writing better

Crafting a character backstory like an RPG player

Crafting a unique character with an interesting character backstory is quite easy – all you need to do is ask yourself the right questions.

I wrote on my own blog that running an RPG game is very similar to writing a story (but with the help and hindrance of friends). Following up on that, I thought I’d explore character creation from the perspective of someone who has played these sorts of games. If you happen to be in the majority of readers who have not, don’t worry about the RPG bit as we are just talking about character creation from the story perspective.

Why do you need a backstory?

writingThe character backstory of your main protagonist (and indeed your antagonist too) may, to some, seem like surplus information. However, it is the background – the path they took into the story – that gives your character depth and makes them seem real. The thing that brings a character to life is not what they do but why they do it.

In an RPG setting, the games master can use character backgrounds as hooks to build adventures (stories) around. In a novel, the character backgrounds are used by the author to build a plot. That process of building a backstory is – for both settings – exactly the same.

The backstory is why Lord of the Rings feels so rich and real and a lot of people feel Twilight was a bit lacking. A full character backstory allows for a rich and complex character with rich and complex motivations. Not to mention, the possibility of finding weaknesses for your hero that the villain can exploit.

This is where, I felt, Dawn of Justice (the DC film) let itself down. The opening scenes (after the fluff we all know about Batman) sees Bruce Wayne trying to save civilians from the fall out of superhumans smashing up the landscape in the epic climatic battle. Those moments make a much stronger motivation than the tired old dead parents storyline.

Had I been writing that film, I would have tied back to that destruction and the aftermath. After all, the question of what does Bruce Wayne wants (in this movie) should be: “To prevent another tragedy like the destruction he witnessed in the opening moments”. Now, when he goes after Superman, Batman finds himself in the role of well-intentioned extremist (the antagonist role). The final act can then be a redemption story. It would have been dark but also really solid as opposed to, well, what we actually got. So close, DC. So close.

Six key questions to ask about every character

I’ve been talking to friends I play RPGs with about running a new game. For this game, I want to use rich backstories. Which is how I came to be looking for resources to help the other players. In my search, I found this video. “6 Questions to Make the Ultimate Backstory”.

6 Questions to Make the Ultimate Backstory

To recap the video, here are the six questions again:

  1. Where was the Character Born?
  2. Who are their parents and are the parents (and other family members) still alive?
  3. What was your character doing before the adventuring life?
  4. Why did your character leave their previous life?
  5. What did your character leave behind?
  6. What does your character want?

The first three questions deal with the characters foundations. The early formation that shaped who they are. These are questions that will tie your character into the setting you have created for the story. If you have seen my character background worksheet, you will know I dedicate the very first section of the sheet (about four lines) to those questions. Ask at any of our events if you want to see the character development worksheet.

Those first three questions also make it a little bit harder to write terrible Mary Sue characters. Hard, not impossible. These are questions about grounding the character in their reality and not fixing really bad ideas.

The last three questions – why they left, what they left, and what they want – are about the forces that drive the character into the plot of your story. Or, in the case of an RPG, into the first chapter of a game.

Over to you

Those where six questions to ask about your character to start forming a character backstory. I like to add questions like:

  • What do they like?
  • Who or what do they love?
  • Who or what do they hate?
  • How many vices do they have and what are they?
  • Just as they have vices, do they have virtues?

On the Author Buzz forums, there is a running thread of interview questions to ask your character. As you can see, these six questions are far from the only questions you could ask about your character. Those six above are, probably, the best six starting questions you can ask.

What sort of questions do you ask about your characters as you are developing them?

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