What is a character backstory?
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the term Backstory as: "a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot (as of a film)"*
In keeping with the above definition and RPG Storytelling's mission and goals to help RPG players and Game Masters create fun, intriguing, and in-depth character backstories, I thought it important to actually discuss what a character backstory actually is and why they are so important to role-playing games.
In terms of films and television shows, a backstory might, and typically does, refer to the most recent events which have occurred just prior to the main storyline of the movie or television episode that you are currently watching. With this understanding and using popular culture as an example, the 1977 movie Star Wars (later amended to be Star Wars: A New Hope) could be considered to be the main plot or storyline, whereas the 2016 movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would be considered to be the recent backstory for what transpires in the 1977 movie. But if you want a backstory that goes even further, then there are the three movies of the prequals (The Phantom Menace - 1999, Attack of the Clones - 2002, and Revenge of the Sith - 2005) which give an expanded backstory particularly for the characters Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker), Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Emperor Palpatine. All of the movies in this series serve to tell a more complete story, with some movies acting as backstory for other movies.
In terms of literature, however, the term backstory most frequently refers to the characters in the story, as opposed to the plot of the story. These are often called character backstories. In this version of a backstory, a writer or character creator (that's you) takes time to discover and understand who their character is and will frequently investigate things like:
A character's appearance
Where they are from
Where they went to school or got their education
Their likes and dislikes
Their unique quirks, flaws, and personality
How they bond with family and friends . . . or opponents
What they want to be when they grow up
What they keep in their refrigerator or nightstand
Particular phrases or quotes that they prefer
And so much more.
When a writer or creator drafts the backstory for a particular character, they sometimes drift very deep into the overkill territory, but that is so that they can more fully understand who that particular character is. And understanding who a character is can go a long way in helping the writer or creator to tell that character's particular story; even if 90 percent of that backstory never makes it into the the actual story.
And like literary character backstories, RPG characters also need a well-developed character backstory. Even if 90 percent of what you write about your character's backstory is never shared with anyone, it will go a long way toward helping you (the player of that character) to understand who that character is before they ever started being an adventurer and how to better roleplay them at the game table. Some of the many things that you could possibly include in your character's backstory are:
Where they are from?
Information about who raised them (e.g., parents, evil wizard, pack of wolves, etc.).
How did they discover what they wanted to be when they grew up (use this to discuss how your character became their Level 1 character class)?
When and how did they learn they could do magic (of whichever variety)?
What was their first introduction to a dragon, alien, or ancient horror like?
Who is/was their secret crush?
What was their very first alcoholic drink like?
(Peruse our Grain Prompts for more prompts like these)
As I mentioned, many of the things that you write might be only for you or may not ever make it into the actual storyline, but your Game Master will certainly thank you for helping to give them more ways to include storyline arcs designed specifically for your character.
And this brings up a great question. After you've written your character's massive backstory, what should you give to your Game Master? These are purely my suggestions for what to include and you should certainly discuss them with your Game Master:
Document should be a maximum of 1 - 3 pages in length
Include your character's name, race (if applicable), class, and their primary ability scores/modifiers (e.g., D&D - Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma)
Basic or in-depth appearance of character (what they look like when you first meet them)
Arrange the document into any or all of the following categories: Simple Beginnings, Developing Habits, Likes & Dislikes, Faith & Beliefs, Hidden Secrets, and Before Adventuring (these are the Grain Prompts categories, but you may also choose to develop your own)
Bullet statements under each category are easier for the Game Master to read through, but you can also never go wrong with short sentences or paragraphs
Make the font large enough to read, no smaller than 11 or 12 pt font.
Start off with information that you think is of particular importance that your DM definitely needs to know about your character (e.g., prophecies, family murdered, committed a crime, etc.)
If there is still room, include some of the just for fun facts about your character to help spice up the storyline.
But the most important thing you should do when creating your character's backstory is to remember that they are living breathing people (yes, that includes the robots, aliens, and ancient horrors) who have had full and meaningful lives before they ever became an adventurer and that previous life experience is exactly what makes your character unique.
*“Backstory.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/backstory. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.