Some of the most memorable moments in games, both in the virtual world and on our tabletops, is when we interact with certain characters. Our interactions with memorable characters can live on in stories you and your players tell to your friends.
Making a character that is memorable is not limited to NPC's (non-player characters). The only real distinction of an NPC to a player character is that the NPC is controlled by the Game Master, which can be a person or a computer.
Standing out of the Crowd
While your characters exist in your world and those worlds have cultural stereotypes and expectations, the parts that are going to be most memorable are those that contrast those stereotypes and expectations. This has to be done in moderation, because going too far out of those stereotypes and expectations makes the character more satirical than interesting, unless that is what you are going for.
One of the best examples of this in D&D literature is Drizzt from R.A. Salvatore's novels. Drow in traditional D&D are an evil race (a topic that is best not handled here) and Drizzt is good, in terms of morality and alignment. Since he is different from a majority of his Drow peers, he sticks out. This is only one of the reasons that he is memorable but where his example ends for today.
In my opinion one of the easier ways to make a character memorable is to have that character evoke some kind of emotion with your players. Depending on the emotion you strive for can color how that character is remembered.
Some of the best NPC's I have made for my games made my players laugh. This was either because of something silly they did or was just outright strange.
Having a player despise a character is another way for them to be remembered. A character that back stabs a player to steal his magic sword is sure to be remembered by that player, maybe it sparks life into an otherwise dull character.
A mixture of emotions can create a more powerful bond with the character. An NPC I played for a friend caused a combination of worry, anger, and laughter among both the characters and the players. I still hear quotes from that character every now and then.
Another good way of making a character memorable is to make a feature, or several, stand out. Similar to the section on Standing out of the Crowd, this is more defining things that stand out on the characters appearance. This can range from features of the body, to the clothing the character wears. This can even be something the character does involuntarily, or voluntarily.
Changing a physical feature on the character can make it so you only have to redefine that feature for the players to know exactly who it is. One of my favorite characters I made was an incredibly good looking Assassin with a scar over his left eye. A good example of this would be the White Orc from the Hobbit movies, with his missing arm.
Clothing tends to be a bit more difficult to pull off but when done correctly, can create an everlasting effect. One of my favorite examples of this is Gandalf the Grey. His clothing is iconic and from a distance you can pick him out of the crowd. The clothing must be unique but able to match the setting the character lives in.
I Speak Therefore I Am
Human beings are incredibly skilled at identifying voices. Its one of the ways we identify someone. Picking out a character's voice is a step towards making them memorable. It is also important to identify when someone is in character verses out of character.
Some great examples of voices from popular podcasts are Greaek from the Sneak Attack Podcast, or Dorro from the Godsfall podcast. You know exactly who is talking when their voices come on.
As a part of their voice you have to identify linguistic patterns and phrases that they fall into. Dwarves using "ye" or "lass" is a common example. Maybe your character stutters when they speak or they elongate their s's. These also help portray potential information about the character.
What's My Name?
Names are by far the hardest part for me to work with simply because I forget them easily. A character's name is the label that players put on the package that is a character's character. It is an easy way to remember them using just a few words. Making a character's name harder to remember will make that character harder to remember.
When coming up with a name, you have to create a name that reflects their background. If your character is a Dwarf it makes more sense for them to have a Dwarven name. This may not be the case if the Dwarf was raised by Human, then they might have a Human name. Be careful giving them an overly complicated name, if you do make sure there is a nickname that they are willing to go by.
Perhaps the character does not have an official name, but rather a nickname. Maybe that character was raised by wolves and was not given a name. Nicknames are a great way for players to remember characters because it will be a name that they remember. Have a character react to a nickname how they want, but I would never tell a player to not call a character by a nickname.
Naturally people are goal driven, always heading towards some purpose or goal. Your characters should also be driven by something, even if it is simple.
Enemies are those with goals usually counter to the players. Allies are those with goals aligned. It is possible that your enemies goals are aligned with your own but they go about it in a different way. Thinking of what the character's goals are will help you determine ahead of time what their relationship with other characters is going to be.
I have played a few characters in games where they did not have a goal. It made it incredibly difficult for both myself and the GM to know what to do with the character. The last thing you need is to force a motivation on a character that doesn't want it, that goes for both players and GMs.
Memorable characters will make your campaigns and stories something your readers and players will talk about whenever your works come up. While the world can be a rich place it is a stagnate place without characters, memorable ones make them interesting. Maybe you will make the next Drizzt or Elminster.