It's easy to fall into a trap when creating a Space Marine. Fear is the baby, and every other human emotion besides rage is the bathwater. Legions of blandly angry bald dudes populate the fanficosphere and, dare I say it, a certain percentage of the Black Library. If they're not angry, they're stoic. That's usually even more boring.
Obviously if I objected to the presence of rage and stoicism in my fiction I wouldn't be a 40K fan, but there's limits. Today, then, I seek to do my part by providing a series of prompts to help anyone trying to write a Space Marine character, be it to lead their army in a 40K Crusade or for a roleplay scenario. It's specifically written for creating Deathwatch characters, but honestly it'll work fine for pretty much any loyalist marine, and in a pinch, spiky marines too.
Side note: I wrote this guide for our gaming group to create their Deathwatch roleplay characters. I won't share the rules themselves, since they're adapted from the actual RPG I work on, and for a number of obvious reasons I don't want to promote my tiny indie game by riding on the coattails of another company's IP.
To nerdily echo the Ultramarines' Theoretical/Practical dialectic I will providing the questions and prompts (the theoretical) and then providing an example answer (practical) for one specific marine: Lieutenant Marcus Varro, newly seconded to the Deathwatch. He's been painted up in time for a scenario Tom is going to traumatise us with next month.
Which Chapter are you from?
There are a thousand chapters, all with their own traditions, although all hail from one of the 20 original Legiones Astartes. Your chapter will define much about you culturally, psychologically, tactically and visually.
Cobalt Scion. A Chapter of the Indumitus Founding. Culturally they cleave extremely close to their gene-sires the Ultramarines, taking a direct interest in improving the society of their home system. The chapter's leadership includes four members of the Ultramarines' 1st Company who crossed the Rubicon Primaris to guide the Cobalt Scions from their inception.
What is your name?
Firstly, choose a name. Remember that most marine chapters have cultural archetypes which may serve to inspire the tone of your name; while the White Scars would have pseudo-Mongolian monikers, the Ultramarines are essentially space Romans, whereas the Space Wolves will have a more Nordic tone. If you're at a loss, Goonhammer have some name generators for different 40K factions.
What was your assignment in your chapter of origin?
You may have been a battle brother, or perhaps a techmarine with a penchant for driving tanks. Maybe you’re a member of the veteran 1st company of your chapter, and maybe you’re a promising young warrior only recently allowed to don power armour for the first time.
Lieutenant, 8th reserve company. The 8th is responsible for further improving a marine's skill at close assault prior to being elevated to a position in one of the battle companies. As such, Varro accustomed to training marines in the advanced use of a variety of melee weapons. In the stasis pods of Cawl's vessel he was psych-indoctrinated for a command role, implanted with a variety of standardised responses to various scenarios, and consequently has never served as a rating. During the early years of the Indomitus Crusade he struggled to distinguish between his own personality and programmed responses.
How old are you? Are you a Firstborn?
You might still be young – perhaps as young as twenty or thirty – particularly if you’re a primaris marine. You might also be really old; Astartes don’t age like unmodified humans, so if you’re a Firstborn marine you could be over a hundred. In rare cases, you could even have a couple of centuries under your belt!
62 years, subjective Terran standard. Was recruited millennia ago to the Primaris project in Magna Macragge Civitas.
Describe your physical appearance.
Where some marines have an almost sculptural set to their features, others look brutish or even repellent. And whilst all marines are capable of much the same physical feats, are you particularly tall, short, broad or slender?
Slightly shorter than average for a Primaris marine and of average build. Close-cropped brown hair greying at the temples. Pale skin. Deep facial scarring.
Describe your temperament.
What makes you happy? Excited? Angry? Ashamed? Melancholic? Proud?
Protecting those under his command and the wider citizenry give Varro great fulfillment. He is always excited to meet people from different chapters and/or organisations. Refusal to compromise while working towards common goals angers him. He is shamed by his inexperience outside his standard remit, but hasn’t found the time to remedy this. He takes immense pride in what both his primarch and his Chapter are trying to do, but the sheer scale of the Imperium's problems, and the entrenched nature of the Ecclesiarchy, can induce a deep melancholy that he endeavours to avoid or ignore.
What makes you laugh?
It is rumoured that even the starch-arsed Imperial Fists have a sense of humour. What is yours? Do you enjoy banter? Irony? Word play? A well-told anecdote?
Self-deprecation and exaggerated understatement.
What was your most legendary deed?
This might be the slaying of a daunting foe, rescuing a fellow servant of the Emperor, or maybe you peaked early, having achieved a heroic covert operation as a scout that you’ve never been able to rival as a battle-brother.
Varro's proudest achievement was resolving a labour dispute on Delta Thonicia IV without recourse to violence. The workers of Dig 572-rho were angry about servitor replacements, while management were unwilling to invest in improving safety. Varro dismissed the managing noble family but compensated them for the loss to offset the political fallout, then implored the Phratry Munitorus to work with the locals to implement superior water pumps and tunnel braces. Fearing similar management dismissals, other dig sites began paying for similar measures. It would take years for the overall situation to be resolved, but even before that year was out, industrial action was down 20% and yields were up 7%. Varro has learned that this is not an anecdote that plays well among marines from other Chapters.
What was your most brutal defeat?
No-one’s record is spotless. Describe a time you failed, despite your best efforts. Perhaps losing a friend in battle, being humiliated during your training, or allowing your feelings to cloud your judgement at a crucial moment.
Varro was overly rigid in his interpretation of the Codex Astartes during the Battle of Lieber’s Ridge, and didn’t take the initiative from the orks when an opportunity presented itself. Analysts concluded this missed opportunity extended the war by three weeks, and thus cost the lives of nineteen marines and several thousand PDF troops.
What is your armour’s history?
Your armour has been fitted to you by the chapter’s armourers, but that doesn’t mean all the pieces are new. Some parts may have been worn by great heroes, or even those who died an ignominious death. Your suit might also feature embellishments you have added yourself.
Varro’s left vambrace and helmet were both ruined during the Reclamation of Raxis Minor, and were replaced with the tragically unneeded components from recently-deceased Brother Gaius Fulminus. Varro likes to think using Gaius’ wargear brings him spiritually closer to the rank and file he’s never been a part of, and reminds him of an Astartes’ mortality.
Why were you selected for the Deathwatch?
Whilst some chapters consider it to be a great honour to select a marine for service in the Deathwatch, other chapters may consider it a tiresome obligation or even a way to effectively exile one of their own. Whether the marine in question understands this to be the case is of course another matter entirely.
Varro was hand-picked by Chapter Master Drusus as someone likely to comport himself well when dealing with marines of different Chapter cults. Since he's being sent to a Watch Fortress within the Cobalt Scions' home sector, his seniority within his chapter is also hoped to demonstrate a higher-than-expected commitment to the Deathwatch.
What does the Deathwatch mean to you?
It’s one thing to know why your chapter sent you, but what do you make of the chamber militant of the Ordo Xenos? How do you reconcile the fact that your duties may be done in contravention of the Codex Astartes, and recruits from chapters that may be rivals (or even enemies). Do you believe in the methods and purpose of the Deathwatch? Is joining this organisation a chance to gain great glory, or a chance to atone for past sins?
Varro's intimidated; he knows there is much he doesn’t know, and that every veteran he meets is likely to be as or more experienced than him, despite the rank he holds in his own Chapter.
What do you desire?
Are you motivated by a duty to protect the Imperium’s citizens, or by a desire for personal glory? Do you live for the thrill of taking extreme risks, or the challenge of an intelligent foe?
To make a name for the Cobalt Scions among the Deathwatch; to bring whatever knowledge he gains back to his chapter, and (somewhat cynically) to use that experience to advance his own career. Whether this results in him being hesitant to sacrifice his own life should it be required remains to be seen.
What do you hate?
Is it cowardice, incompetence, heresy, or weakness that boils your blood? Is it the foul taint of xenos, or the way the Ecclesiarchy view the Emperor as a god?
The needless destruction of civilian lives and infrastructure enrages Varro; he knows how much is involved in its creation. As such he harbours particular hatred for the mindless destructiveness of greenskins. Despite his personal ambitiousness, or perhaps because of it, he also hates selfish politicking rather than the dutiful pursuit of one's designated purpose.
What do you fear?
Space marines are psychologically conditioned to be unflinching in combat, and unwavering in laying down their lives. That having been said, fear is one of the most basic human instincts, and they are not immune to its touch. It might be a fear of being a lesser man than their contemporaries, or losing the approval of their brothers, or facing a foe against which there can be no victory. Whatever their fears are, they would not dare speak of them, and may even believe that they are the only astartes to know fear, whilst outwardly professing their imperviousness to it.
Varro fears that which he does not know; of being seen as too rigid or unimaginative; of failing to make other marines think well of the Cobalt Scions.
What is your demeanour?
Are you calculating? Gregarious? Hot-blooded? Studious? Taciturn? Pious? Stoic? Scornful? Ambitious? Proud? How do others perceive you? And how would you like to be perceived?
Varro is open and gregarious but is sanctimonious about his faith in the Cobalt Scions' methods. He would like to think others perceive him as humble and dutiful. He tells himself that he does everything out of service rather than personal ambition, even if he knows deep down that's not entirely true.
It seems I've made a dutiful boy scout with a hammer and shield. It's a miracle I didn't call him Smash Captain America. I'm going to need to strike a balance between him being this upbeat space bro with him then losing his sh*t when confronted with the widespread devastation you always see when encountering Tyranids (our baddies for the mission). He'll be a fun counterpoint to my last Deathwatch character, the extremely dour Brother-Sergeant Elias. Plus he should be a good straight man to the crazier characters in the team.
Anyway, I hope the questions and prompts serve you well! If you have additional suggestions for questions, post them below, and I'll think about how they apply to Varro. And maybe retrospectively edit the article, who knows?