It's pretty common for someone to look at the HERO System rule book and be totally overwhelmed by the options inside. Usually first characters are a mish-mash of powers of wildly varying power levels and are not really suited for play. After seeing this come up time and time again on the Hero Games forums I thought that it was time for me to try and answer this once and for all.
1) Learn everything possible about the campaign.
i.e. What Genre, What kind of adventures will be run (i.e. Action, Political, Soap Opera etc.)? Does it take place in one spot (i.e. one city) or does it travel? How often will characters be engage in combat? How serious is the game (is it Comedy, Tragedy, High Drama or something in-between?) These questions give you a direction for your character and it allows you to make a character that fits the GM's campaign.
2) Know the power level of the campaign.
Know what the DEX and SPD range is and what the average stat for both of those is. You also need the point levels of the campaign (i.e. 350-point supers, 150-pointt Heroic normals). How powerful should your attacks be?(i.e. 10d6, a.k.a. DC10, a.k.a. 50-point attacks). Average and maximum OCV, DCV, OMCV, and DMCV (for 5E players the last two are mental combat values). Maximum and Average PD and ED, also maxes for unusual Defenses (i.e. Power Defense, Mental Defense, Flash Defense). Average is important as it tells you what most PCs should have for that ability, so you can decide whether your character should be above or below that value.
3) Come up with a basic idea of what the character is beyond adventuring.
i.e. Marine Corps Sniper, High Society Socialite, College Professor, News Reporter, etc. This gives your character a life outside of adventuring and gives greater depth to their background. This step also can give you ideas for people who may be attached to the character both for good or bad (i.e. a Dependent or a person Hunting the PC). Write these ideas down.
4) Now work on the character's Adventuring side.
Wizard, Healing Priest, Person turned into metal, Thief/Rogue, Person who can create fire effects, Warrior. Be general at this point, specifics come next. Also think about quirks that will make this character different from any other character of your type(s)
5) Take those generalities and be more specific.
Write out what the character can do in plain English (don't even worry about opening a rule book yet). This step is VERY important for Super Heroes and for Spell Casters. Done right this will both help with writing up powers and will suggest weaknesses. Make sure that this list shows what you want your powers to DO. Fiery Body from being possessed by flame elemental is a good start, but you need to write down specifics of what the character does with that fiery body. The more specific and detailed the write-up the easier it will come to write up powers.
a. Can project bolts of fire
b. Body's fiery aura can vaporize bullets and is resistant to heat effects
c. Being made of fire makes character lighter than air and allows her to fly
d. Can see heat (i.e. Infrared Vision)
6) Start writing the character up using the rules.
This is where you open your rule books and genre books. I recommend starting with Skills. See if you can find a write-up of your profession in the genre book. Most of the professions have some sort of package that lists out Skills (and Complications) that are appropriate for that profession. You may think of more. Next work on Perks (things like Favors, Contacts, and Licenses), go onto Talents, then Powers. When you start to write up Powers go back to your list of what your powers should do, and then find the power in the book that best fits that write-up. Start with the abilities that translate easy. (i.e. Can project bolts of fire; sounds like either a Blast or a Killing Attack Ranged (or it can be both if you like).
b. This is also a good time to buy INT and Presence. Keep in mind that 3s and 8s are breakpoints and will save you points.
7) Now balance the character so they fall within the point budget.
This is a great time to see if some of the powers can be purchased in a Multipower. Also think of Limitations on your powers. i.e. "Power requires a Roll" is a good limit for beginning heroes. Also think of weakness in those powers. i.e. Fire powers probably don't work under water or in vacuum. This a good time to lower stats that you were kind of wishing for but don't break the character's concept to lower (i.e. Presence can be a good characteristic to lower). If you can’t come under budget, then go onto the next step. You might find ways to save more points in the proofing stage
8) Proof the character versus campaign limits and power levels.
These questions are to reality check the character so they aren't a total wimp or over-powered.
a. Do I have at least 1 attack power that is straight up dice of damage? (i.e. Strength, Energy Blast, or Ego Attack). This means one attack power that has no advantages like NND, Armor Piercing, Penetrating, etc. If your powers all have gimmicks you can find yourself in situations where the character cannot damage the bad guys at all, which can make for a frustrating experience.
b. Are my defenses = 2x to 2.5x the dice being thrown in the game? (i.e. if the campaign is based on 50-point (10d6 powers), then I should have from 20-30 Defenses.
c. Can I take one attack at campaign average with an average roll and not be stunned? (i.e. have my Con Score exceeded by damage taken after defenses) 1d6 does 3.5 average STUN. so 3.5 x 10d6 = 35 STUN on average - PD or ED (lets go with 20) and you take 15 STUN which means that you need 16 Con to not be stunned by an average hit (round to 18 to take advantage of figured chars).
d. Do I have enough STUN to take 2 - 3 average attacks? i.e. using the numbers above the character takes 15 STUN per hit and should have 30 STUN to 45 STUN
e. Do I have enough END to use my most common attack + run END-using defenses + movement - Recovery for one full turn? i.e. ((Sum Attack END Cost + Defense END Cost + Movement END cost/2)* SPD) - Recovery. Your movement END is halved because you take Half Moves during any Phase you attack. Recovery can be used to decrease the amount of END needed to meet this goal (also Recovery allows the character to heal back STUN damage)
f. Do I have a Movement power that is faster than 12m/phase, or is moving slowly ok for the character concept?
g. If your character has EGO powers remember to have Mental Defense at 2x to 2.5x the dice of Mental Attack (not the dice of Telepathy or the other Mental powers). The character should have around 20-30 Ego and OMCV and DMCV around 5-7. Most people never buy their DMCV above the base of 3 or their ego above 10. You can bank on this being true in all campaigns with the exception of ones that are all mentalist based. So take advantage of that fact to save points. For Telepathy, Mind Scan, Mental Illusions, and Mind control, you can reality check these by using the formula 3.5 x dice rolled - 10 (average EGO). On a 10d6 attack you roll a 35 on average, subtract 10 for average EGO and get 25 which means that you get +20 effect on most rolls (with a -1 on breakout rolls on +20 effects to boot). 6d6 averages 21 pips of effect which nets you +10 vs. most targets
h. Your CV scores should be at least campaign average. OCV should be at campaign average or average +1
i. This is a good time to buy any other Characteristics that I haven't talked about above.
9) Does the character still fit the point budget?
If you are under budget go onto Complications/Disadvantages the next step. If not, then really look hard at all of your powers and skills and see if there is something that can be cut (and purchased later when you get experience). Also, see if there is some other Limitation you can place on your powers to help lower points.
10) Start putting together your Character's Complications (a.k.a. Disadvantages).
Go back through your notes and see if any Complications jump out at you. If you were the crusading lawyer or reporter perhaps some criminal is Hunting the character. Perhaps you know that the character is curious, has strong convictions against killing. Perhaps that body of flame has a weakness against cold attacks. Write it all down and come up with your Complications. By the way; Complications are good for the character. They give the GM something to grasp onto to help write adventures that involve the character beyond just being there. Don't be afraid to have that weakness to alien glowing rocks, or ice attacks, have a sweet curious Aunt May, or a Wife/Husband/Girlfriend/Boyfriend. These things make your character interesting, not your powers and skills. If you are really hurting for ideas go to this site, it's a real nice resource for Physical, Psychological, and Social Complications: the Masterlist of Limitations.
11) Go through your notes and write down your character’s background.
i.e. Job, what the character did before they started adventuring. It can be anything from a bullet pointed list of events to a short story. Make sure the GM gets that background along with the HERO System write-up. You are done and if you have followed all of the steps you should have a well rounded character that isn't a total wimp, who can contribute inside and outside of combat, and has a background that the GM can use to write adventures
Congratulations you have finished your character!