As you may have noticed, last month we at Beyond the Horizon took part in the RPG Blog Carnival. And June is no exception, though I don't think we'll be doing 4 weeks on the topic. This month's topic gets a mention as well though as it is "Attitude to Burn", but I'm going to divert a bit from that, and instead share my tricks for a memorable NPC.
I, like many other GMs out there, have players who love nothing more than perverting and corrupting the names of my NPCs. So a place called Deepingwood became Dickingwood for example, and rare is the NPCs name that survives contact with them (especially, much to my chagrin, my wife). So it's usually imperative for me to keep 3 things in mind when I make NPCs:
Cool Name, But...
We've all seen names in fiction where we thought "that sounds/looks cool", but where it's a name you'd never run into in a "real" world. Names that are usually enough to break the tongue of those pronouncing it. Now, that's no problem if your NPC is from a non-human species or race, like an elf or dwarf, and certainly not if it's a dragon, kobold or something else, but most GMs still keep the "Common" language in mind whenever they're building their worlds. So it would make sense for NPCs to have 2 names: Their actual name, and the one they use most commonly. There are examples of this in real life too: authors who write under pseudonyms (C.S. Lewis wrote as Clive Hamilton and N.W. Clerk, Stephen King wrote as Richard Bachman, and Isaac Asimov wrote as Paul French), actors (Natalie Portman's real name is Neta-Lee Hershlag, Joaquin Phoenix is Joaquín Rafael Bottom, Jamie Foxx is Eric Marlon Bishop), wrestlers (Ric Flair is Richard Morgan Fliehr, The Undertaker is Mark Callaway, and Alexa Bliss is Alexis Kaufman), and I'm sure you can think of other examples on your own.
So when I apply this to my own world, with a few things to keep in mind:
Some names are common - no name is unique except in rare circumstances. There are a few Daves, Steves, Richards, Toms, and so on running around in my campaign world. Most of them are not consequential to the story (at least initially).
All names MUST be pronounceable without too much trouble in whatever language your home game is in (my current one is in English, but the last one was in Danish. There are some definite differences in how those names sound).
NPCs who are integral to the story get a first and a last name - most other NPCs don't. - Most fantasy games take part in an equivalent to medieval times, and certainly in Europe, it was common to only have one name. If you had two, it was usually your work the designated who you were. So you could have "Tom" - Tom Baker, Tom Miller, Tom Farmer, Tom Farrier, and so on. And everyone in the small town or neighborhood would likely know who that was. Only nobles are likely to go further, and if you're feeling lazy (or they're not integral to the story), name them after the region. "Tom Hills" (lord of the Hilly region), Tom Dale (Lord of the Dales) Tom o'the Vale (Lord of the vale).
This all gives you a simple and effective system for naming your "normal" NPCs. Then you can go wild with the X, Z, apostrophes, etc. on all the non-human or special NPCs, giving them names that'll break your players. (Also, sometimes you should throw in-jokes. Some NPCs are unlikely to take themselves too seriously. A good example of this is Sera from Dragon Age: Inquisition, when she makes fun of the nobles).
Your regular NPCs, i.e. the unimportant ones, do not NEED motivations, but if they do, keep it low-key. Things like "I just want to feed my family" is perfectly fine for them. It should not take center stage (unless the heroes go there of course, but that's a different story).
Your major NPCs should have something more to work with, but it doesn't have to be world-shaking, but if they do, that's OK too. You'll actually find great and simple motivations in comic books. Iznogoud who wants "to be caliph instead of the caliph", Julius Caesar who wants to conquer the Gauls, Thanos who wants to gain the approval of Death, Darkseid who wants to rule the universe by eliminating free will after finding the Anti-Life-Equation and so on, or literary ones like Frankenstein who wants to create or renew life.
But even smaller motivations work. Perhaps the hunter who wants to "catch them all" or cure a specific disease - doing so without thinking about the consequences to anyone else.
Regardless of the size of their motivations, there should be consequences to their actions. These people are usually ambitious but they have blind spots that cause them to disregard the implications of their own actions.
Each memorable NPC should have a memorable gimmick. To many of us, that is an audible cue, such as an accent that the players latch on to. But these do not necessarily have to make sense - in fact, it's almost better if they don't as that makes them more memorable. So for my own campaign, I tend to subvert expectations: my dwarves do not have a Scottish accent, instead, they speak French (which I have to admit I'm terrible at), my Elves tend to speak Swedish, and the most central and famous sage in the world has the THICKEST Hill Billy Accent I can put on. (Which cracks my players up every time - a person talking about the fundamentals of magic should NOT sound like they're out "huntin' gators"). But all of these work, because for us, all of these accents are unusual (in the current group, it's a mix of Danes, Germans, and Brits) so they'll come across as different.
But cues do not have to be audible. For another NPC I always take my glasses off and twirl them (which admittedly has the side effect of making the players harder to see), and at least one villain has a soundtrack (The only one in fact, as I avoid music during games. I would dearly love to add music (I'm a great proponent of Syrinscape), but I've found that I have trouble distinguishing what people are saying when there's music going. Apparently, it's an Auditory Processing Disorder.). All of these cues are some that you can use to impart a sensation of the NPCs in question.
And with these three in mind, it is usually easy to create NPCs more or less on the fly. So I hope it'll be useful for you too. :)