The GM's role can be a daunting one at times, especially in the eyes of a neophyte. You have to be the arbiter of the rules, a gracious host for your players, and create an fantastic world for said players to explore filled with numerous individuals to interact with.
While all of those are topics that deserve mention, today's Rule of Three will be focusing on one in particular: creating interesting NPCs. When you're new to the spot behind the screen, there's a fear that your NPCs might come off as flat or boring. It's an understandable fear, but thankfully one that's very easy to negate.
Today, I want to present three simple tips and tricks that I use to create interesting NPCs, sometimes on the fly. This will not be groundbreaking advice, but I feel its still useful (especially for newer GMs). Just remember, these are just little pieces of advice, not hard rules that you must follow.
#1. Quirks & Traits
When creating a NPC, consider giving them an interesting quirk or trait. These should be simple features to help make the character more unique and possibly memorable. For example, you could have the local barkeep have a peg leg, which is why the townsfolk refer to him as "Hoppy". Another example could be a scribe who quietly repeats a person's name to herself when she meets someone knew in order to memorize it better. Don't be afraid to occasionally add a random trait or quirk to a random NPC to make a scene more interesting.
#2. Quirks & Traits Should Inform the Character, Not Define Them
When utilizing weird quirks or unique traits, make sure these features are only a small facet of the character's identity, not the entirety of it. For example, let's look back at our scribe example from before. The reason why the scribe repeats everyone's name when first meeting them is because she's a little scatter-brained and as trouble remembering little details like names and what not. If you find yourself having trouble in this department, try using the quirk or trait as a starting point, wondering why the character would have this feature in the first place and what that feature says about them. For example, maybe the barkeep doesn't mind the locals calling him "Hoppy", seeing it as a term of endearment. However, the barkeep gets angry when a stranger uses the term.
#3. Take Inspiration From Your Surroundings
Finally, feel free to draw inspiration for your characters from your favorite movies, novels, video games, and other forms of media. Are your characters going to have a run-in with a local mafia boss? Maybe look to Don Corleone from The Godfather for inspiration. Need an eccentric magician for Saturday night's game? You could always take a cue from Big Trouble in Little China's Egg Shen. Want to make the town sheriff a tough, no-nonsense protector of the law? Karrin Murphy from The Dresden Files might be perfect inspiration. Just remember, these inspirational characters should be just that: inspiration. Like quirks & traits, view them as a starting point, then try and make them your own.