Creating a roleplaying character with style

A woman stands with her back against a wall with a drawing of an eye that is looking to the viewer. On the side of a woman stands a giant mask representing a human-life face and the top missing.
An unfinished character concept.

I recently filled in a character sheet for a new campaign of the game Advanced Fighting Fantasy (AFF). In the process of helping new players  complete their character sheets, I realized that we had vastly different ways of making a character. Generalizing a bit, I reckon there are three different approaches to character creation.

Top-down approach

The main idea here is that the character concept comes first,. Maybe it’s a blacksmith who travels the world learning new forging techniques. Or maybe it’s a healer looking for a cure to the disease that’s plaguing her people. In any case, in this approach you don’t fill any part of the character sheet until you figure out who you want to be at a high-level. 

This approach works well if you only have basic experience with the game. 

This vintage art pair of jesters are two men dressed as harlequins, or clowns; the one on the left has a hat with bells on it and carries a punch-and-judy style stick with a head on the end; the one on the right wears a devil costume on his head and has a wide ruff or collar around his neck and a balloon on a stick in one hand.
Character concepts can sometimes get a little ridiculous

Bottom-up approach

Here, we choose our stats and skills before we figure out who we want to be. For example, I could say that I want to cast wizard spells and know a few skills useful for dungeon exploring like Trap Knowledge and Lockpicking, so I would pick those. After I finished creating my sheet, I could figure that my guy had been travelling around the world, a bit like a thief, sneakily looting crypts and dungeons and surviving on what he could sell and scrounge. So the character concept grows around what skills you choose.

This aproach can work well if you have good knowledge of the game rules, since you know what is it exactly that you want to pick and play with.

The wood engraving shows men with curved square shields and helmets fighting men with round shields at close range.
Brawling with style

Middle-out approach 

This is more or less a combination of the previous approaches.  So you basically go back and forth between choosing parts of your character concept and choosing your skills and stats.

Here’s my own example. I knew I wanted to play a skeleton in this campaign. So I had a “race” but nothing else. Then, I chose sorcery spells because I had never tried them before and they looked fun. Going back to the character concept, I figured that my character had been a powerful magician back when he was a human and had somehow ended up cursed and stripped of his flesh. Switching back and forth between the top-down and bottom-up approaches, I ended up with a character I was happy with.

A wizard, complete with pointy hat and beard, sits at a table; there’s a large open book on the table and a wax candle in a tall candlestick gives off light.
What do you mean I’m going to lose my flesh?

Choosing the right approach

In my game, people mostly went with the top-down approach, which makes sense as they are all newbies in the Fighting Fantasy world. Being the only veteran player, I chose to build my character with the skills that I wanted to try next. Since I had been playing a warrior-type for half a year, I now wanted to have a taste of magic, so I ended intuitively using the middle-out approach.

So I reckon if you have no experience, figure out who you want to be and then find the stuff in the book that suits your character concept. On the other hand, if you already know what’s available, you can just choose what you want to be good at and then just figure out a character that matches your skills.