I’m currently reading The Lost World and a while ago finished reading a marathon of all the Sherlock Holmes books. Something that struck me is his characters are purposeful contradictions so I thought it would be good to examine why it creates interesting characters.
When Doyle makes the characters, it seems that he forms them the way he’d make them. It starts off with the necessary business of why the character exists explaining the points you would expect from the person. For example, a cantankerous professor, scorned by his peers. And then proceeds to why this character is not “just” that description. He’s not just a cantankerous professor, he also has a violent nature. Not only does he have a violent nature he’s got broad shoulders, a barrel chest and a virile beard to boot! But then Doyle tones the character down. If he didn’t the character would start to take on unbelievable proportions. Professor Challenger stands up and we discover that he is a short man. He still shows his muscle on a number of occasions but he has been prevented from reaching Olympian status.
Of course this mixing of strengths and weakness is not haphazardly slapped together. They were chosen to modulate the characters so that they stay interesting while being introduced. How these characters play out in their roles is also a matter of interest. Some qualities are mutable while others are fixed. Professor Challenger stays a dangerously cantankerous man throughout the book. His threats quickly become more intellectual and less physical though. Holmes is reported to kick his cocaine habit for a time, only to relapse somewhat.
Self Contradicting NPCs
Just understanding the concept of how a character that contradicts themselves makes it simple to make NPCs that follow this formula. What will take skill, is introducing the character in a way that will allow the proper interest to build in them. Doyle is the master of the reveal here and his methods will work in an RPG too.
First the character should be introduced through either their reputation or a messenger. If it seems the player characters would have a good chance of recognizing the NPC by reputation, something to the effect of “You’ve heard something about him, people were talking about something he did when you overheard their conversation.” Then follow up with what the gossip they would have heard about.
A messenger can bring news of the NPC coming to meet the PCs and leave off with a warning about how to not upset the NPC.
The next step is describing the NPC’s appearance. It should be thought through to reveal something more about the character. This is often where the first contradiction comes in.
The next step is the interview where the PCs talk with the NPC and the final limiting contradiction is introduced.
Making Self Contradicting Player Characters
At times, randomly generating a character can produce just such a self contradicting character. This can also happen simply by including an interesting background to the character. So how can a GM encourage his players to develop interesting characters like this? Some games have ways of giving limits to a character (The Artifact does this) but they’re rarely targeted to make the most interesting character. Opening up the appeal to the players to develop such a nuanced character may involve offering a bonus to the character but offset it with some kind of limitation is sometimes the best way of balancing the character and sparking the player’s interest.