Backstories are controversial in D&D for a number of reasons. There’s a faint sniff of domineering DM about them – the gall that we understandably feel at the idea of being set homework when you’re a grown-ass adult* -but mostly there’s a persistent fear of not getting it right. Most people haven’t written a piece of creative writing since their own school-days and portraying one’s earnest efforts can be embarrassing: especially if you’re a good enough reader to know that what you’ve written is a load of absolute crap. On the other side of the table, the possibility of being faced with a Mary Sue character who had already achieved great things before Level 1 or the half-arsed hook-less “I’m-an-orphan-Orcs-killed-my-parents-fuck-off” story doesn’t get the creative juices flowing.
I’ve attached two backstories that I’ve written for characters this year. I don’t claim to be Shakespeare but they achieve the goals that a backstory should achieve: The Saga of Vegvisir and the backstory of Righteous-Fire-Scours-Clean-the-World.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a master of the short story form to write a successful backstory, because the backstory is a fundamentally different form with a fundamentally different purpose. Whilst a story needs to be a self-contained work, and follow a definite dramatic question to a conclusion to be successful, the ‘dramatic question’ of a backstory needn’t ever be answered.
The ‘dramatic question’ of your backstory is why are you adventuring?. If you’re adventuring because your kingdom was taken over by a dragon, we don’t need a resolution: this is a conflict that is on-going, and it propels your character to believably partake in other adventures, allowing the story to emerge from play organically. Hopefully the resolution will come about in play.
In a traditional short story, a conflict emerges and is in some way resolved. This can be traditional (in Beowulf, the conflict between Beowulf and Grendel is based on Grendel’s desire to fucking eat people, it is resolved by being fucking killed) or non-traditional (in Good Country People, the conflict is between Joy Hopewell’s academic arrogance and the reality of her provincial setting, which is resolved when a nihilistic Bible Salesman steals her prosthetic leg and she is exposed as a bit of a cunt.) In a backstory, it need never be resolved, so the best form is a sort of vignette. Here’s the event, conflict, situation or impulse that made me an adventurer.
For Righteous-Fire-Scours-Clean-The-World, I needed to explain his religious calling and his eccentric name, and I did it by recounting only a few moments of his past that clarified much more than those moments. I don’t need to write ‘poverty pushed RFSCTW into the mercenary life for three years, and then he did this and then that and eventually he joined the Order and and and’ because those details are wholly unnecessary. Keep it short, keep it simple, and show don’t tell. For a model, remember that Ernest Hemingway managed to write an evocative story in just six words: “For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.” These six words are pregnant with implications - a miscarriage, an emotional response, a surrender to childlessness – without explicitly expressing anything. (Hemingway achieves a similar effect in Hills like White Elephants, which is composed almost completely of dialogue.)
If you’re struggling for inspiration, there’s a lot to be said of borrowing from literature or history. The Saga of Vegvisir, my second backstory, is a pretty simple combination of mythic tropes: a monster, the rightful king being supplanted, the awakening of strange powers under stress. It would be wholly unoriginal aside from the tongue-in-cheek mock-heroic Norse-chic gauze placed over everything. Here are some great archetypal characters or real individuals to borrow from or steal: Inspector Javert, Aragorn, Ashoka, Macbeth, ‘the Bride’, Malcolm Reynolds, Gandhi, Boudicca, Anakin Skywalker, Beowulf, Locke Lamora, Buffy, Spiderman, Prospero, Scarlet O’Hara, Josef Stalin, Dr Frankenstein, Withnail, Miyamoto Musashi…If you’re stuck for ideas, steal them. At least as a starting point. You can get quite a lot of mileage from simply mashing genres and archetypes together: you’re Dr Frankenstein AND Inspector Javert, and your zeal is directed towards stopping people making similar mistakes to those you did: you despise constructs, undead or any intervention with the natural order of things because you created an abomination which yet lives. Or, you’re Josef Stalin AND Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You’re a bank-robbing revolutionary who happens to have an unrelated epic destiny fighting demons, and you’re not sure how to juggle your busy teenage social life with slaying vampires and overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Or you’re Musashi AND Withnail; you’re eager to wax lyrical on sword-play and duelling but simply can’t catch a break and maybe, just maybe, your vaunted skill is largely in your imagination…
This German-Grammar, Lego approach to creativity can work very well, as featured on this brilliant generator.
To make all this useful to your DM, you should include a number of connections you have in the world. If it doesn’t impinge on the structure of your story, try to include at least one contact, one ally and one rival which can be used as a basis for interacting with the world. The Saga of Vegvisir for example, contains villains, allies, locations and whole societies which a DM could tie in to adventures in some way. It also delivers a motivation: Vegvisir seeks mastery of his druidic powers, and any treasure or allies he can gather for reclaiming his birth right. Righteous-Fire-Scours-Clean-The-World has unfinished business too, in the form of his enslaved mother and an on-going relationship with his religious organisation.
A lot of players worry about wanting to express their character’s personality in their backstory, and will write little bios like “Grimnir is warm-hearted but quick to anger!”. Yawn. Either their personality emerges from the action, or it will emerge in play: you don’t go up to people and say, “I’m John, I’m ferocious in battle but kind to strangers.” You allow your ferocity and kindness combo to be known by your deeds.
Now I expect your backstory on my desk by 3pm.
*In my experience, teenagers don’t particularly like being set homework either.