Just a quick post for today, but one that should hopefully be significant to all the GMs out there wondering how to breathe life into their NPCs. It's something I've been logically aware of for a long time but never really gave much thought or consideration to just how powerful it could be. That was, until when talking to my Dresden Files GM and he rattled off an NPC in 30 seconds in a way that instantly gave me a very strong impression as to just who this person was. How? He mixed the details.
The Big Details
The big details are the ones we all think about when making an NPC. Maybe we don't put much variation into them, but they're at least covered. Race (Ork, Human, Elf or even Black, White, Asian), gender, job, etc. The kind of things that give us the kind of things people notice about who someone is or what they do. These are important, very important in fact, because they ground the character. We're not going to play a Cop the same way we are a Mafia Enforcer and these big details show us that difference which is very important. However, if you want a living NPC, you need more than just the big details.
The Small Details
The small details have very little to do with the function of the character. Those are the purview of the big details. What they do is give you the who for the NPC. A big detail will tell you that the NPC is a Cop. A small detail will tell you that the Cop is a single mother of two boys, one of whom is really into hockey the other of whom currently likes baking. The small details will tell you that the person likes to read romance novels. It will tell you that they always stop by the local 7-11 on their way home on Friday and pick up a lottery ticket.
None of these are important to the what of the character. We can have a perfectly functional NPC without ever touching on these things. However, the who might be important. If nothing else it will help add depth to your game.
Why the Who Matters
So, why does the who matter? It matters in several ways. The most apparent in that it gives your players a way to relate to the NPC that they might not otherwise have, it opens up ways to use the character that aren't there with the big details, and it helps to encourage the players to put more into their characters as well.
How does it help relate? For one, those small personal details build resonance points with the players. Maybe the NPC sings in the shower. Maybe one of your players also sings in the shower, or dated a guy who sang in the shower. The player now has a point that they can relate to the NPC on above and beyond the big details. This extra humanization of the NPC will also make the players think of them more as people and less as NPCs. That can be powerful.
It helps you use the NPC by opening up other ways the character could get involved. For example, the single mom I referenced above could show up at a hockey game, ice rink, or sports shop for interaction. She could have knowledge about school sporting events. She could have a plate of cookies from a container her kid baked for her to share. The more things the character has the more ways they're open to be used. Best part? This feeds directly into the first one.
Finally, it can help your players make better and deeper people as well. Why? Because it gets them thinking along those same lines. You present an NPC that is a real person, the player interacts with them in a way like a real person, and eventually they'll start providing those details for themselves as well. The result? Everyone has deeper, more real characters.
Next time you find yourself making an NPC, try to mix up the details you generate on the fly. A few small details might just make the difference between a good and a great NPC.