Writing Compelling Character Backstories

I often receive compliments on the character backstories that I write and the DM never skims my backstory. It wasn’t always this way: I used to just think of a cool character and write about it.

But then I’d get into the writing and before I knew it, I had multiple pages about this REALLY COOL character. 

The DM would skim it and none of the backstory would really come up, much to my disappointment.

When you hand the DM your 4 page backstory.

Over time I developed a method to save myself from writing backstory that would go unread and, consequently, save the DM’s time.

A good backstory is:

  • Brief
  • Relevant
  • Connected

If you can write a backstory that does all of these you’ll be in good shape. 

Brief

“Brevity is the soul of wit.” -Shakespeare

People are busy: you and the DM. Be considerate of your time and the DM’s and don’t put a lot of extra detail into the backstory. Instead, crystallize it down into the essential points and let your character’s personality and backstory be revealed through roleplaying. 

Backstory gained at the table is worth 100 times backstory written on paper.

Reducing backstory down to its essentials also serves as the first gateway of quality: if your character backstory cannot be expressed in 3 short paragraphs or less, then your character concept is not well defined.

Don’t believe me? Let’s try a few examples:

One of the Maiar of Valinor, came to Middle Earth to oppose Sauron. Came to Middle Earth as part of the Istari, taking the guise of an old man in the hopes that the kings of Middle Earth would listen to his counsel. Bearer of Narya, the Ring of Fire.

Strained relationship with Saruman because of the gift of the Ring of Fire. On a quest to destroy the one ring and prevent the return of Sauron.

Refuses to be bound by any authority except the Valar who sent him to Middle Earth. Like Hobbits.

That was Gandalf right up until The Hobbit.

Let’s try another one:

Brother was kidnapped and tortured by gods who feared he would one day be their undoing. During the kidnapping, he received a scar from the War god, Aries. 

Was the youngest captain of Sparta’s armies. Received the (super cool) Blades of Chaos from Aries and became his champion, before Aries tricked him into killing his wife and daughter.

Now on a quest to redeem himself by killing the rampaging War god, Aries. Really likes breaking things and yelling a lot.

That was Kratos up until God of War 1.

The examples go on and on. If you cannot reduce the concept down to 3 short paragraphs, then you need to further define your concept.

This leads us to the second part of the method:

Relevant

Everything that appears in your backstory needs to be relevant. This means that it:

  • Ties the character to other characters, events, or places in the world. -OR-
  • Develops the characters ‘feel’ either via aesthetics (keep it minimal) or personality and disposition

That’s it. Describe where your character came from, an event or two of significance, their general disposition, and their motivation for adventuring. 

ProtipIt’s often helpful to your DM to provide a few ‘hooks’ on the side. A hook is something or someone that your character will pursue. No DM is offended if you hand them three hooks and say “Here’s three things my character REALLY wants and will leap for every time.”

This brings us to the last part of the method:

Connected

Tabletop RPGs are a social game: don’t have an anti-social backstory. Write in events and reasons for your PC to be connected to the others in the party.

DO NOT write a “lone wolf” backstory that gives your character nothing to care about and no reason to adventure with the group. While great roleplaying may allow such a character to develop at the table, that’s rarely how this backstory unfolds.

Instead the lone wolf often makes it difficult for the DM and other players to motivate their character, resulting in bogged down sessions and the character frequently being left out of decision making.

Instead, incorporate the other party members even if it’s just a brief sentence “Likes hobbits” “Values friends” “Unusually enthralled by warforged” etc…

Lastly, if your character is entering the game after level 1, make sure to tie in some motivation that is relevant to the current plot. This could be a reason to pursue the big bad evil guy, a desire or need to seek the plot McGuffin, or (if the others players are OK with it) even a close, personal relationship with one of the other Player Characters i.e. friend, cousin, sister, etc…

 

Troubleshooting Tips

Writing is messy work and tabletop games can make it more messy. If you’re having trouble applying this method, here are some tips to make it easier:

What if I can’t write just 3 paragraphs?

Tabletop games are imaginative games and sometimes we can’t constrain our imagination to a mere 3 paragraphs. That’s OK!

When that happens, write your full story and keep it for yourself, think of it as the “Detailed Version” of the backstory that has the details you need if the DM or the other players ask for more information. Then take one sheet of paper and the Detailed Version: you’re going to use it to write a few things on that one sheet of paper:

  • Appearance – No more than 2 sentences describing your character’s appearance
  • Demeanor/Outlook/Personality – No more than 2 sentences describing  their personality and alignment
  • Backstory – No more than 6 sentences describing backstory
  • Adventure hooks/goals – Write 3 adventure hooks or character goals: things the DM can use to motivate your character
  • Relationships/contacts – Write 1-3 contacts or relationships that are important to your character. It could be another PC or it could be their mother, sister, best friend, teacher, etc…

If you are still stuck at this part, approach it kind of like writing a dating profile: keep it light, make it interesting. Save the detailed backstory for yourself and use it to build your own character knowledge.

A sample 1 page backstory sheet (click for download)
A sample 1 page backstory sheet (click for download)

When you are done, format your 1 page document so that it’s easy to read and hand it to the DM. No DM should consider it too much and most will be thankful to have all this information clearly described on one page.

What if I don’t know who I’m playing with or the major plot?

This is a common problem with new people joining a group or creating a new group. In this case, first work with your DM to discuss what a good character motivation would be, they will usually be able to give you a vague idea without giving away too much of the plot.

If you’re still having trouble, talk to another player and consider having your characters acquainted i.e. friends, cousins, adventured together before, went to wizard school together, etc… this can make it easier to build party cohesion and make character introductions flow smoother.

 

A Real Play Example – Zan Zalladar the Insane Mystic

Below is an example of a backstory used in a real game. It was for a character being introduced into a higher level campaign. My previous character had been violently murdered and the party was in the far reaches of the arctic, meaning that the new character would have to come from one of the crew that was manning the expedition along with the PCs.

The character joined up right before the “planar exploration” phase of the game and I wanted a backstory that really reflected the heroic aspects of high-level play. While this is a bit on the longer side, it fit really well into the campaign and provided solid motivation for the character to stick with the party: he was a spy and the party was pursing leads straight to the doorsteps of the gods.

 

Zan Zalladar was the oldest son of a wealthy merchant until his vessel met misfortune and sank during a long voyage. Seven years later, Zan emerged from a harbor in the human lands to find that his father had passed and his three younger brothers had taken control of the entire inheritance after presuming Zan to be dead. Eerily calm, Zan chose not to fight his brothers for the inheritance and, instead, enlisted in the navy. He has been serving on various ships ever since.

If you ask Zan Zalladar what happened during the seven years he was away, he will tell you that he was taken to the kingdom of the god of the ocean and there it was that Zan fell in love with his daughter. The god of the ocean did not think him worthy and so, to prove his worth, each day he was given a task to perform; each day Zan Zalladar completed his task and was allowed to stay another day. Love flourished between Zan and the goddess daughter of the ocean. However, no living mortal is allowed in the domain of a god for more than seven years and so at the end of those years Zan was sent back to the surface with the blessing of the ocean god and a promise of betrothal to his daughter should he ever return.

Zan knows there is only way to be reunited with his love: to become a god. Each day Zan works to prove himself, to grow and master and exceed himself. He will be reunited with his love or he will die trying.

 

The DM really liked the backstory and ended up tying it one with one of the major antagonists of the campaign (an aboleth). The big reveal, worked out between myself and the GM as the character progressed, was that the character was actually insane and working for the Aboleth who he believed to be a god.

This is one of the longest backstories I’ve used in a long time, but it was worth it to capture the mythic feel as of our campaign. Practicing brevity is difficult and it takes time to master, but if you keep honing your writing skill you will save yourself and the DM a lot of time and unread backstory.

 

 

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