Character Backstory: Description vs Discovery

My favorite thing to do in all of gaming is to make new characters. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tabletop rpg, a video game, or even a board game that allows different builds, rolling up a fresh character is my ultimate feel-good moment.

Sometimes those characters really stick with me on a deep personal level. It’s not always just my characters, either. Characters created by those in my gaming group sometimes come to life and affect me in ways that I never expected. So what is that special element that takes a half-giant cleric and turns them into my favorite comic book hero of all-time? What makes a standard npc become an integral part of a campaign when they were originally supposed to just be background dressing for a village inn?

The initial response might be “description”: Build a fully living, breathing, fleshed-out character with an elaborate background, personality quirks, desires, goals, and countless other minutiae. Make a finite being. Make it real. 

But I think many experienced gamers can recount stories of “the time they tried to make an awesome character and it just didn’t take.” What was missing? Why wasn’t Golliban the Sellsword a memorable character?

I have a working theory on this. It wasn’t that the character had too little; It was that the character had too much.

If a character is completely developed, and you try to embody that character, you are essentially limiting yourself. You are stuck inside the borders of that character description, saying to yourself “well my instinct is to do this, but my bio says I have to do this.” You better be a hell of a good actor to take on that role. And even if you are a really good actor, a character is still only as good as it was written. It is still limited. It’s still finite.

Real people grow, and explore, and change, and shift. THAT’S what makes a character in a book or movie come to life. You discover new things about them, they surprise you, they encounter things that aren’t covered in their bio. Discovery beats Description every time in the connection department.

So does that mean you should just start off with a nebulous, undefined blob and see where it takes you? Eh, probably not. You still need a road map to cross the expanse, or at least a signal flare in case you get lost.

Try this as an experiment: Give your character a “thing” that they like. Maybe they love to gamble, or they go crazy for strawberries, or they can’t sleep without their mother’s locket. You don’t have to know why yet. You can discover that as you play. Now give them a thing that they don’t like. Maybe they are afraid of rapid moving water, or they can’t stand vegetables, or goats just make them angry for some reason. Again, there doesn’t have to be an elaborate reason why set in ink. Make up a general backstory without too many specifics. Let those specifics fall into place as the game develops.

A job, a physical description, and some family history will help set the framework, but don’t pigeonhole yourself. You’ll discover new things about this identity as you play–IN THE MOMENT. Those are the things that should stick and become bio.

Spend less time trying to figure out how your character would act, and instead just experience their reactions as they happen. Leave them enough air to grow and change. Learn about them at the same time your teammates are learning about them. Don’t focus so much on sticking to a plan or following a bio, just play. They’ll become the character they are meant to be if you get out of the way and just let them breathe.

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MattySoftmitts

Way into anthropomorphic cats.

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