"Military Drill" Artwork by Critical Hit
As GMs, one of the most challenging aspects of what we do is creating characters on a consistent basis who are not only memorable but have distinct traits. Some GMs are better at this than others. Those who have a background in voice acting or acting in general have a distinct advantage over those of us who do not (I'm looking at you, Matt Mercer). But aside from trying to do different voices or accents for each character your players run into or throwing a shawl over your head to become the old woman selling sausages on the street made from grass-fed, free-range children in the village of Vallaki, there are certain things you can do as a GM to set your characters apart without the voices (though voices are fine too, obviously).
PHYSICAL TRAITS: One thing I do to set my characters apart in my own campaigns is to try and give characters, even minor ones, some sort of memorable physical quality. Do they have gold teeth? Are they abnormally tall or short? Do they only have one eye, or maybe their eyes are covered by a bandanna? Is their hair a strange color? Are they stick-thin or super muscular? Do they have a massive beard, full lips, or a chiseled jaw? If you begin with good physical descriptions, it will only flesh out your characters that much more. Too many GMs skip over much description.
TICS OR HABITS: Another way to set your characters apart is to give them some sort of compulsive habit or maybe a certain way of walking. Does the character walk with a limp? Does the character pack a new pipe every hour or so? Is the character always nervously licking their lips or darting their eyes around the room? These are all subtle cues when combined with the physical traits that will bring your character more to life.
MANNER OF DRESS: What an NPC wears tells players a lot about their character. If an NPC is wearing leather armor and carrying daggers, the PCs will begin to grow wary of them because they might be a Rogue. However, that same character wearing tunic, breeches, and an apron would be perceived as a market vendor or store clerk even if everything else about them were the same as the Rogue in leather armor. Try to give your NPCs some sort of unique item for the PCs to focus on which will keep them guessing. Give the store clerk a broadsword strapped to their back, or maybe give the Noble some inexpensive and shoddy looking shoes. Maybe the princess always wears pants and has never been caught dead in a gown. Be creative so your PCs can't always guess at the NPCs motives. Maybe the wizard wearing black robes and carrying a skull staff isn't a necromancer. Maybe he's mourning the death of his wife and was unable to save her even with all his power.
MANNERISMS: When we interact as the NPC with your PCs, some of us won't be using voices (me included). However, one thing I like to do is even though I'm mostly speaking with my own unaltered voice as the character, I'll add something to the way I talk which hopefully sets them apart from the last NPC the players encountered. Give the character a stutter or tell the players that the character stutters every other word. Make them sneer every time the mayor is mentioned. Have their voice soften when talking to the most charismatic of the party. Act incredulous to everything the Bard says. You may find yourself inhabiting the character of the NPC much easier the more you and the players interact this way.
MOTIVES: Always remember that real people are calculating and thinking every time they're not in the middle of speaking. Think about what that character's goals are and try to get what that character wants by angling for it while talking to the PCs. Yes, of course the Fighter will help but only if he can get 10% of the loot. The Rogue will make a grand show of helping the Cleric because he knows the Cleric has money and may share in his wealth under the right circumstances. There's always an angle in real life.
With all these facets of your NPCs, you are bound to breathe more life into your worldbuilding and interactions, thus resulting in more fun all around for everyone. Remember, you don't have to be an actor, you just have to understand human emotion and the needs hierarchy we all possess innately.
How do you make your own NPCs memorable? Let us know in the comments!