A Simple Guide for Writing a GREAT Character Backstory
Complexity is the enemy of clarity. So here is a simple formula.
Turn back the clock, if you will, all the way to the creation of your character’s backstory.
No, Tommy, not literally. It’s a figure of speech. Besides, Tommy, that’s an analog clock. You’d just be spinning…
You know what? Never mind, we’re moving on.
Let’s talk about how to write a great character backstory for your D&D, Pathfinder, or Starfinder character. With roleplaying games quickly shifting from a game played around a table into a game being streamed for others to watch or listen to, it’s kicked open the door of an idea that a player’s character can (and should) bring an interesting and narrative backstory to the table.
Good gravy, Tommy! Get your foot off my door. Again, figuratively, Tommy. Figuratively!
Anyway, while character backstories are getting more attention and interest, I’ve seen a lot of drifting about when it comes to tips and helps for creating a good character backstory. As a result, I’ve seen a lot of over-wrought, over-worked backstories that feel like more of a mish-mash of events than an engaging hook. Sadly, a 10-page backstory can provide a lot of details, while fully missing motivation or narrative structure.
Simple is almost always better.
From the Story Beats method, to Propps 31, to Joseph Campbell’s Heroes Journey, we fully know that stories have a structure, a shape that can help them go down smoothly into our grey matter. So why not use a really simple version of that to for the basis of your character’s backstory? Here it is:
Your character had a problem, then met a guide who gave them a plan that called them to action. That action results in…
Now let’s look at this simple formula expressed visually, so you can see how the beats rise and fall, yet keeps a clear narrative through-line:
Notice how just a simple few backstory touchpoints provide a clear narrative that provides high and lows that can hook you in wonderfully to pretty much any roleplaying campaign. While the problem is a definite down beat, the guide provides hope! While the plan has its challenges (down beat), the character is taking action (up beat)! And the wonderful thing about roleplaying games is the action that results is up for the table (and some dice rolls) to decide!
But let’s look at how this simple character structure can be plotted in popular films, then we’ll take go step-by-step, talking about how to execute it specifically for your roleplaying character.
The RED is Star Wars. Luke Skywalker had a problem in the evil Empire, yet met a guide in Obi-Wan Kenobi who taught him to trust in the Force, a plan Luke carried with him as he joined the Rebellion to destroy the Death Star.
The BLUE is Tommy Boy, the crown jewel of cinema (fight me). Tommy had a problem when his dad died. But Richard knew the business and would guide Tommy as he took over sales for Callahan Auto. Tommy is called into action as he went on a sales trip to save his dad’s business. Hijinks ensued.
So, this works, folks. It’s simple, yet effective, and brief enough to write in the margins of a paper character sheet. Now, let’s bore in more deeply into how this will work in creating a character backstory.
1 Your CHARACTER
First, think about your character’s ancestry and class obviously, but think about their personality as well. Luke Skywalker was idealistic and hopeful, yet felt trapped and insignificant by his circumstances. Tommy was a dim-witted underachiever that was nevertheless a good friend and life of the party.
Don’t get too nuanced here. Don’t get too bogged down by thinking you need to paint with a box of 64 colors, think instead of a box of 8 crayons and just determine the brightest and boldest personality traits–BRAVE, JEALOUS, ANGRY, HOPEFUL–for your character.
Oh, c’mon, Tommy Of course I didn’t mean you must draw a picture of your character in crayon. Geez.
One more word about your character. Don’t be afraid of alignment. Alignment can help you determine the basics of your character’s personality (are they trustworthy and or will they only follow their own plan, for example).
2 Had a PROBLEM
Every character should have encountered a problem in their backstory and I’d recommend you keep it one (maybe three). Otherwise, the backstory just becomes a confusing hot mess that has no real way to integrate thoughtfully into the story without hijacking it or bogging it down.
The great thing about a problem is it directly posits a question that can be explored over the course of the campaign. Will be character get out of their pickle? What will the damage be if they don’t? Will they get their happy ending? Will they conquer their demon?
Those are the kind of questions that makes you stick around to figure out the answer. But I mentioned keeping it simple at one problem, maybe three. Let’s explore that, because there are three levels of problems:
- External: Luke must defeat the Empire. Tommy’s dad dies suddenly.
- Internal: Does Luke have what it takes to become a Jedi? Can Tommy fill his father’s shoes?
- Philosophical: Will good win over evil? Will group interests win out over selfish desires? Can freedom prevail over tyranny?
You’ll see how it’s really just one problem, but layered. And it’s these layers that will get explored over the span of the campaign.
3 Then met a GUIDE
Characters can’t often solve their problems on their own. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the fun of an adventuring party. So a good backstory notes that a character met someone, read something, found something, or experienced something that made them grow or brought their problem to a head.
In an RPG this can often be a magical item or a bizarre prophesy, but it’s just as likely a significant person in the character’s life. But this guide’s purpose is to give the character a plan (motivation) that they can use in a fight for a happy ending.
Note also that having a clear guide in a character’s backstory provides a wonderful hook for the DM to call back to you and perhaps thread into the campaign as an NPC. But an unclear guide (or too many) makes this job difficult for a DM and provides for an overall cluttered narrative.
4 Who gave them a PLAN
A character’s backstory should have a period of confusion, but the guide helped them break through that confusion, providing a motivation for adventure and a picture that life and the world can be better.
Note, the plan can be as simple as a paradigm shift. It need not be “tactical” as is often thought of a plan. It can simply be a slap in the face that reorients a char…
Ouch!! Tommy, that hurt!! That’s it, Tommy, you are no longer invited over for pancakes this Saturday!!
So the plan can be a shift in perspective as much as it is a multi-level strategy to win a battle. The point is that your character heard / experienced something that made them take action on the plan they were given.
5 That CALLED them to ACTION.
In roleplaying games it might just be happenstance that the character found themselves in a tavern. But it’s typically more apt that a character feels “chosen” in some way to participate in the crazy quest that the DM cooks up.
Sure, there is a string of smaller encounters and villains to thwart but most campaigns have a narrative rail that serves as the main action, allowing the character to gain experience and grow in power along the way.
And the great thing about roleplaying games is that the result of the action is a collaborative experience. In a screenplay, the action results in a tragedy or a comedy. I don’t mean it in a Seth Rogen sense, where the efforts at comedy are just tragic. I mean this in the Shakespearean sense, that a comedy is defined as a story that ends in a happy ending, while a tragedy is a story with a sad ending.
But in an RPG, it’s a literal roll of the dice.
Oh, hey, Tommy. Nice job on that one, buddy. You rolled a natty 20.
So bookmark this article and keep it in mind next time you are writing a backstory for a character. Complexity is the enemy of clarity, so keep a backstory simple. Again, this is the only sentence that matters: Your character had a problem, then met a guide who gave them a plan that called them to action.
That single sentence allows you to create an engaging character backstory that clearly motivates the character, while providing some nice hooks to tie them strongly and easily into the narrative. Even better: it puts the emphasis on what’s ahead, not what’s in the past. As to where the action takes them? Well, that’s why we play the game!