Don't Write a Backstory Before Reading This

In the rush of putting together a new character for a table top RPG adventure, writing backstory is sometimes relegated to a task done at a later time. In reality though, a good backstory can be a crucial first step at defining who that character is (and what they will become). That blank box can seem daunting, and no one tells you how to fill it out. Until now, that is!

Backstory grounds our characters in the world and defines their personality and upbringing. If it’s not done well, we don’t remain invested in those stories. Worst case scenario, we trash the whole character in favor of starting anew. This might seem ok until you realize you’re stuck in a never ending cycle of character creation, with no help in sight!

I don’t want to wind up like your last character!

I don’t want to wind up like your last character!

I’d like to point out some simple tips that can help flesh out your character’s backstory. Having some form of structure or constraint makes me more creative, so it might work for you too if you’ve been struggling with getting words on paper.

TIP #1: Talk to your Dungeon Master (DM) about the world.

Chances are, you already know a character you’re going to play by the time you get to the backstory. Work with your DM to understand your region’s culture and history. It helps to know if you were a child of poor leatherworkers in a large city, or a noble in a rural manor. Chances are you have a lot of flexibility in where you were raised- pick something the DM mentions that sounds interesting to you.

TIP #2: Visualize your character’s life.

This tip helps me imagine a lot of different character stories quickly. Imagine yourself in the shoes of your character growing up. How are you treated? What is your normal life like? How does your character respond to others around them? Exploring these ideas, even for a couple of minutes, helps you flesh out your character.

TIP #3: Explore your character’s motivations.

Identify what drives your character. What is their goal in life? Having a specific focus makes it a lot easier to understand how your character will react to different situations. It may be something broad like “uphold justice in the world” to something narrow like “kill the thieves’ guild master in the City of Zeron.”

Second, (and perhaps more important), explore the “why” behind the motivation. What happened to your character that made them strive for certain values?

TIP #4: Define your character’s “Unsolved Mystery.”

Creating loose threads and gaps in your character’s backstory is more important than a 10 page thesis on your character’s favorite foods. If you have unfinished stories in your past, the DM can use that to weave story threads throughout your adventure. Maybe your character was saved by a dashing swashbuckler, but you never found out who it was. Or perhaps your town experiences unusual eclipses every month, but you don’t know why. As humans, we strive for answers. This can be a great personal motivation to explore a character over the course of an adventure.

TIP #5: Your character goes through life just like everyone else.

Everyone, regardless of if you’re an Orc, a half elf, or a plain ol’ human, goes through everyday experiences. Sometimes, it’s the little details that make a character fun. Explain something your character likes and dislikes. For example, maybe your character loves the smell of fresh bread, which reminds them of home. Or maybe your character avoids animal stalls, because they spent their childhood cleaning them!

TIP #6: You don’t need to be a great writer.

Your backstory doesn’t need to read like a fantasy chapter book. More often than not, it helps to be short and concise. If bullet points help you, use bullet points. Use the tips above to:

  • Say where your character lived and what their life was like.

  • List a moment that was impactful in your character’s life.

  • Say what motivates your character.

  • Write down a loose end or mystery your character wants to know more about.

  • Write down something random that your character likes or dislikes.

Examples

Tannic the Farmboy

Tannic was raised as a farm hand for the local baron. However, as Tannic grew into adulthood, his strength and skill in the fields was noticed by the baron’s guard captain. He spent two years conscripted to the guard learning how to fight and protect the region’s populace. Now that his service is up, Tannic seeks the life of an adventurer so that he may purchase his father’s serfdom from the Baron. Because his adolescence was spent largely outside, Tannic feels more comfortable in open spaces than in confined buildings.

Annita the Tracker

Annita and her older sister grew up following in their dad's footsteps. A trapper and forager by trade, Annita's dad showed both daughters how to poach bird eggs, hunt game, track wild animals, and map out their surroundings. Their mother, a leathersmith, showed them how to appreciate and use all parts of the animals they caught.

Annita's older sister left the family two years ago to become a guide for the wildlands, and Annita is now old enough to wonder what lies beyond the small forest her family lives in. Soft spoken but determined, Annita is ready to make a life for herself as well.

Her dad gave her a family heirloom before she left, a fine skinning knife, which he says has always brought him luck. It is engraved with both elvish and dwarven runes.


Jules, thirsty for knowledge

  • Jules was raised in a large town by his parents, who are servants of a noble councilwoman.

  • A visiting wizard to the barony once showed Jules a book that explored the mysteries of the different planes. Jules was hooked.

  • Jules thirsts for more knowledge, and wants to be a cool wizard too.

  • Jules had a best friend growing up, a half elven girl named Shay’wen. She moved to the forests to the West years ago. Jules would love to see her again someday.

  • Jules judges people for not wearing clean clothes, because his family dressed well as servants to a noble.

Tell me what helps you write a good backstory in the comments below!

Until the next adventure-

Zeshio