The Problem with Character Backgrounds

Some thoughts on character backgrounds.

Padding is for Lunatic Asylums…

I have come to the decision that I really hate character backgrounds. Let me re-phrase that: I really hate those overly long, badly written, pieces of florid prose that people write as justification for their character. Don’t get me wrong, I like characters to be well conceived, and to have a feeling of depth about them, it’s just that I rarely see that in character backgrounds.

Part of this, I imagine, comes from having played and run many a LARP. “Give us a character background and you’ll get experience”, says the storyteller, not knowing what is awaiting him. The logic initially seems good, if the storyteller knows about your character’s past, then he can map the future with greater ease, and know what kind of plotlines will interest you. The logic seems fine, until the storyteller in question gets handed a fifty page essay, filled with, well, padding.

You see the problem is that for many people it has become ingrained in them that a character background, no matter what it actually contains, is a good thing. I would certainly disagree with this. As a storyteller/Referee/GM, I have little concern with what your character had for breakfast the day before he was made into a vampire. I don’t care about the annoying minutiae, or useless facts like “My character doesn’t particularly like cheese, except edam.”

Conflict and Motivation

What I want are the key points, the motivators, the conflicts, the interesting people your character knows, the things that will kickstart your character into the action. Who does your character love, who does he hate? What unresolved conflicts are there in his past? These could be anything, from the enmity of the Dark Lordâ„¢, to an unresolved disagreement with the character’s brother. These conflicts are the things that can be woven together to make an interesting story, and one in which your character is an integral part. If I can quickly create a conflict based on what you tell me, you’ve got adventure waiting to happen.

Sure, a bit of extra info is fine, but if I have five (for a tabletop game) or fifty (for a LARP game) backgrounds to read, it can get really dull going through them all, and I’ll end up skimming, looking for the interesting bits. Once I start doing that, the chances of me missing cool stuff goes up dramatically.

The important thing is not to hide the interesting parts of your character’s background in fluff; don’t barrage me with appalling Goth poetry, or a diary that accurately describes the last ten years for your character. Instead write a list of bullet points. Think of the key factors that I should remember when writing scenarios to involve your character.

Making it Easy for the GM

What should you write? Well, it depends on the game, and personal tastes. The easiest thing to do is look at the films or novels that inspire the genre. Think of how you would sum up the characters in question. To give an example, do we know about Han Solo’s background? Not really. It’s not important to the role he plays in the story. My current preference for character backgrounds is that they contain some of the following:

  • Concept
  • Important events
  • Motivations (including one recently acquired)
  • Connections
  • A statement of intent
  • Internal and external views

The first thing I like to see is a simple summary of the core character concept. Something that tells me exactly what your character is about. “Happy go lucky trickster”, “hate filled ex-cop”, just a basic summary, nothing too flashy. One of the reasons this is useful, is that by distilling down all those thoughts you have about your character into a single sentence, you become aware of the core traits you’ll want to roleplay. As a GM it tells me which way you are likely to jump if presented with a particular situation, ideal for planning plots. A good thing to build in here is an idea of your characters approach to a solving problems. Is he a cautious strategist or a both guns blazing kind of guy?

Important events come next, in my mind, as they help to build the motivations. How many you give will depend on the character, but the important thing here is that they are events that have changed the character’s life. Take Batman, the turning point in his life is when his parents are murdered, it sets him on his path and provides his core set of motivations. Again, keep it short and sweet. The details probably don’t matter, only the event and how it affected the character. If an event didn’t have a profound affect on the character, then what is the point in your GM reading it?

Motivations are a key part of a character background, and most will spring form those events you just described. Again, because they help a GM work out which way a character will jump if pushed. If your character is motivated by greed, then pulling him into the story by offering him money is an easy option. Motivations can be vague, “believes in justice”, to specific “searching for her brother’s killer”, but they instantly give the GM an idea of what sort of story you want the character involved in.

Another key thing here is that motivations that have only recently come to the fore can be a real advantage. They kickstart the story, especially if the GM is aware of them beforehand. Particularly good motivations of this kind can kickstart a whole campaign. Unless all the player characters happen to know each other anyway (and how cliched is that), such recent motivators can provide an ideal way of drawing a disparate group together.

Who you know, and who you care about should be written down. All too often characters in RPGs seem to exist as islands, not actually having anybody they know or care about outside the group.The archetypal brooding loner seems to be a common RPG character, and this can be a wasted opportunity. Every character should have family, friends, colleagues, associates, and minions; people who an be kidnapped or betray them, because these are the things that make for interesting plots.

The most important element of any character background though, is telling the GM either explicitly or implicitly, where you want to take the character from here. I call this the statement of intent. It’ll avoid those moments of “My character has no interest in this plot”, that occasionally occur. Or at least it should if you have a good GM. If the planned game has a literary bent, then think of the theme your character will address ,phrasing it as a conflict or question helps: “Family vs Personal Honour” or “What will you do for power?”. If your game is more concerned with pure action and adventure, then imagine your character doing something cool, what would it be?

Finally, a good practice is to note down how your character views himself, and how others view him. Getting a handle on this will help you play the character, and help the GM fit him into the world.

On the Fly Character Creation

Something to remember is that it’s often more fun to discover things about your character through play, to make them up on the spot and run with them. If it’s all predefined, it leaves you little room for maneuver. Sometimes it’s fun to have gaps to fill in later, or during roleplay. It can take a little work – “What do you mean you are the son of the dark lord, didn’t you think it was worth mentioning?” – but it allows you to learn from playing the character, and then apply that knowledge to the background, rather than the other way around. After all, you won’t always come up with the good ideas all at once, and this method can also allow you to introduce new plot elements should the character need a new direction after a few sessions.

Conclusions

While this form of character creation isn’t suitable for all roleplayers (or indeed all forms of roleplaying), I find it more helpful in story orientated games than the bloated, over-written character backgrounds I’ve too often seen. Hopefully you will too.