Familiar to every DM from every campaign everywhere is the concept of an NPC. We have written them, played them, seen them win, lose, and die. The NPC is the population of the world and there are vast numbers of them in a massive number of different roles from heroes to villains. When it comes to…
Even the most believable characters fall into one trope or another. Why? Although human interaction, motivations, and actions are complex, certain aspects may be boiled down. There is a method to the madness of what a character turns out to be. Tropes are the building blocks and macro picture of a deeper, intricate character. They are purposely vague such as “Old Master” or “Action Mom” to cover the wide variety of characters out there. How many Old Master characters can you think of? Obi-Wan, Mr. Miyagi, Dumbledore, Gandolf, Ezio, etc. come to mind easily. Each character, however, is quite different from one another, wouldn’t you agree? Yet they share the same trope. So what makes them diverse?
A trope alone does not make a believable character. Just as you need the pythagorean theorem to triangulate GPS, the theorem alone does not give you GPS. The trope, therefore, acts as a simple way to explain an aspect of their personality in which people can relate and understand. Think of it as a “class” that makes up their personality. Running with that logic, is every single Rogue you come across the exact same? Is every fighter or soldier? As an example, Tyrion Lannister is a very different overall character than Samwell Tarly or Littlefinger, yet they share the same trope (Badass Bookworm). The problem some have in terms of tropes, is that they see the trope making the character, not the character making the trope. They attempt to dismiss any character that falls into one (which is silly, because every character has at least one identifiable character trait). As a writer and DM, it’s important to not let this be the case. Don’t end character creation at tropes. You must expand on them.
Tropes are a DM’s tool if one wishes to use them. They can be a simple way to set the foundation of a character on which to later build the extra complexities as they arise throughout game play. By adding motivations, quirks, likes/dislikes, and other personality traits, a believable character begins to form. On top of that include personal relations and connections to things within the world (holding a degree at a university, having an ex-boyfriend in the next kingdom, having their favourite watering hole, a strong dislike for a certain culture, being the cousin of a shop keep in the capital city, etc). Establishing their place within the setting and giving them thoughts and desires of their own makes the character believable. Tropes may be found within, but not every character is the exact same.
Tropes may be a useful tool for a DM looking to build certain characters, yet it is not the tropes themselves which make them believable.