To make your adventures come alive, so they aren’t just backdrops for the action scenes, you need engaging characters that the players will remember. Long after they’ve forgotten which adventure they were fighting Cybermen or Daleks they’ll remember their encounter with the vain duellist, the lonely astronaut who wrote songs that no one would hear or the macho security guard who dotted on his sick cat. Saving the world is great but it is so much better when you know who you’re saving it for.
Robert Holmes was great at writing memorable characters and I think ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ is one of the best examples of this. Everyone from the villains, the supporting cast to the minor characters have something about them that make them stand out.
Characters like Jago, the pompous music hall owner. Every line he utters is a delight, emphasising his verbose nature. He never says 1 word when 10 or 20 will do. Everything about him is larger than life, even his huge cigars. He is equally happy promoting the acts or himself.
In contrast Professor Litefoot is a true gentlemen, willing to open his doors to strangers. He’ll even forego table manners to avoid embarrassing a lady, as he does during his meal with Leela, gamely trying to eat a whole leg of lamb with his bare hands.
It should hardly have been a surprise that when Jago and Litefoot meet it is screen magic. They are so different that they really spark off each other, finding companionship in the fact that they both want to be good men. Fans waited for years for these two delightful characters to receive their own spin-off in the form of audio plays.
So what makes them good characters? I believe the secret is the way that they work with main characters. The Doctor is amused by Jago’s toadying and no doubt recognises something of himself in the man’s flamboyance. He is useful to him, knowing that Jago’s own ego demands his loyalty and fuels his determination.
Similarly Litefoot, as well as providing information about the investigation, lets the time travellers use his home, offers them food, provides Leela with new clothes and never waivers in his loyalty to them.
Player characters won’t want to deal with NPCs unless they like them. Most players view NPCs as just mouth pieces for the gamesmaster to divert focus away from them. If you can make them entertaining then they’ll want to be around them, just to roleplay the encounter.
So if you want good NPCs have them appeal to the player character, reflecting some aspect of their personality. If one of your characters is a genius have a NPC be an eccentric boffin, if one of the player characters if a tough soldier have one of the NPCs be a hard as nails police officer.
You want these NPCs to have common ground with the player characters, allowing them to side with them due to their similar views. Nothing inflates a player characters ego like a NPC telling him he’s right.
When doing this make sure that the NPC doesn’t eclipse the player characters. The boffin shouldn’t be cleverer than the genius (at least not in the same area) and the police officer shouldn’t be stronger that the soldier. The focus should always be on the heroes.
To engage with the player characters the NPCs actions must relate to the player characters in some way. An NPC who worries that left the oven on isn’t as interesting to the player characters as one who worries about his sister who was kidnapped by the aliens the time traveller are hunting. Having similar goals allows both characters to travel down the same path.
Once you have the role of a NPC decided think about how they talk. You’ll describe how the NPC looks to the players once or twice but the thing they’re going to hear most of his how they talk.
Compare how Jago and Litefoot speak. Both are recognisably Victorian but their turn of phrase is completely different. You’ll want the player characters to know who is speaking without being told, useful if you have a conversation with several NPCs involved.
You can do this by the tone of voice you use but also think about the words. Do they use simple, direct language or do they speak elegantly, using the longest words they know? Do they have particular phrases they like to use or make references to contemporary events and people?
These short hand mannerisms can make a character memorable but don’t use it too much. You don’t want them to be a walking catchphrase. Always remember that they are a real person, with their own needs and goals that they’ll want fulfilled.
Small details can make even the briefest of characters stand out, if only for a scene. For example look at the old crone in episode one, watching the police fish a body out of the water and proclaiming that the sight would make a horse sick.
She is so enthusiastic about the grim discovery, despite her mock horror, that she is drooling. Whether it’s because it is a little bit of excitement on a cold night or because she is pleased that someone is worse off than her, it doesn’t matter. Without her this would have been a much duller scene.
Adding a little spark to a NPC can make their deaths mean more. Casey is a minor character, never encountered directly by the Doctor until after his death, but the viewer has gained a little fondness for their jittery Irish man. Rather than being a faceless victim it is truly sad when he his killed by Weng-Chiang
Not everyone has to have an accent, physical prop or outlandish behaviour but you can make a scene more interesting with NPCs that surprise the player characters. This could be anything from a NPC who keeps forgetting the characters name or a married couple who keep arguing with each other as the player characters try to get information from them or even the henchmen who is pining for the villain’s girlfriend.
Well crafted NPCs can be treasured by the player characters, driving future plots, used to heighten drama if they are hurt or die and could be promoted into full player characters, should the need arise.
Just avoid using them as gamesmaster player characters. As entertaining as the Doctor found Jago it would be rather dull if the musical hall maestro defeated Weng-Chiang on his own with just a punt up the posterior.