Character Backstory Writing Tips
One of my Exploration Age campaigns is coming to an end… and a new one is about to start! My friend Andrew Kane is DMing us through a campaign based in Exploration Age’s South Pole. The story deals with a cult he created that’s devoted to The Lingering Havoc. Badass! I finally get to step into the role of player which will give me time to focus on publishing the Exploration Age Campaign Guide and allow me to be engaged with the game in a new way. It’s been more than six years since I was a player in a sustained D&D campaign!
As our current campaign ends, Andrew has asked us to submit character backstories so he can begin working those details into the story of the campaign. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to discuss what makes a great character backstories. Here’s a few tips followed by character’s backstory as an example!
Ask the DM
Before you put any work into creating a character’s backstory, ask the person running the game if there are any parameters. Are the character options (like races and classes) restricted? What sort of world are you playing in? A jolly halfling rogue with a passion for lemon cakes and celebrity gossip isn’t something you’d find in a post-apocalyptic setting. Once you have that information from your DM, give them a quick description of your character. It doesn’t have to be more than a sentence or two. Mine was something like, “My character is a half-elf bard who travels the world searching for ancient troves of lost knowledge. He loves discovering new or forgotten ideas and is particularly interested in necromancy and magic that can extend a person’s life.” This got the approval from Andrew. (Side note: I figured having a knowledgable character would help me roleplay since we’re playing in a campaign setting I created.)
Use What the DM Gave Ya!
Once you know about the world your character inhabits, think about how you can tie your character into the setting. As a DM I find it a lot easier to work a character’s backstory into the game if they already have some connection to the story I’m trying to tell. In my case, I picked a character that has an interest in necromancy because Andrew has told us his campaign is centered around a cult of The Lingering Havoc (which is a massive pile of bodies with one mind). This makes it much easier to draw my PC and other elements of his backstory into the campaign. For instance, if my PC is in The South Pole looking for The Lingering Havoc and an old enemy shows up with an axe to grind, it makes sense that the enemy would know to find him there, since my character has a known interest in necromancy.
Just how did I know The Lingering Havoc and South Pole are playing a big part in this campaign? Why the DM told us of course! In fact he sent us an awesome map and campaign primer. Check out both below!
Closed Point of View
It’s best to use either first person or limited third person points of view (as opposed to omniscient) when writing a character backstory. This allows for the DM to harvest your story for hooks and adventure ideas more easily than if you provide every detail.
Consider this example. Your PC is fighting their nemesis and mortally wounds the enemy before the baddy gets away. An omniscient narrator might then inform us that the nemesis drank a potion of healing and swore to get vengeance on the PC someday. That’s a good hook, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if you as a player don’t know the outcome and leave it to the DM? Then the possibilities are endless. Maybe the nemesis was healed, or maybe with their dying breath the enemy swore an oath of vengeance to a dark god is now an undead revenant stalking the land! Or maybe the nemesis’ much worse sibling or parent found the body and is coming after the PC. Maybe law enforcement found the body and the PC is wanted for murder and doesn’t know it! Maybe the PC is wanted for murder because the body was found AND the nemesis rose as a vengeful wraith (a double surprise). Heck, the DM could tie this thread into another PC’s backstory or the main story! Maybe your nemesis is now a henchmen of the campaign’s main villain! As you can see, a closed point of view allows for more interest storytelling possibilities.
You might consider getting creative and writing your PC’s backstory from another character’s point of view. Maybe a spouse, lover, best friend, parent, or bard tells the tale. Whatever you do, keep the point of view closed so the DM can have a little fun.
Dangle A Few Threads
Leave a few plot threads hanging for your DM to pull on and weave into the story. Your character’s story is just beginning. If all your problems are taken care of at the start of the adventure, then there’s nothing from your backstory to work into the campaign. There’s many possible open threads! Maybe your character agreed to take over the thieves’ guild once an ailing parent/guild leader dies. Maybe someone stole a family heirloom. Maybe your PC wants to learn more about magic so they can return to their farming village to end a years-long drought. Don’t go overboard here. Your DM has other characters and their own story they’re trying to tell. One to three open threads should be enough.
Stick To The Basics And Defining Events
Don’t feel like you need to describe every detail of your character’s life. Answer the basics. Where are they from? Who is close to them? How did they get their talent for fighting, magic, roguing, rangering, etc?
After you answer those questions, you need only describe the defining events in your character’s life. What events made them the person they are today? In fifth edition D&D you might look to your personality traits, bond, ideal, and flaw and ask “When did my character develop these?” Put those moments into words and use those events to leave your dangling threads. That way when your past comes back at you during a game, it’ll be even more meaningful.
Secrets Are Fun
It helps your party members if they know a bit of your backstory, but keep a secret or two for just you and the DM. The secret should be something important that your PC wouldn’t readily share, even with the other party members. Maybe your character is secretly royalty, was once part of a demonic cult, has a secret love child, or accidentally murdered someone. Many of these secrets are shameful to characters, but there’s other reasons a person could keep a secret.
Maybe your PC keeps a public figure’s shameful secret in order to extort them for money. Maybe your PC keeps ties to certain friend or family a secret so enemies don’t exploit loved ones. Maybe they have to keep a relationship a secret because if their father finds out, they’ll lose their inheritance. There’s tons of reasons to keep secrets out there! Give your character a good one… and don’t be surprised when the secret becomes exposed!
Heroes Are Good, Chosen Ones Not So Much
Your character should have some fantastic deeds or moments in their backstory. The first time they cast a spell. The first monster they vanquished. Though remember that this PC is meant to be a part of a group of heroes that is stronger together. You’re character should not be the only person on earth who can slay a world-consuming monster. Not only will it be sad for the world when your PC is killed by a kobold at level 1, it also takes too much importance away from the other characters!
We Knew Each Other Before This
It’s always a good idea to tie your backstory into at least one other PC’s backstory. This makes it easier on the DM to bring people together. Plus it gives you another character you already trust and care about! You might even consider sharing any secrets in your backstory with them.
A Word on Length
When it comes to character backstories, I don’t care much about length as a DM. I’ll read one paragraph (or a list of bullet points) and I’ll read a 30+ page history. Check with your DM before you write a novel. They may not have the time to read it all while they’re worldbuilding and living life, no matter how well it’s written.
Example Backstory: Ramus Verbosa
The link below is the example backstory for my PC, Ramus Verbosa. I’m keeping it in a link since it’s got secrets and I don’t want my fellow players (who sometimes read this blog) to get any spoilers. Happy writing friends!
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