Sometimes you draw a blank when trying to think up an interesting trait for a person or character. Fortunately, even when you can’t picture how a character might think or talk, there’s still the opportunity to make the NPC memorable with a physical habit that you can act out. People have all kinds of mannerisms, nervous tics, and other behaviors that can turn a bland character into a memorable character.
The easiest way to portray a physical trait is to use a prop, and if you’re playing at a game table, there are probably many things within reach that you can use for this purpose. Have the NPC take some dice out of their pocket and start stacking them. Idly flip a coin while they talk (they don’t have to be good at it, and dropping the coin makes the character just as memorable as catching it every time). Tap a pencil or pen on a pad of paper. Flip through a book (depending on the campaign setting, this might be a journal, a cheap paperback, a chapbook, or a religious work). Eat a snack, and (if you want the NPC to be a little bit rude or uncouth) talk with your mouth full. Tuck a pen or pencil behind your ear, or use your imagination and pretend it’s a cigarette. Sip from a glass, run your finger around its rim, or tap your nail against it to make a noise. Fiddle with a necklace or ring. Clean your glasses. Quietly whistle or hum. And so on.
If you don’t have anything nearby that you can fidget with, you have your face. Pick an expression and use it like a mask. Open your eyes really wide and raise your eyebrows. Squint one eye and draw in that side of your mouth so you look suspicious. Frown and crease your forehead. Put on a fake or awkward smile, showing teeth. Clear your throat a lot. If you wear glasses, take them off and let your natural glasses-free expression represent that character. If you don’t use a GM screen to keep your notes and maps concealed from the players, you can also use your hands as part of your performance. Snap your fingers a lot for emphasis, or idly do the fingersnap-fingersnap-handclap when you’re not talking. Rub your eyes. Stroke your chin. Tug your earlobe. Massage your temples. Wring your hands. Crack your knuckles. Tap your hand against your chest or collarbone, either matching your heartbeat or as the beat of a song. Act like you’re wiping down a bar or tabletop with a rag. Shuffle an imaginary deck of cards (as with the coin flip, it’s okay if this goes poorly). Doodle on a piece of paper.
The fun thing about using physicality to convey a memorable NPC is that your players will read their own ideas into the character’s mannerisms. The dice-stacking NPC might be obsessing about gambling debts or focusing on the dice in order to avoid making eye contact with the PCs. The NPC eating a snack while on duty might not care about the rules, or might be so overworked that it’s their only opportunity to eat for the next few hours. The NPC with the wide-open eyes might be surprised, frightened, or worried. The NPC with the squint and contorted mouth might be suspicious, in pain, or just thinking really hard. The NPC who clears their throat a lot might be nervous or just be getting over a cold. Let the players project their expectations into your NPCs and use that information to color in additional details.
(If you’re having a hard time keeping all of these suggestions in mind when creating NPCs on the fly, our NPC Deck is a really handy tool for giving you names, personalities, and distinguishing features for characters. Use the deck’s suggestions as-is or use them as a springboard for your own ideas!)