Usually, if someone mentions a mundane aspect of a character's background, it's meant to play into something further on down the line. But my experience is that giving those questions mundane answers helps ground the character in a much more solid foundation. So I've put together a list of seemingly innocuous questions that can help you construct a more fully formed character, someone who at least creates the illusion of a real life to recall. That illusion can make all the difference.
What are your parents like?
For some reason, an awful lot of player characters are orphans. OK, considering pretty much MMO has a setting that's either leading up to a major war or in the middle of one, that's not hugely surprising... but there are still more orphans than we ought to have, and even current orphans probably knew their parents at some point. In games like Star Trek Online, there's every reason to imagine you had parents active in your character's early life. And even if the parents were killed very early on, your character must have had someone raising him or her. The question is equally valid even if you decide to fall back on the Bruce Wayne defense.
And your upbringing and relationship with your parents matters a lot. A good portion of my life has been compensating for some of the weaknesses my parents had and avoiding the mistakes they made. Your honor-bound Guardian might be trying avenge the death of his parents at the hands of the Charr in Guild Wars 2... but it means two very different things if his parents were warm and loving individuals whom he avenges out of love or two distant and duty-bound soldiers whom he's avenging out of a sense of professional obligation.
What is your favorite food?
In all fairness, most human beings don't have a single favorite food. I can think of a half-dozen items off the top of my head that I would gladly devour if presented, most of which do not go well together. But if you can get one food down that your character really adores, you'll be ahead of the game.
You might not have a full list of all the foods in the game, sure, and you might not want to name something that can't be replicated. But you don't have to go down the street shouting the name of a very specific dish. Some people just like the heck out of fruit salad. Pretty much any setting you care to name will have fruit, and that means that some jerk is going to chop up some different fruits and put them in a bowl and look, fruit salad. Even if one of those fruits has a ridiculous name. It's still a fruit salad if you call the kiwi fruit "sidheborn berries."
How do you sleep?
We don't think about our characters sleeping. That's one of the traits of MMOs, really. You log in and your character is awake and ready to go; there's no need to wait for her to get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, and so forth. But if you don't believe that your sleep patterns affect you as a person, try getting a solid night's sleep and recording your behavior for a day, then do the same thing after setting an alarm clock to scream you into alertness after two hours of sleep on a bed covered in salt and lemon juice.
Maybe your character is an insomniac. Maybe she sleeps great on a bed but can't sleep in the wilderness. Maybe she prefers the open sky and the smell of the woods. Maybe she's got a blanket or a stuffed animal or whatever to help her sleep every night. This has a huge impact on our day-to-day lives, so there's no reason we should ignore the effects it can have on our characters.
What do you do for fun?
We have words for the people who think slaying other thinking beings is fun. None of those words is pleasant. So why do your hobbies in an MMO generally consist of killing things with the occasional side of building furniture?
Depending on the setting, there are anywhere from hundreds to thousands of opportunities for your characters to do something just for fun. Even if he enjoys killing threats to his nation, he's still got certain times when he's not killing things. We also have words for people who do nothing but their jobs interspersed with the bare biological necessities, and none of those words is pleasant, either. Not that you can't make an interesting character out of someone who doesn't really do things for fun, but you need to be aware if that's what you're doing.
What do you think about money?
I tend to be stingy about my own purchases. Given the option, I will usually eschew buying anything not strictly necessary for me. Not so when I buy things for others, though: If I have friends over I'll happily take them out to dinner and drop a few extra dollars for them. I've even bought refreshments at movie theaters for complete strangers because I didn't want them to have to run out and get more cash. I don't really care about having money, but I don't want to feel as if I'm wasting my money.
This is a complicated subject, especially since most games pretty much force you to spend your money along a very narrow band of fields (repairing broken items, enhancing equipment, travel fees, and so forth). So you have to accept a certain amount of invisible cash flow for this question to work. But it says a lot about a person when you see how he or she treats money, and it also says a lot about that person's upbringing and history. Someone used to having plenty of money is going to be worse about budgeting than someone accustomed to having no money, but the guy who scrimps and saves is going to be much shabbier when he finally does get money because old habits die hard.
Where would you like to live?
A geographic location does have an impact, but it doesn't have to be an answer like "I want to live in Zone A." It's enough to know that your character would like a home on a beach or in a forest or even in a dank and secluded swamp. Your character might want a huge mansion or just a modest home, or perhaps just a single room with enough space for a few sparse belongings. There's no right or wrong answer, just a sense of what your character's ideal living space would be.
Part of it is about knowing which kinds of landscapes feel like home, but a bigger part is knowing what a character would consider a good place to live. Where we live has a huge impact on our sense of place, and trying to live someplace better is one of our major goals for most of our lives. For some people, the bar is pretty low; others really want a nice place to live, even if the character in question doesn't care much about having a lot of money. Think and answer accordingly.
Who was your best friend when you were young?
Your character did not grow up in a vacuum. There were other children around, in all likelihood, or at the very least there were a couple of fun teenagers. Or an imaginary elephant named Mr. Wiggles. You get the idea. Someone else was running around with your character as a child.
Our friends don't shape us consciously like our parents do, but they do have a long-term effect on kids. Maybe you think your friend is the coolest kid ever and you want to be just like her, maybe you think she's kind of dumb and is mostly a tagalong, or maybe you want to help her because no one else cares. Your interactions when you're young are going to come back at you when you're older.
What creeps you out?
There are some things that we can almost universally agree are scary. Spiders, for example. But a random group of people probably wouldn't all shriek in horror at the sight of a dozen spiders. They'd all probably be a little leery, but not everyone finds spiders inherently horrifying. And even if you do, there are different reactions to the creepiness: Some people just smash every spider within reach; others run shrieking from any mention of spiders.
I'd apologize to those who already ran shrieking from this article, but that's not going to help now.
What a character fears is really important to a character's overall goals, but we don't usually focus on the things that just plain squick us. Having your battle-hardened warrior get really uncomfortable around snakes is a very human side to show, and it drives home the fact that not everyone is equally comfortable with the same sorts of dangers.
What's your strangest talent?
There are people in the world who learn to speak several languages for no reason other than the fact that they like learning languages. There are people who work in creative fields that love doing math for fun. And then there are the people who happen to have double-jointed thumbs or a trick knee or whatever. What matters is the spectrum of our weird talents and hobbies, those things that no one can predict but that make us all more unique.
Some talents make a lot of sense. Your nature-loving druid probably knows how to find edible berries; that's not a strange talent. But if said druid also studies architecture, that's unusual and something worth highlighting. Focus on the snippets that give an insight you wouldn't have otherwise.
What happens when we die?
While most game religions are supposed to mirror real-world religions to varying degrees, I've never seen one that has a solid answer about what happens in the wake of death. And even if there are answers, that's no reason not to make it clear what your character actually thinks about those answers. Maybe she believes it wholeheartedly, but just a statement that your character believes the church's teaching absolutely is telling about that character.
Yes, death is a remarkably ephemeral state for most MMO characters, but they don't have to know that in-game. And considering that many fantasy games love to throw curveballs at the question of alive or dead, I'd say this is a relevant question for more or less everyone. Your character might not be afraid of death, but that means very different things if she's not afraid because she fully expects paradise versus just not caring.
I'd like to think that these are all good shortcuts toward developing a more well-rounded character concept. If you've got a suggestion, feedback, or the usual, you can leave it in the comments below or mail it along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next week, I was originally planning to talk about getting into roleplaying, but I decided it was time to start up that roleplaying project I've been hinting at for a while. So enjoy next week's article about what will henceforth be known as the RIFT project despite its not really being linked to RIFT. (It'll make sense in context.)
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.