Writing Immersive Character Backgrounds – Part 3

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Here is part three of this series, this is the final part, and the other two are available elswhere on the blog.

Writing Immersive Character Backgrounds – Part 3

4. Personality

When we describe other people to one another we tend to do so by picking one or two particular traits. You might describe someone as cocky and perceptive, or as kind and shy.

As such it might be a good idea to pick two or more dominant personality traits which serve as a first impression of the character. These traits should be consistent and reinforce one another.

But what might add extra interest to your character, make them more memorable, is giving them a seemingly contradictory trait.

This added contrast can serve to add more depth to your character.  Think of a bookish wizard who seeks knowledge in its purest form, but also loves to party it up whenever he gets the chance.  Or, how about a warrior with the heart of gold? 

Make characters more than just ruthless killing machines, give them also a soft spot to interact with for when the battle is over. 

5. Attitudes and Behaviors

Determining how your character regards and treats other people helps decide how to role-play an encounter when other characters meet yours. A person’s attitudes are not always consistent with their behavior. Someone might treat everyone very nicely and actually pity them for not being as smart and gracious.

People also often treat others differently depending on their relationship and the situation. Two important sets of attitudes and behavior to identify for a new character are towards other people

Try to think of two opposite groups of people and define these two for each.  For example: a knight likely has a different set of attitudes and behavior to his superiors than to common peasants.

6. Tastes and preferences

A character’s tastes and preferences make them more distinctive. Unusual tastes add color and intensity.

Try to think of things like:

  • what is your character’s favorite food?
  • what is their favorite color?
  • what kind of music does your character like?

Unusual tastes definitely help your character stand out, but even normal tastes help to flesh out your character.

A warrior, a priest and your character walk into a bar; I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but bear with me….

What does your character order to drink?

Having some simple questions like these answered beforehand can help smooth out role-playing, though I’ve also found that at times that spur-of-the-moment decisions like this can help make your character feel like they’re growing.

There is no need to define your character in detail; just enough to get a good handle on them.

7. Surroundings

Though much of your character’s surrounding will likely be determined by the game it might still help to give some thought to this.

Where does your character live and, more importantly, how do they keep that place?

Is it very cluttered, or neatly organized, or does your character keep their place very sparse? What kind of things does your character surround themself with? And most of all, why?

Why does your character choose to do this?

And if not actively busy, where does your character spent their time?

Some might lock themselves up in their room, others might spend all their spare time in the local pub, spend the time training, or perhaps they flit through the forest or even take long walks on the beach.

8. History

This is the one point most people tend to spend inordinate amount of time and text on. People often have pages long of story detailing what things happened in their character’s past and I’ve seen many a first-level character with more unique events in their history than even the most seasoned special characters would have.

While some personal history can be a good thing in that it helps to explain why your character is the way they are, explain their motivations.  I find that many players take this to the extreme and over-complicate the back story, trying to make their characters special by giving them some fantastical background.

Prophecies, powerful figures, extraordinary circumstances and tragic events tend to abound.

Instead, the history of your character tends to work much better when it’s kept simple, just giving enough detail to explain their origins.

  • Where did your character grow up?
  • How did they come to be in their current position?

Remember that when you start playing, the true tale of your character begins and their history before that shouldn’t overshadow the events of your role-playing with others.

Don’t make your character a hero by giving them a heroic background, make them heroic by playing them heroically.

Look at it this way; anyone can say that they are heroic, but few actually prove it when placed in the position. Giving your character an overly melodramatic tale or some dark secret tends to be the role-playing equivalent of embellishing your resume with things you have not done.

It does not have to have some defining experience which explains everything about your character in one shot, make it something that was built over time.

The simple farm boy turned hero tends to be much more interesting than the powerful hero about to save the world for the fifth time.

9. Network

Who your character knows and who knows your character is another one of those questions which the game tends to answer for you (as well as with whom you end up playing), but it still might help to give some thought to the background characters in your character’s life.

Are your character’s parents still alive? (And before you say no, note that the world is full of heroic orphans already; having family tends to humanize your character.)

Perhaps there are other people important to your character like an old teacher or a childhood friend. Maybe your character found a drinking buddy at the local village.

These characters don’t have to have a constant presence, of course (they might never show up at all), but they can at least give your character something to talk about.

Do try and keep from making the king your drinking buddy and the head of the arcane university your errand boy; your character’s abilities should come from themselves and not the people they happen to know (at least until that is played through).
Well that is all i have for writing character backgrounds, so hopefully this helps you flesh out your characters and gives you and your RPG group a better over all experience.

Andy @ DMB

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