By Adeline Piercy and Mack Dechaine
In the final piece of our Dungeons & Dragons series, you can take the character you built in last week’s post and give them a compelling backstory that is memorable and provides a great foundation to write a fantastic story. While these resources focus on D&D characters and the fantasy adventuring types, you can absolutely transfer these concepts to character creation and development in other genres.
First, start with the basics:
- How did they grow up? Was it peaceful or war-torn?
- What did their family dynamic look like?
- What did they leave behind when they left to adventure?
D&D stories are typically the adventuring type and therefore require your character to be forced from home in some way. Often, players/writers will default to the orphan story–no parents means no complications, right? However, complications can be interesting and provide a lot of material for a good story. Whatever the reason, be it rejection from family, leaving to make money to send back home, or an intolerance for mundane life, your character needs to be driven away from home and want to explore the world.
For a challenge, try to keep the parents involved in the whole story. Are they searching for your character because they couldn’t possibly appear to be perceived as a broken family at court? Is your characters mother worried sick, but managing alright thanks to your support?
You may notice on your character sheet that there is a spot for “Bonds” and “Flaws”–these are characteristics that your character abides by, no matter what. A bond can be a conviction to a cause, or a connection to a significant person or object in their life. For example, a bond might be that your character believes that the best way to be a good person is to good but not be remembered. A flaw might be that they struggle to look people in the eye when they’re talking to someone else. An important thing to consider when choosing these traits is what made the character that way–did they know someone who worked so hard to be remembered that they became a martyr? Or perhaps their parents scolded them so much that they were always looking at the ground when talking with authoritative figures. Whatever your choice, understand why they have these certain traits or behaviours.
All D&D characters have some skillset, though they can look wildly different from character to character. If your character is a martial artist, think about where they studied. What was their instructor like? If your character is a magic wielder, consider how they learned magic and where their magic source comes from. Is it innate or learned? If learned, did they learn at an academy or from a forest spirit? What was their teacher like? Does that relationship inform their relationship with the magic itself?
Finally, don’t be afraid to throw a massive event their way (perhaps besides their parents being killed–don’t take the easy way out!) such as a village invasion, a new ruler coming to power and persecuting certain groups of people, or the loss of a friend or lover in battle.
They key to a good backstory, in my opinion, is making sure that it carries through to the characters actions. If a character has been through trauma but navigates the world like a naïve privileged royal, then they’re not very believable. For every aspect of their backstory that you develop, think about how this shows in their current life. If their mother is loving, perhaps they have a soft spot for a female farmer who sells apples at the market. If their village was raided by a certain group, they will likely avoid that group at all costs. Have these actions/bonds/flaws in front of you as you write and stay consistent with the backstory.
Remember, there’s a reason that there’s a story for this character. If your character just ~exists~ then it’s going to be so much harder to write a story about them. Figure out what they want and put things in their way while they try to get it.
If you’d like to kickstart your backstory with a randomizer, use this website which draws from randomizer charts which is similar to the ones used in the last post. You can stick to the outline for a challenge or skim through it for inspiration.
Lastly, if this is all sounding great and you want to listen to some super-smart D&D folks talk more about what makes a great character, check out this video on six questions that create the ultimate backstory and this video on fleshing out your character (also his whole playlist on characters is pretty solid!)
As always, happy writing!