Writing Freeform Characters

Steve Hatherley

The key to writing a successful freeforms lies in your characters. If you don't write good characters, your freeform will struggle. And while a good player can sometimes rescue a bad character, many players struggle with bad characters.

As characters are so fundamental, here are the things I think about when I'm writing and editing a freeform. (I've written and played my own fair share of bad characters, so I'm basing this on experience.)

Who am I?

The opening paragraph of a character needs to establish, in fairly general terms, who the character is. This will set the scene for the rest of the character sheet.

Some examples:

  • You are Captain Smith, a long-standing employee of the White Star Line and their most senior Captain. You are very proud to be captaining the Titanic on her maiden voyage.
  • You are Madame Zara, Tortuga’s resident voodoo queen and you are well-versed in the dark arts.

It can be tempting to start the character in the middle of things as in “Blimey! What a turn up for the books! You didn't expect old Mr Johnson to keel over and die like that, but it's a bit of a relief that he did…” However, as I player I find this a little frustrating as at this point I still don’t know who I am. So, start with a simple opening paragraph outlining who the character is.

Why am I here?

Each character needs a reason for being at the freeform – a sensible, realistic reason. If a character doesn't have a reason for being present, then it does two things. First, it affects my suspension of disbelief. Second, it makes me wonder what other corners have been cut by the writer.

Giving the character a reason for being present grounds them in the game and gives you a good foundation on which to construct the rest of the character and his or her plot.

What do I want?

Once you have a reason for the character to be at the freeform, the most important thing is to give them some kind of problem that they can drive during the game.

For example, in Death on the Gambia one character needs a ticket and travel papers out of the country. So that gives him/her an objective for the evening. You do need to watch that whatever problem they have isn't too easy – and if it is you either need to make it more complicated, or give them some other objectives or mysteries to solve.

If you give a character a problem you should make sure that there's some way of resolving it. The player might decide to do something else entirely, but you should include a route to that problem's resolution somewhere in your game.

Of course, their problem and the reason that they are present at the freeform could be one and the same. For example, the character of Jonathan (in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Party Freeform, which I wrote with Tony Mitton), is throwing a party for himself because he needs certain magical artefacts which he is hoping will be given to him as birthday presents.

Giving characters problems to solve motivates them to talk to each other – and if you've got everyone doing that, that's most of your freeform written.

When it comes to writing your character sheet, these first three points are most important and should appear first. When I'm reading a character sheet, the first thing I want to know is who I am, why I am here and what I want. Then, and only then, should you introduce plots and characters that aren't central to those three questions.

Background is not plot

Background is simply stuff that happened in the past. It becomes plot only when action occurs during the freeform as a result of that background.

For example, I played a pirate character (based on a real, historical character) that had loads and loads of background information. Pages of it. But there was very little plot – because almost everything in that background had been resolved. For any of that to matter, the character needed more loose ends and unresolved issues.

So if you've got a detailed background for a character, make sure that there are plenty of issues that can be resolved during your freeform. (As a rule of thumb, if you can't get a goal out of your character's background, you need to look again. Naturally, some of that background may be needed for another character's plot, but the more goals you can create, the better.)

Writing goals

The "goals" section of the character sheet crystallises everything that I need to achieve in the freeform. And all the goals should follow on from what I've read before – I shouldn't encounter something new about my character.

Here are some simple tips for writing goals:

  • A character’s goals need to define what the character is trying to achieve during the freeform – ie, they address the “What do you want?” question. You can also add additional goals to cover other, more minor aspects – but make sure you cover what the character wants.
  • Don't have too few goals. It's better to have too much to do than too little during a freeform.
  • It's always better to be specific. So rather than give a character a “get as rich as possible” goal, it's better writing as “Get $40,000 so that you can take your family on that Caribbean cruise you've always dreamed of.”
  • Some goals may be "character-based" rather than "plot-based". For example, a ship's steward might have a goal to "Be a dutiful steward: Look after the passengers and follow the Chief Steward's orders." This goal doesn't address any of the plots, but may help the player act the part.
  • Make sure goals are relevant. Even in a murder mystery game, I would hesitate to give everyone the goal of solving the murder unless I can make it relevant somehow. (I could phrase it “solve the murder – you might be next,” for example.)
  • Watch out for negative goals. Negative goals are ones where you are preventing something from happening, like “prevent your dark secret from coming out” or “don't let anyone find out that you are the murderer”. As a player, these are pretty much meaningless as it's almost inevitable that your secret will come out. (That's the nature of freeforms.) So instead, try to rework the goal into a positive action – “Get Sally framed for the murder by telling everyone that you saw her leaving the murder scene in a hurry.”

Secret goals

Sometimes your game includes things that you don't want to include as goals - because if you do then you might give away too much information.

For example, in Davy Jones’ Locker, one of the characters is looking for a new widget. However, his old widget (which he was very fond of) is also in the game (through a series of improbable coincidences) but because that's secret, it's not a goal. If the player learns that that his old widget is in the game, he may want it back. That's up to him. So while his character has "You have lost your widget and need to find a replacement" it doesn't have "Get your old widget back".

There is a bit of an art to including a secret goal because the trick is to tell the character sufficient information without suggesting that the item/person in question is actually in the game. (Experienced freeformers, on reading that they have a missing nephew or stolen heirloom or whatever, will suspect that the nephew/heirloom/whatever is actually present in the game. And often they are right.)

Turning goals into background

I sometimes find that I need to turn a goal into background information. This happens because as I write my plots I often find that I need extra characters in the plot to make them more complex or to add conflict. That means explaining why that extra character is in the plot.

So in the example from Davy Jones' Locker above, I might need a character who is looking for widgets for some reason. (I do this because I want conflict in that plot and the more people who want that particular widget the better.) Deciding which character to give this new goal to is easy - I pick one with relatively few goals.

Then all I have to do is create a reason for why he wants the widget and add it to the character sheet. While I could just write it as a goal, it will be stronger if I include it in the character's background and as a goal.

Who needs me?

Every character must need or be needed by at least one other character in the game. Preferably more than one.

What do I mean by “need”? Well, I mean that they will be required by another character because they have something unique or uncommon which is required for another player to complete their goals. Or instead they require another character because they don't have the relevant skills/money/whatever.

Some examples:

  • Skills/Abilities: In Here Be Pyrates, if you wanted to take a ship to sea, you needed a specific set of skills: Seamanship, Navigation, Sailing, Gunnery, etc. That made those characters that had those skills necessary to those that didn't.
  • Knowledge and Plot: If a character has important plot information or knowledge – then they will be in demand. At least, they will be until they give that information away.
  • Items: In Death on the Gambia, new travel papers are required by some of the characters. This makes whoever has spare travel papers very important to those characters – and makes the game more complex as those that have them are unlikely to give them away without something in return.
  • Money: Just being rich can make you needed by any number of other characters.

It’s not necessary for characters realise that they need each other at the start of the game – that may be something for them to discover during play.

Other People

The actual physical process of playing a freeform involves people talking to one another. Apart from the odd rules issue, that's pretty much all there is to a freeform.

So I find it useful (if not essential) for character sheets to include nuggets of useful information about some of the other characters. That way they can start up a conversation (not necessarily with the character in question) and get that person-to-person interaction going.

However, what you don’t want to do is just repeat the public information. In most games there is a cast list – a brief description of each character that's circulated in advance of the game (or posted publicly somewhere). Just adding the public information to a character sheet adds nothing of value (and just adds to useless clutter).

Instead, make sure that the character knows (or believes) something that isn't public knowledge about that character.


It's easy to forget that as far as a freeform is concerned, the lowliest serf has equal billing with the king. They are all stars in their own movies. Or to put it another way, each player has their own starring role – but they're also just a bit part for everybody else.

It's also easy to fall in love with particular characters in your freeform and give them all the best plots. While this might be great for that character, it's not a good thing for the other plot-light characters. So you make sure that you distribute plots equally amongst the characters.

You should be particularly wary of this if you are writing a game based around a popular television series or fiction. If you are writing a 30 player Star Wars game, you need to make sure that all of your characters are fully involved – not just Luke, Han, Leia and the droids.

Keeping Busy

When I play a freeform, I want plenty to do. So that usually means lots of objectives and lots of links to plots and people to talk to. The trick, then, is working out when you’ve written enough.

(Some players that can take a scrap of a character sheet and really run with it and have hours of fun. However, not all freeformers are so gifted (I’m not, certainly), and unless you are 100% certain who is going to play your characters, I recommend writing for those that like to keep busy.)

Here are a few ways you can check for this:

  • Goals #1: If you’ve done your job properly, you’ve squeezed as many goals as you can from your characters’ backgrounds. If, after all that, you find that you have a character with very few goals (ie, two or three), then they probably don’t have enough to do.
  • Goals #2: Ideally, your characters should have roughly equal numbers of goals. If someone has 10 goals and other characters only have three, then you may need to move some plots around.
  • The Plot matrix: A plot matrix is simply a table with characters in rows and plots in columns. You then assign a number representing that character’s likely involvement in that plot – and if you add up the numbers it gives you a crude way of identifying those characters who don’t have enough to do. I’ve written more about the Plot Matrix in The Freeform Writing Process.
  • Spaghetti Diagram: The spaghetti diagram is a way of making sure that all of the characters have sufficient links to other characters. You simply write down all the characters’ names on a piece of paper, and then draw lines between them showing their relationships. Where are gaps, then you may need to fill them.
  • Experience: In time, you can develop an eye for how busy a character will be just by reading the character and knowing how the game will work and what other things they will be drawn into.

Groups, loners and outsiders

In general, I would far rather be part of a group than an outsider or a loner. Quite a few of the freeforms that I haven’t enjoyed have been those where I’ve either been a loner, or I have not been part of the groups that exist within the game.

For example, **Griffin Mountain or Bust!** featured three or four strong factions all vying for political power. As an outsider to all of them, I found it very difficult to get involved in any of their plots. (Ideally I would have had links and contacts into all of the groups.)

This is less of a problem in a game without groups – in that case everyone is a loner. However, as players naturally tend to gravitate towards their allies, you may find that groups tend to form anyway.

Groups aren’t always supportive, and often include all sorts of power struggles and internal politicking that are the source of many plots. The group itself may also have rivals – but at this pointI’m straying off topic and talking about different types of plot.

Here are a few thoughts on different types of group:

  • Friends: the best way to create a friendship in a freeform is to have real-life friends playing those characters. You normally need to do a bit more than just put on the character sheet “you are friends with Bob”. You also need to back that up by including shared experiences and plots, and ideally they ought to have goals for watching out for one another.
  • Family: while you might expect to rely on your family, I’ve often found that freeforms tend to have rebellious teenagers and domineering parents.
  • Ship’s Crew: quite a few freeforms end up based on a ship of some sort, and the ship’s crew is a natural group.
  • Clubs, Committees, Councils: in Torch of Freedom I found that I was on the town council, which linked me to other members of the council.
  • Political or Business: Characters in the same business/political party may be working together, or they may be rivals vying for promotion.
  • Secret Societies: secret societies are a really easy group to create. However, there is a big problem I’ve found with secret societies – and that is that whatever goals the society has, they often overrule any other goals. (I’m not sure why this is – it just seems to be the way of it.) So be careful if you are using secret societies.
  • Trivial Secret Societies: one way of avoiding the problem of the secret society's goal override everything else is to make the society relatively trivial. This is what I tried to do with the Post-Modern Freeform Movement in Hollywood Lies - the movement's goals are relatively important for the senior members, they are relatively unimportant for anyone else.

You can also use the spaghetti diagram (see above) to identify loners and outsiders.

Inconsistency between characters

Perhaps the most annoying thing that happens in a freeform is that you go up to another player and start talking about something that, according to your character sheet, involves them. And they just look at you blankly – and you discover that they have no idea what you are talking about because it’s not mentioned on their character sheet.

It’s frustrating, annoying – and if it happens too often it suggests that the freeform has just been thrown together.

I use a structured method to writing my plots – in essence, I write the entire plot (including a summary for me and all the characters points of view) in a single document that I can review. Only when I’m happy with it do I paste it into the character sheets. (See The Freeform Writing Process for more about this.)

Even that doesn’t catch them all, because as part of the editing changes can be made later on the character sheets. So that means you also need to proofread. And proofread some more.

(One of the key things about proofreading is that it’s very hard to proofread your own work. So once you think it’s fine, get someone else to proofread it.)

Illogical actions

A mistake that I’ve seen novice freeform writers make is that their characters carry out actions that make no sense. Well, the actions probably make sense from the point of view of making the freeform work (by stirring things up), but they make no sense from that character’s point of view.

So where possible I try and make sure that the character sheets make sense from that character’s point of view and everything fits together logically.

Optional Characters

It’s a wonderful thing when all the parts in a freeform are filled – but life isn’t always like that. So you will probably need some optional characters to make your game as flexible and easy to run as possible.

However, optional characters present their own problems:

  • They can’t be in key roles in plots.
  • They can’t have unique skills or abilities that are needed to drive plots.
  • They are unlikely to be needed by other characters.
  • So unless you design your optional characters carefully, they are in danger of being relatively weak.

Here are a few tips for making sure that your optional characters aren’t sub-standard:

  • Try to write self-contained characters that are driven to find out more about what’s going on in the game.
  • If you’re using abilities, make sure that the optional characters have really good abilities.
  • You can give optional characters something that’s relatively rare in the game (skills, knowledge, abilities) so that they are needed by other people.
  • You should make sure that there are links to the optional characters elsewhere on other character sheets.
  • You can give your optional characters unique information (or items, etc) – but if you do you will have to think about what you need to do (extra handouts, moving items around) for your game to work if they aren’t present.

First moves

Sometimes freeforms can take a while to get going – particularly if you have new players who aren’t familiar with the format. So I now tend to include “first moves” – suggestions for what the player could do at the very start of the game to get things moving.

Since I’ve started including them, I’ve found that experienced players tend to like them as well – so they’re clearly a good thing!

First moves can only really be written once the character sheet is 90% finalised. At that point, I just read through the character sheet and look for something that the character might be interested in – and then I write their suggested first moves.

Here are some examples:

  • Talk to Barry and find out why he wasn’t at the party last night.
  • Remind JJ that he owes you $5,000 – payable tonight!
  • Get Kylie to agree a time that you can interview her tonight.

Tips for writing first moves:

  • I usually include two first moves for a small game (three for a large freeform), so that if they struggle to do one there’s a fall back position.
  • I always write first moves as a definite action – usually involving going up to another character and asking them about something.
  • I try to make sure that a character’s first moves don’t direct them too obviously towards solving their main goal or problem. I instead tend to use the sub-plots – after all, the idea of these is to get the game started, not finish it early!
  • First moves can include things that an experienced player might do much later in the game - and possibly in a different way. That doesn't matter (and it's why first moves tend to be optional). The main point is to draw relatively inexperienced players into interaction with others.

The great tests

I have found that there are two great tests that really measure whether the character is any good. The first is to consider the effect on your freeform if that character isn’t cast and therefore isn’t playing.

If you wouldn’t need to change your game at all, then that character may need more to do, or needs linking to the other characters better. If you would only have to make a few minimal changes, then you may also need to link the character into the freeform a little deeper. (It’s possible that they don’t need any more work at all – but my experience is that’s the exception rather than the rule.)

(Optional characters are inevitably easy to remove and require particular care as a result – see above.)

The second great test is to ask myself how I would feel if I was cast to play the character. Ideally you need to try and imagine reading the character for the first time – without all the other baggage that you (as the author) will have about the game. Are you excited about playing that character, or not?

If you aren’t excited about playing that character, then you probably have some work to do.

If you are excited, then you can think about how much fun that character is likely to have during the game (and this is where your knowledge of what you have planned will help). If you think you’d have a great time playing the character, then your job is done. If, on the other hand, you don’t think you’d like to play that character – then you probably need to write a little more.

Older and wiser

Writing characters for freeforms is easier with experience. The more freeforms you’ve played (and written), the better idea you’ll have of what makes a good character in a freeform.

So write!

Character Sheet Checklist

Here’s everything summarised in a single checklist.

Does the character:

  • first explain who they are?
  • then explain why they are present?
  • then explain what they want?
  • have enough goals?
  • know sufficient interesting information about other characters?

Is the character:

  • needed by other characters?
  • logical?
  • one that you would be happy playing yourself?
  • consistent with other characters?

If you answered “no” to any of the above then you haven’t finished writing.

Is the character:

  • a loner?
  • optional?

Can I remove this character without affecting anything else in the game?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above then you need to review the character carefully to make sure that they fit sufficiently into the game and will be enjoyable to play.

Article by Steve Hatherley.


Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.