Individuality and My Backstory Process

Yesterday, I mentioned that I find some rather interesting interactions between my interest in seeing characters as individuals and my approach to backstories. It’s pretty much inevitable given my own approach to both writing and role-playing, and it’s something I like trying to analyze.

When at all possible, I like to write characters’ backstories in first person. It gives me a sense of their voice before someone else hears it, and it allows me to see who they are in a way that a dispassionate narrator showing highlights of their lives wouldn’t. Since my inspiration style is character-based, this point is absolutely vital for me; I can do a tolerable job writing for a character I don’t know, and I’m technically capable of playing a character who’s a build and not much else, but I don’t enjoy it as much, and it doesn’t show the same spark that the characters I’ve been chatting with in my head for a while tend to have (at least, until the character in question bops me on the nose and says “No, I’m like THIS.”)

My backstories are usually as grounded in the world as I can get them. Yes, this causes problems when I don’t know the world too well, and even more when I don’t know what I need to ask about the world. It’s one of the reasons why it takes a near-Herculean effort for most people to get me into a setting I’m not intimately familiar with, particularly for a one-shot; if I don’t know the world, how am I supposed to give you a decent character?

When I can, I try to include at least three or four other characters (possibly counting the character’s familiar), with at least two of them still alive. Sure, I could play a tabula rasa, but why would I want to? I learned the hard way not long ago that if I don’t have any preexisting social connections in the setting and I’m accidentally offending the group, I go slowly but steadily nuts during session. Preexisting connections both let me avoid that and give me a couple more influences to shape the character herself.

I find all of these near-vital to having an individualized character rather than an archetype, one that responds as herself and not as everyone else of the type would do. The first person viewpoint lets me see her voice, with all its quirks—is she snarky? Somewhat formal? Can she laugh at herself? What kind of education does the vocabulary suggest? Cultural context? It also helps me identify with her. The world-grounding, likewise, ensures that I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t read to me like a transplant from the modern day, and in game characters increases the odds that I’m not accidentally clashing with half of the GM’s vision. (In a world I know from, I don’t think I’ve failed yet.) And the other characters from the background further push and pull her in different directions, as she tries to emulate one, avoid turning into another, steer clear of a third, impress a fourth—you just don’t get that from someone who has known no-one.

How do you backstory? Are there any special tricks or patterns you use, things you try to include, or is it just whatever comes? Fire away!

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