True roleplaying — in which you pervasively portray and deeply immerse yourself into a character who is not yourself — is a difficult art. There are people who literally spend years studying and mastering improvisational acting. And quite a few of those people would look at the challenge of performing at a dining room table while simultaneously rolling dice to be a very high hurdle to clear.
On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of drenching this sort of thing in mystique. Plus, even untrained high school students can climb up on stage and perform. Just because you can’t consistently produce material like Matt Damon does in Saving Private Ryan (the entire story of his brothers was improvised) doesn’t mean you should just throw in the towel.
With that being said, I usually don’t worry too much about this on Day One with new players: If they want to play an avatar of themselves, no problem. If they want more than that, then a properly constructed set of rules, the example of other players, and their own creativity will lead them into it.
But when you come to second day of roleplaying, you might want to reach for something a little more daring. And that’s when you might discover that capturing the totality of a personality which isn’t yours can be a daunting task. It may seem too immense or you may not know where to begin. Even if you do manage to get a grip on the character, it can be easy for it to slip away once you actually start playing the game (and that can be really frustrating).
When that happens, this is my advice: Instead of jumping into the deep end and getting overwhelmed, start with a small, concrete checklist of “touchstones” that you can use to connect with your character.
Pick three touchstones. Focus on those.
- Pick a single personality trait. (Think of it in concise terms, but you may benefit from not making it completely generic. For example, instead of just saying “greedy”, you might say “greedy, but will always give a coin to a child in need”. Focus on finding opportunities when you can make active choices based on that personality trait. Also focus on never acting contrary to that personality trait.)
- Pick a physical mannerism. (This shouldn’t be flamboyant and it doesn’t have to be particularly fancy or complicated. In fact, the simpler the better. Something like “he drums his fingers” or “he scowls when he has to think hard about something” or “he likes to wink while giving a thumb’s up”.)
- Create a catch-phrase. (It doesn’t necessarily have to be a specific phrase (which could easily get worn out and boring), but perhaps make it some core concept. For example, Conan often swears to Crom. He doesn’t do it all the time and it often takes different forms, but it’s a persistent element of his character. As a bard, you could pick some famous songwriter or storyteller who inspires you.)
While keeping those touchstones in mind, just keep doing what you’re doing now. But whenever it’s appropriate, hit one of those touchstones: Drum your fingers on the table. Or demand the choicest share of treasure. Or mention that “a beast like this was described in the song s of the legendary bard Moranth”.
Of course, don’t feel as if your character has to be limited to those things. But these are your touchstones: Focus on achieving them and let the rest take care of itself for awhile.
It won’t be long before you start to feel the character “settle in” around those touchstones. Over time, the character will become deeper and richer. But whenever you feel the character “slipping away” again, simply reach for one of your touchstones to find your way back.