Back in the days when I had more disposable income to spend on role-playing games, I had a set of books titled Central Casting. Each book was a series of tables for randomly rolling up backgrounds for your RPG characters, and each one was skewed to a different millieu: Heroic Fantasy, Modern Day, and Futuristic.
My friend Cath, who with her husband ran our CHAMPIONS group did not think much of Central Casting; she was a high school English teacher when not crafting cosplay outfits or devising sub-plots for their super-hero campaigns, and had a low opinion of subjugating the creative process to the roll of the dice.
I thought the books were fun to play with, but I found using the tables in them to be a bit wonky. For some reason, every time I rolled up a character background with Central Casting, the character always wound up with a tattoo. I lost interest in the books fairly quickly.
My friend Scott, who shared the apartment with me and my Wacky Brother Steeve, liked the books. He was an aspiring writer and he looked on them not as a gaming tool, but as a writer's resource.
Writing and running RPG's have some important differences; most significantly that the latter is a collaborative process and the former is done by the writer alone, sweating out the narrative one word at a time. But they also have points of similarity, and one of them is that both require characters.
I happen to like character-building, and the process of assembling an RPG character always gives me a better handle on how the system's game mechanics work. Each game system have different criteria for what goes on the "character sheet", that is, what aspects of the character need to be established beforehand.
In that way, they're a bit like the advice I've sometimes seen for writers to make up questionnaires or checklists for each character: What color are the character's eyes? Does he have any brothers or sisters? Does she have any interesting tattoos?
Running the protagonist of your story through an RPG's Character Generation Process can serve a similar purpose: to help you nail down important aspects of the character's personality, background and abilities in order to give you a better sense of who that character is, and how they might react to various situations.
Granted, I have never tried this myself; I have never deliberately used an RPG system to flesh out a character for one of my stories, except indirectly, in cases where I'm writing a story adapted from a previous game. But it seems to me that doing it this way is at least as helpful as following a Character Checklist, and has the advantage that the character traits it asks for are ones likely to impact the narrative.
Now, not all gaming systems are going to be particularly helpful for this. "Class-Based" systems, such as Classic Dungeons & Dragons, where the player has a limited number of character types to choose from, will not be of much help in fleshing out your Plucky Orphan Girl growing up on a dairy farm in 1950s Minnesota. Not unless you want her to have a proficiency in killing kobalds.
Likewise, systems that have you randomly roll dice to determine characteristics -- and again I'm looking at you, Gary Gygax -- will also give you non-helpful and sometimes silly results. Some games have Life-Path character generation systems, like the classic space opera game Traveller, or the Central Casting books I mentioned. In those books you get a series of tables to roll against to determine your character's background, family, education and carreer. It was quite possible in Traveller to kill your character through a bad roll in the character creation process before the game even started.
Since you aren't playing a game, you don't have to be fair to other players. Just choose the characteristics or the outcomes you want. Oh you can roll the dice if you want to, if there's some aspect of the character you're unsure about, or if you just see what randomly comes up; but you should also be prepared to ignore any results you don't like. You're the writer; the dice are just a tool.
Better are point-buy systems, like HERO/CHAMPIONS or my personal preference GURPS. In these games you start out with a character conception and then pick and choose attributes, abilities and traits that match your conception. I particularly like GURPS because it has a huge shopping list of Advantages, Disadvantages and Skills to choose from, and going through the list can help me sharpen my conception of what qualities my character should have.
But you don't need the huge shopping lists of GURPS. Let me show you an example of an easier system. Teenagers From Outer Space is a game based on some of the sillier genres of anime and has an elegantly simple system. I like to call it what Archie would be like if Jughead were an alien and Veronica carried tactical nukes in her purse.
Characters are given gender (Male/Female/Other) and race (Human, Near Human, Not Very Near Human, and Real Weirdie.) Each character has eight Attributes: SMARTS: (general intelligence); BOD: (overall strength and agility); DRIVING: (skill in driving a car for humans or a flying saucer for aliens; can also be applied to bicycles, hoverboards or other vehicles); RELATIONSHIP WITH PARENTS: (also applies to teachers and other authority figures); LUCK: (self-explanitory); LOOKS: (your appearance; COOL: (which is independent of appearance, but which involves Looking Good) and BONK: (how much damage the character can take).
Each Attribute is given a score from 1-6, which can either be rolled randomly, or chosen by the player to fit the character conception. To discourage players from loading their characters with high Attribute scores, the rules encourage the GM to award extremely high success rolls in the game with comedic side effects.
In addition, each character may be given a few Knacks, which are specific things the character can do well and which can add to the characters Attribute score when attempting them; three Traits, which tell us a little about the character's personality; and if appropriate, a Superpower, for special powers and abilities.
By means of example, let's try statting up the Callow Youth from my Togwogmagog exercises as a TFOS character.
NAME: Cal, Son of Hal
SMARTS: 3 He's of average intelligence; he just seems clueless at times
BOD: 4 Heroes have to be active, but he's a Callow Youth, not a Cimmerian
DRIVING: N/A -- Unless we want to apply the stat to riding a horse; then we could call it 4
R.W.P.: 5 This is one I hadn't really thought about much. Apart from Cal's patronym, I've never mentioned his parents. But since Cal is the Chosen One, I would guess that his family is very doting, but also has insanely high expectations of him.
LOOKS: 5 -- Above-average looks pretty much comes with the territory of being a Chosen One
COOL: 2 -- He has some serious self-confidence issues which make it hard for him to pull off the Aragorn-ish Aura of Heroism
LUCK: 2 -- I wrestled with it. His Destiny would suggest a high Luck, but not always in ways that seem beneficial to him. For that reason I decided on a low Luck score
BONK: 6 -- With his Luck, he'll need max Bonk.
I suddenly realize that in none of the exercises yet have I shown Cal actually doing much of anything. I have no idea what he's good at. That's probably why he has such low self-confidence. So let's just arbitrarily choose something that the protagonist of a Heroic Fantasy ought to be skilled at. How about Sword-fighting? That sounds good.
Sense of Responsibility
In Cal's case, I suppose his Destiny might count, but it's not really something he controls.
The Holy Sword of Hasenpfeffer. And sometimes a large purple onion.
Now, why have I devoted so much space to describing the rules of an obscure role-playing game? Because it brings us to...
THIS WEEK'S CHALLENGE:
Take a character you've been working on; perhaps the Callow Youth or the Stout Companion from the Togwogmagog exercises, perhaps some other character like Lady Adelaide, or James Bunns, or the Chainsmoke Killer, or the notorious Froop; perhaps some original character of your own; and make up TFOS stats for that character. Be sure to include:
One to three KNACKS
If applicable, any special POWERS, ABILITIES or STUFF that might be significant
If you feel particularly adventurous, explain why you chose the Attribute Levels/Qualities you did and how they describe your character.