Today we are going to look into character background but if you are new to this series here’s the deal. From The Ground Up is a series of blog posts aimed at helping you create a roleplay character from the ground up. These guides are mostly geared towards creating characters for roleplay within the World of Warcraft, but the basic principals could likely be used for character creation for a variety of different games both online and on table top, perhaps even for fiction writing. You can find the index for this series here for easy navigation of the other parts. FTGU Series Index
Introduction to Character Background
We have already looked at basic formation of a character, sorting out their appearance and traits and quirks, writing up their MRP and for some folks that is them ready to play. However some people like to delve into the character a bit more before they roll them out. Part of that fleshing out is having a deeper look at their background as this is basically what has made your character who they are. You can look into the Nature Vs Nurture debate but it boils down to the idea that we are born with some particular traits or predispositions towards certain traits but where and how we grow up and what we experience and learn is what really shapes how those things develop and affect us. This makes a character’s background a very important part of who they are.
People too commonly stick to basic lines and stereotypical outcomes when they put together their backstory. They look at the main points of lore and fit their character around them. They answer the basic questions about where and how they grew up, what they wanted to be, what they are, and what family they have left and what family they lost, aiming to know enough to be able to answer questions about it. But in truth that gets very stale and creates very two dimensional ‘cookie cutter’ characters.
No matter how detailed you make that story when you base it on the same series of set lore events that everyone else is using and only that, it will get overdone and bland. It lacks connection with this specific character concept, who they are and why. It is the cause, but it is useless unless you couple it with effect. Knowing what happened is not enough to create a deeper and interesting character, you need to know how those events affected your character, their reactions and thoughts on it. How it shaped them as people and how it perhaps even altered their path in life to where they are today.
Blood Elves for example tend to have a lot of terribly tragic and (overly)emotional characters because 90% of the Blood Elf population was wiped out a decade ago. Meaning almost everyone your character ever knew; is dead. Now that is not to say you won’t mourn, or be sad or have been sad at the time, but it equally does not mean your character is now depressed for life. Everyone handles grief differently so ask yourself how your character processes grief? Everyone perceives and deals with things differently and having a real think about those aspects of your character can give you a lot more awareness of their mind-set. it will give their personality more depth and uniqueness, making their RP instantly more rich and involving.
They could for example be the sort to take defeat as a challenge. Or they might turn to X or Y as a coping mechanism, and it does not have to be drink or drugs, it could be work, sex, a desperate quest for redemption, anything that proves a distraction. Or perhaps they are that one-in-a-million character in roleplay that is mentally healthy, and while they were devastated, now, ten years later they have processed their emotions and moved on to become a well-rounded person whose aims, goals, tensions and conflicts now lie elsewhere. I also try to think of every possible way a thing could be taken then see which one feels like it fits my character and their personality best. If I already have an idea of they type of person they are this can help give it dimension.
So what events happened in your characters past and how did he react? As mentioned above the common mistake is to only consider what was happening in his world at the time and base his background off that alone. But there could also have been a wealth of things happening in their more immediate life that could have been just as relevant to him. Similarly what was happening in his personal life might have altered his view on what was going on in the world at large or vice versa.
Development of a character does not all need to be set in the future. Having past development too makes the character more full, rounded and real. And having thought over these kinds of things also gives you a stronger idea about how they react in different situations in the present. Which will allow you to know where their perceptions and mentality lie and keep them acting in a consistent manner. Who they are in roleplay today might not be who they were in their backstory but they will still remember it and it might still affect certain situations.
Why is it important?
Having thought about this stuff beforehand gives you flesh for the bones of your character, it gives them substance and experience they can actually use, and show rather than just a dry retelling. Think of any conversation you have with anyone in your day to day life. I’ll bet at least once something comes up that is taken from your past, ‘remember that time when’. Having thought out their background, depending how detailed you make it gives your characters memories, stories, names, experiences and makes them seem so much deeper and more real.
So let’s break down a character background into halves and look at each one. The kinds of things you might want to consider and give thought to in each.
What kind of childhood did your character have? How old are they and where does that leave them in their society in relation to their race. Have they only lived a handful of decades or closer to centuries? How much of the world have they seen and experienced in that time and how has it changed around them? We spoke before about noting which historical and lore events took place around your character as they were growing up, but think now about smaller things, more personal touches, how will their communities have reacted and contributed.
What is their first memory? Was their childhood happy or challenging? Where did they grow up and who with? Did they have siblings or childhood friends? Where are those people now, did they do better or worse than your character and how does your character feel about them now? What skills and lessons were they taught as youngsters? What morality and principals did they observe in their peers and seniors? Did they adopt them or reject them? Why? What kinds of things did they do for fun? Was there anything they had to do by way of obligation, education, chores, or work? Were they content? Why? If not, why not?
Was your character educated? If so, how? Were they taught in a school or at home, or perhaps by community elders or wise ones? What is suitable for their race? If you don’t know, ask us! What were they taught with this education? Do they know how to read and write? Does their culture favor topics of geography and history? Arts, poetry and theater? Or do they lean more for practical lessons like hunting and cooking? Did they learn a craft? If not, were there people around them in their day to day lives doing these things that your character would be familiar with them even if not knowing the skills themselves?
`Did they enjoy their education or hate it? Where they good at it or poor? What did they want to do when they grew up and was their education helping them get there? Were they allowed freedom of choice in such matters? Or did they suffer pressure from elders or peers towards a certain line of work or profession? If they did not have a formal education, what kinds of things did they pick up and learn by method of doing and motive of necessity?
How did their relationships grow and change as they aged? First loves, heartaches, rejections, losses and joys. How did their aspirations evolve? How did their life fall into or out of line with those desires and drives? What was their first job? Did they like it or hate it? Why did they get it? Did they choose it or was it another matter of circumstance? How did they find a working life and adjusting to adulthood? Did they keep in touch with anyone from their childhood or not? If not was it intentional and why? What was your characters plans and aims? What conflicts or aspects stood in the way of them doing that? Are they still trying to achieve it or have they given up on the idea? Do they have any regrets? What would they have done different if they could have?
These are just a collection of random questions that popped into my head when I was considering character background. They will hopefully add flavor, personality, depth and uniqueness to a character to make them feel more 3D and fleshed out. Giving them experiences and memories to add flavor to their static list of events occurring during their backstory. Make up names for a few NPC (Non-player-character) to flesh it out even more and hey presto; you have a character with depth of vision. They will have stories to tell and reactions to current situation that are based on more than just the obvious. Perhaps it is something bleeding through from their early years, that hadn’t yet come up. In laying out a more in-depth background for your character you might also uncover a few good ideas for future stories and plots to write with them. That’s just a bonus.
I hope you found this useful. If you did or didn’t get in touch and let us know, comment, email or catch up on social media! I’d love to hear from you.
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