Sometimes you can hire a porter to haul your luggage for you, but some baggage, you have to just carry yourself. What skeletons are in your character’s closet?

Backstory can be used to justify some of the things that characters do in the present, since we all carry baggage with us as we move forward in our lives. Backstory can help you to shore up the motivation of a lackluster, half-ass committed character — give them something to really care about. It can even lead to new plot lines, develop relationships, and underlay your narrative with powerful concepts.

Here are a number of different angles to explore…

Backstory Possibilities

  • Social Class (see Social Status for more), caste, level, social standing, lineage, family, rank, structure, hierarchy, blood, birthright, divinity, nobility
  • friends, acquaintances, buddies, pals, compatriots, party members, fellowships, alliances, allies,
  • success, victory, triumph, wins,
  • failure, misery, loss,
  • home, homeland, land of birth, land of origin, old stompin’ grounds,
  • favorites, loves, firsts,
  • special things, people, places, collections,
  • hates, pet peeves,
  • desires, hopes, wishes, dream, aspiration, their “holy grail,”
  • fears, phobias, worries, concerns,
  • regrets, remorse, guilt, shame, self-loathing,
  • debts, IOUs, gambling losses, borrowed money, loans,
  • riches, fortune, holdings, money, property, land,
  • followers, vassals, hirelings, henchmen,
  • beliefs, values, ethical stance, moral direction, philosophy, dreams,  hopes,
  • spirituality, religion, devotion,
  • honour, duty, allegiances, fealty,
  • community, homeland, neighborhood, home,
  • idiosyncrasies, quirks, flaws,
  • repressed memories, trauma, embarrassing moment,
  • an unsolved mystery,
  • an unsettled dispute, argument, disagreement,
  • estranged partner, disowned sibling,
  • excommunicated, shunned, dishonorably discharged, fired,
  • suppressed criminal record, stayed charged, disputed court decision,
  • philosophy, deep thoughts, rationale, motivations,
  • survived execution (which could be common knowledge or could be unknown to the executor),
  • risen from the dead (see undead); a revenant (literally or figuratively); reincarnated; survived a coma; was dead for 30 minutes in an ice cold lake; woken from cryo-sleep;
  • has a buried treasure chest, a map, a key to a safe deposit box, access to a secret door,
  • rich inheritance: coming to them; they were cheated out of; being contested; they refused;
  • parents: dispise them; are bitterly divorced; died; are missing; sold them; gave them up; turned them in;
  • loss of: a sentimental item; a key, code, map; magical item; a power; a friend; a parent, partner, sibling; hope;
  • military past, haunting mission, PTSD, war trauma, shell shock,
  • recurring vision, dream, nightmare, out-of-body experience, hallucination, delusion, seeing ghosts,
  • haunted by a bad decision,

For Writers

To get through writers’ block, pause your character wherever they are in the story and have them reflect back on their life. Perhaps they recall a promise they made; something reminds them of home; they hear the whispered words of their father, a caution they failed to heed; or they ponder the wisdom of a moral choice facing them.

This can even take place during heated action… something can trigger a thought, time pausing as a wave of emotion washes over the character, emboldening or disheartening them. For your readers, you delay the gratification of the outcome of the action and deepen the sympathy for the character. Your readers will curse you… but love you for this.

Click this link for more ideas on layering your narrative.

For Roleplayers

Backstory is how you justify the things you give your characters: abilities, skills, equipment, powers, stuff, or whatever. Examples:

  • Great climber? Cool. Why? Raised by mountain goats? Took a class? You’re half monkey?
  • Excellent with a longsword? Great. Royal blood or worked your way up through the military as a grunt, then corporal, then sergeant? Or trained in your family’s secret cave? Or… you were a fighter in the Boogundoogian Slave Pits?
  • You have an ancient crossbow imbued with deadly accuracy? Good. A backstory gives the crossbow an epic feel that you and other players can use… perhaps in all its years it was cursed somewhere along the way. Now there is more story to tell: what’s the nature of the curse; how can you undo it; what other ancient benefits come out of it; who owned it originally; what about its other owners; will it make you crazy?

Backstory for your personal avatars or for secondary and supporting characters gives you so much narrative potential. Character personality and demeanor are a result of many influencing factors. Their financial wealth, social standing, and training all come to bear as your adventures unfold.

Backstories can be used by other players as well when they are in the narrator or gamemaster role. All the opportunity for enticing, tantalizing, and teasing other players lies in the backstories. If a player’s avatar has vowed revenge on a particular monster for past deeds done, as a narrator you can offer up that monster in one of your scenes, or at least a clue or piece of evidence.

If you are keeping a character through different gaming sessions, the backstory of your avatar gives you lots to work on between the table times with your friends. Think of all the designing you can do to fill out your character so when you arrive for your game night you have some epic tales to tell between the action.

The backstories of all your characters combined add up to create the rich texture of your gaming world. As new backstory is introduced it opens up dialogue about the parameters of possibility in your game world. Here are some examples:

  • If Bigfoot exists in someone’s backstory, then there is a distinct possibility of encountering one in your adventure!
  • If, as a baby, your avatar was stolen by imps and found in a forest days later, then it leaves open the question of what other menacing nonsense the imps will be up to in upcoming adventures. Not to mention how you’ll feel when you catch one!
  • When your parents died you were thirteen. You received the key to the family vault, but it was stolen from you by bandits and your fortune was ransacked. No doubt, you will look for the bandits and the key on every adventure you take up, and in good narrative, you’re definitely going to find clues!
  • You crossed a great sea with your family to escape threatening war. Now you are trained and prepared to return. Duh? Of course you’re going!