It’s my opinion that tabletop RPGs should be fun for everyone involved (including the GM!) but the onus should often be on the GM to facilitate that, since they’re generally the one with the most control and experience.
With that in mind, here are a few ideas about how to draw the best out of you inexperienced players.
Idea 1: Back-story
Ask your players to write & email you a short summary of their character’s life so far. It doesn’t have to be long, perhaps 100-150 words and certainly not more than 500 words. Make sure they include things like family members, important mentors, tragic AND joyous events, difficult choices and things they regret.
If possible, it’s always great to get a short summary of what the characters believe in, their morality and their ideals.
Now you have more fleshed out info about the characters, you can start to play with the adventures to cater to/challenge different aspects of their personalities and ideals. This will help the players & characters grow and develop.
Idea 2: PLOT TWIST
I think it’s important that you talk with the players first and get their consent that you’re going to throw in a plot twist regarding their characters. Not all players like other people adding to their characters. If you go ahead without asking and they hate it, it not only makes the session uncomfortable, but will also make them more likely to check out and stop wanting to role-play.
Once you’ve got a player who’s OK with it, though, that’s when you can start to have some fun. Pick a character from their back-story and make up a cool twist that brings their personal life into the story. Some quick examples:
An old mentor/parent-figure of the PC has been indoctrinated into a cult. The mentor will try to persuade the PC to join them. Darth Vader that shit.
On a similar note: The BBEG is the PC’s relative! Again, Darth Vader that shit.
The PC’s home has been razed and everyone/all but one of his family killed. They must now choose between justice and vengeance. Batman that shit.
The PC is actually a sleeper agent for the baddies. They become activated and must fight the urge to be a living weapon. Hawkeye that shit.
The PC’s dead spouse/best-friend was not dead and has been brainwashed.Bucky Barnes that shit.
The PC’s sibling appears with unfinished business from the past. Perhaps the PC left them for dead or “wronged” them in some way. Sabretooth that shit.
That’s just a few ideas but there’s so many more ways you can bring their past into it.
Idea 3: Freaky Friday that shit.
I’ve done this a couple of times to my players to mix things up when they get stale. The adventure starts normally and then when the PCs get into proximity of the McGuffin of the week, they suddenly find themselves in each other’s bodies. The players swap character sheets and the adventure continues but now they must find a powerful sorcerer to get them back in the right bodies.
This can really make for some fun role-playing, even if the characters are a little boring. Suddenly the snooty mage has no magic and is running around as a charismatic bard; the impulsive barbarian is now in a wizard’s body and has the elemental powers of flame. Lots of opportunity for interesting character moments.
Those are just a few ideas for getting a bit more interesting stuff out of standard or one-dimensional characters.
Remember though, although all their character stuff might seem old-hat to you, new players are just finding their feet in the role-playing world and some standard, cliche’d things might be new and interesting to them.
As long as you keep giving them a chance to deepen and open up their characters, they should start to surprise you and bring cool new stuff to the table.