Creating characters is one of my favorite topics. Whether it’s a character for a story or one I intend to play in a LARP or tabletop RPG, they all start off the same the same way. With three words.
I spend a lot of time thinking, pondering, and letting the nebulous ideas form into something more solid. But, the first step of the character going from loose idea to solid concept is identifying these three words.
Identifying Your Character’s Three Words
These words, your character’s core concepts or values, form the foundation of their personality. From there you can define the character’s traits, intentions, and desires. The three words are the bedrock that holds it all up.
The three words reflect the core components of your character’s spirit.
They can be simple or complex. I prefer to choose words that are not common but instead deep words with meaning and intent to them. But, that does not need to be the case. Try not to choose words that describe a job or “class.” Characters should not be defined by what they do, but instead by who they are.
Choosing the words can be easy. I’ve had them come on their own without much struggle, while others took a great deal of time to determine.
The words for my tabletop character, Guar, came to me almost instantly: courageous, forceful, passionate. They have remained consistent throughout our sessions.
In contrast, the words of my LARP character, Desderada, have evolved and changed many times (for those of you who know Desderada, you’ll see the irony in this): introspective, clever, wistful.
Choosing the words will help you build your character and, at the end, you may find the character you build no longer fits the words and they need to evolve. This is fine.
Often characters get away from us during creation. Don’t be afraid to let them have an impact on their own core ideals.
Using Core Ideals to Craft Believable Characters
Generally, the types of words reflect what type of character they are. If there are more positive words than negative words, they are most likely a hero or “good guy.” If there are more negative words, then you most likely have a villain. Neutral words work in either case and form what I call universal drivers, traits that work with either.
I have found that the best characters have a two to one mix. Two positive or negative to one other (opposite or neutral). This gives the character an inner struggle to compete with.
Characters with all three words in alignment with each other are usually too focused or perfect. They are the shining beacons of alignment whose flaws are just there to make them seem more perfect.
Guar’s Courageous and Passionate drive him to see the light in the world and help others see it as well, to protect and defend. In contrast, his forcefulness makes him a bully, arrogant, and righteous.
Guide Character Action With Regular Check-Ins
With these three words as a guide, you can better make choices for your character. You’ll know their soul and what direction their moral compass points.
Whenever I am uncertain about an aspect of the character, I check back with their three words to see if what I am doubting fits. They are like a quality check for personality, action, and archetype.
If something does not fit within the scope of one of the three words, then most likely that choice is wrong for the character. There can be exceptions to this, but they should be rare.
Desderada likes to solve problems with wit and cleverness rather than brute-force which is Guar’s favorite method.
Guar will indulge in a night of wild debauchery (odd for a paladin, but he somehow makes it work.) while Desderada will stay in and learn, watch and plan.
If you have doubts about what a character will do, check it against their words and see if it fits in the spirit of those words. If it does not, then they most likely would not do it, or do it begrudgingly.
If you have a hard time picking a trait or answering one of the 100+ character questions you can use the three words to point you in the direction of an answer.
Example Characters and Their Three Words
Here are some of my character and their three words. Some are simple, others are complex. You should pick words that reflect on not only their spirit but personality. De’yun is “powerful”, but “formidable” was a better choice for their personality. Subtle word choices can show nuance and help define the character even more.
- Shaedoe: Inquisitive, Sagacious, Overlooked.
- De’yun: Formidable, Jaded, Majestic.
- Scaeleous: Zealous, Honorable, Domineering.
- Chaemrais: Enigmatic, Dauntless, Tempestuous.
- Fray: Tenacious, Capable, Morose.
- Codius: Veiled, Pretentious, Ingenious.
- Haphazard: Vainglorious, Lascivious, Ardent
- Desderada: Introspective, Clever, Wistful.
- Guar: Courageous, Forceful, Passionate.
- Rex: Stalwart, Imperial, Noble.
- Dverium: Bold, Rapacious, Debonair.
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What are your characters’ three words? Share them with us in the comments.
9 thoughts on “Building Character Foundations with Three Words”
Character creation is my favorite part of any role-playing experience (its worse with video games, one should not take 2 hours to create characters that only have 10 presets). Though I have never used this method before in my process. Reflecting back, I have done something similar when I make character decisions but never looked deeply into it, as I tend to rely more on the backstory of the character than words I associate with them. I will have to go through each of my characters and see what 3 words I can find for them. Because it does become very useful to have, in a way, a quick guide to how your character reacts or chooses to behave.
This is similar to how I pitch initial ideas, but I really like the point about keeping the adjectives as a touchstone for character progression.
Your characters seem so diverse and interesting- love it!
I think “unrelenting, capable, and terrified” do pretty well at getting to the core of my current LARP character.
A fantastic method!
I always used a single core message but adding in three words, or at the very least identifying them has interesting results for my characters.
Aravar’s being, “Familial, Noble, and Preserved”
Chota’s being “Manic, Eager, and Passionate”
Usually, when I make characters the “core ideal” comes after the three words and 100 questions. Those I use to make a strong core ideal to build the rest around.
Aravar’s words make a lot of sense for him.. and Chota… #accurate <3
Great method. I can tell this is gonna be a big help in the future! I always struggle figuring out character personalities.
As for my existing Twin Mask character Isra, I’m trying to figure out her defining words…
cautious, devoted, close-minded
Most likely chaotic neutral
Those are great words and they do make for a neutral if unstable character.
For character personalities. I suggest finding the three words and then doing the 100 questions https://cwfox.com/2017/11/30/100-character-questions-for-improving-your-roleplay/
That will usually give a strong foundation for your character.
Pro-tip: After you finish the 100 questions. Wait a few days and then do them again. You’ll be surprised by what changed.