Whether you are looking for a way to better define your player character’s backstory, thinking about creating a new NPC or playing a mission related character one critical thing to think about it what prompted this character to take action?
In some role-playing systems this is called a “kicker” which is short for the thing that kicks your character into action. The kicker is an event or realization a character has just before a story begins. This functions as a catalyst that propel characters into taking action, whether that is action for the cause of the mission to to antagonize the mission.
You can think of this like the opening scene of many movies. Before the kicker, the focal character whether they are a protagonist or an antagonist is just some person. Maybe a good person, maybe a bad person, but one that is living a static life. The kicker pushes a character forward into action and that action becomes a story.
A famous example of this is Star Wars Episode IV, where Luke Skywalker is a kid on a farm on Tatooine. He may have had hopes and dreams of traveling the stars as a youth, but so far his life has been pretty dull. Days are spent fixing things on the farm while living with his aunt and uncle. He’s not even compelled to go on an adventure until the kicker – the murder of his aunt and uncle – happens and then he is propelled into action, following Obi-Wan Kenobi into the stars.
Kickers don’t have to be traumatic, though trauma is a popular choice among many genres. Some common broad categories of kickers to consider include:
Shocking: This includes traumatic events and anything that shocks the character from their comfortable life with a sudden burst of fear of pain. This could be the violent loss of a loved one, an unexpected betrayal, or a terrifying nightmare come to life. It turns the character’s world from a day like any other day into a flurry of action and change.
Opportunities: The opposite of trauma, sometimes great opportunities are also the push a character needs to start a great story. Whether they trip on a case full of a million bars of gold pressed latinum; get selected out of a thousand incredible candidates to get a shot at a dream job or get a call from their idol one day out of the blue, opportunities can be a potent catalyst for action and story.
Mysteries: One strange clue starts to unlock a trail of mysteries that keeps unfolding. After researching something for years a new piece of information changes the scientists understanding. An anonymous tip sends a character off on a hunt to solve a puzzle that has haunted them. Mysteries can also push characters forward in interesting ways.
These options can be particularly potent for making memorable mission NPCs, giving major allies and antagonists a stronger and more personal reason for taking action beyond ‘the mission requires it.’ This also can help you as a writer feel that your characters have stronger motivations which will make it easier for you to write their actions in the story.
Give it a try next time you create a character, and hopefully this will help you get a greater focus for who your characters are and what is driving them to take action in your story!