesting, and complex than two similar/familiar traits, like, say, "Brave and Strong".
  • Just likememory : the first impression lasts for an amount of time. It can be reactivated and it's cumulative. A character is but a name and a form (sonic or visual)
    Cases :
    Archetypes are like vaccines from childhood
    Foreshadowing works : 2 knocks, 1 reveal
    Novels play it by the book : a wall of text and then, the name shows up more or less frequently
    So, each player authored trait is an anchor and the structure is free, but using the name and form is a thing.
    BTW Adjectives suck at portraying. Actions really stick. "Hey, that's the guy who..."

  • Adjectives suck at portraying. Actions really stick.
    Oh, I like that!

  • edited April 2018
    A name and three things is what I start with these days. Of the three I usually make the first a noticeable physical trait, the second a personality/quirk others pick up upon meeting them, and the third a personal trait/secret thing/ambition/fated future that others won't know at first.

    Eg: Viscount Hawthorn is (1) a large, red faced man (2) who rubs his chin and squints when presented with options to consider, (3) and is secretly plotting to become king.

    I guess I could use less for a less prodomenent role, but it wouldn't hook me the same.
  • Adjectives suck at portraying. Actions really stick."
    This is interesting. And often true; but is it always?

    Of Boromir, sure, what I can remember is that he's the guy who got tempted by the Ring but redeemed himself giving his life, and died in Aragorn's arms.

    However, if I think of the first few chapters with Aragorn - before his true identity is revealed - "mysterious but trustworthy", "skilled" and "wary" would certainly describe him in my mind. After that, Aragorn for me is mostly defined by two things: his true identity, and his personality (not "mysterious" anymore but "trustworthy and dedicated", and definitely still "skilled").

    Staying with Tolkien:

    Thorin is defined mostly by his role in the story, but he has some personality as well ("stubborn", "brave", "ambitious"). He doesn't really DO much though, does he?

    Bombur is just fat and clumsy, what he does is falling into the river, but that's just a consequence and a reiteration of him being fat and clumsy.

    The other dwarves? I can't even remember all their stupid names, they are just fillers.

    So, I think there's no minimum amount or type of information, it depends of how deep you want the characters to be.

    A couple of traits can be enough if they say something unique about the character. They can be a defining moment or action ("killed Smaug"), or a meaningful relationship with another relevant character or the setting as a whole or the story itself ("forgotten heir to the throne", "Boromir's brother", "has the Ring"), or a personal trait ("fat", "lucky", "stubborn"), or a defining characteristic ("bear shapeshifter", "lesser god wizard").

    I think that any character to feel "real" and important needs at least one - or a few - personal trait and some sort of relationship or status that make them meaningful for the story. Maybe you could think of them as "internal" and "external". I don't know, I'm thinking stuff as I'm writing.

    Secondary characters can have just one or the other. Background characters don't really need any at all. An action can make a character memorable, but not necessarily "real".
  • I usually do relationships first, character second. Fiasco style
  • There are games where the only character detail is an evocative name. I'm thinking of Ghost/Echo (and some of its reskins). But this game might not match the playstyle you're after (you didn't specify it); it's radically play-to-find-out.

    My personal preference is Name, Style, Role OR Name, Title, Style, Role, Place of Origin. Like this, Josephine the Mystic Detective OR Josephine the high-flyer, mystic detective from Ort.
  • edited April 2018
    In my game players pick any traits but there is a balance check before they are launched, as the social / spatial / material anchorages will shape the setting.

    And @emarsk : yes, characterization is a creative process, not a code.
    2 examples
    Aragorn's entrance is special. He is 2 characters, the first foreshadowing the 2nd. Foreshadowing usually approaches the character from its most inconclusive aspects.
    The dwarves are a collective character.
    Your external internal has been called functional structural by ancient academics. TV tropes says characters vs characters as (plot) devices.
  • @DeReel, thanks, perfectly spot on.
    I'm not sure I understand your last sentence though, I'll need to go and check on the site. I hope I won't be sucked there for more than a few days :smiley:
  • great question. haven't read all the responses above, but I think its the kind of question that there may be good psychology research results that are applicable and could help you here.

    I have for instance heard about research that makes the point that what people really notice about others is very different than what we think others are thinking about us. We notice general personality traits like 'friendly' or 'angry' or 'attractive' or 'not attractive' instead of the specific things that we perseverate on and assume others are too.

    So this boils down to an argument supporting the use of general traits as are often used in role playing games. The question then becomes how many traits are required to model a person in ones mind. I really want to know the answer to that.

    I'll do some websearching and will report if i get anything. Let me know if you get anything!

  • there is this study but it won't provide you quite what you are looking for.


    Still it's interesting and it got me thinking that a mechanic that deals with the transition from emotional state to emotional state could be a very interesting way to structure a game.

    A friend of mine has in fact made a game in which this is the central mechanic but the transitions happened in a way that was guided by the story, with no consideration of how these transitions actually happen in people.

    I think im getting off on another topic so I'll stop now. If i go further with it I'll start a new convo.

  • Another important thing to consider is how other people, and sometimes environments (whether natural or social) react to the character.

    For example, if I know that a character is calm and patient, but everyone around them reacts to them with deference and fear, that says a lot about the character (in a way which simple description would have trouble conveying).

    I often like to define characters in terms of their *reputation* instead of description. It can be really fruitful. It's more powerful to know that everyone trusts Galina than to know that she appears trustworthy, for example.

    I find that gives me more to work with, with less overhead - a more efficient form of character expression.
  • I agree that for real people and deep main characters of a long story a lot of data would be needed to tell who they actually are, but when the reader remembers all that data they start somewhere. It may be just a spark that then brings up all the information, which then will get organized in some fashion. From some of the descriptions here in this thread it seems that actually adjectives come later, like if we were finding words to describe someone we're visualizing in our minds.

    You're right DeReel and Sandra, actions actually come first and relationships in a close second, and both stick in the mind because they evoke either an emotion or a visual imagery that helps us build an internal image of the character. Archetypes kinda work because they see so much use that almost everyone will already have their own mental image of them.

    Like, if I describe a PC saying "she's a warrior", everyone will have their own particular image of the character but now you've already formed an idea of it and will somewhat agree to what kind of reaction you all would expect from such character. She will stand her ground, she will fight, she will be aggressive when needed, etc.

    Still, I agree, there's no code, there are things that help some people but hinder others and not a single way to create, remember or make memorable characters.

    Davey, that was really interesting! It makes sense now why giving an emotion to a character is so important: it's a declaration of possible future actions for that character, which players will be able to interpret and use if they roleplay through the scene in the right way. There's still a lot of information the player doesn't know there, but it's a compelling initial point to develop a scene.

    Oooh, Paul, that's really great too! Now I'm thinking that it could be great to see this implemented as an important part of the character sheet, especially if we're going for some princess play (hate Eero for coining this term, feels like condescending but can't really say he's wrong)
  • All right, now the procedure is clearer to me now. I was looking for a way to avoid disparate, loose, "wastefull" elements as EmmatheExcrucian described.

    Currently in the design I'm working on, all the important character choices can generate additional character background. Like if you gave your character a STR of -1 that means it can have an old wound with it's own story behind or a congenital condition that marked the life of the character but didn't stopped her from trying to reach her goals. Choosing a species comes with a certain background either if the character embraces her culture or despises it, etc.

    I like how everything can be turned into something that gives the character more depth, but then I had to face the problem that the character creation process becomes twice as long and full of wasted material if the effort isn't focused towards something compelling. So now I get a better idea about what kind of material is better to focus on as a starting point. The idea is that players should see their choices turned into a compelling seed for roleplaying, that then they can take and develop in any way they want. It should be something quick and clear for the GM and the rest of the players to quickly grasp, relate to, remember and use as they see fit without waste.

    Basically your character should get from your choices:
    -An action or event that lots of people remember you for.
    -Someone (or a group) that everyone relates you to (like your father, nemesis, the organization you work for, etc.)
    -Two opposite personality traits? (Still thinking on that one, Paul)
    -The archetype will come from the character concept as defined by the player, so that corner is covered. Emotions are more of scene starters here, but they will definitely have their place.
    -An usual reaction your character get's from the crowd because all of this.

    Amazing ideas everyone, thanks a lot for your help! Still have to polish this a lot and playtest it, I'll let you know how it goes. If you have more ideas or opinions about this I'll be glad to hear them.
  • The idea of using reputation as an organizing principal for defining a character is a totally revelatory and in retrospect obvious idea. Thanks Paul. I’m definitely using this! Reminds me of Whitehead’s process philosophy (for philosophy nerds). A great way to focus on how we reciprocally define each other. I’m in love with the idea of using reputation as a vehicle for exploring persona/character.
  • -Two opposite personality traits? (Still thinking on that one, Paul)
    Not exactly what Paul meant, probably, but this got me thinking about how in Swords Without Master each rogue has two "Heroic Feats": one Glum and one Jovial.
  • I see inner conflicts as portable dramatic energy cells. Handy for transitions or exploration where the character(s) need to be "self contained", but it also can be the sign of power failure (problematic economy).
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