[Ask Uncle Von] Character Backstory

Melissandra asked:
So uhm, as I mentioned before I’ve been wanting to at least for my hunter, get a proper backstory and RP character for her, my druid and DK probably to follow later… I’m afraid it’s going to become too much trying to make three character stories at once >.>
Now, I have the general idea, but I’m not sure how to well, properly describe it. That’s my main issue with stories… The idea is there but I’m rather bad at weaving it all together into one nice write up… So I wanted to ask if you could help me? Since you seem really good at it ^^ I obviously won’t ask you to write it for me, but pointers? Things I should think about when writing it out? I often miss the little details, I think…
I don’t really want to be a “mary sue” character, but I also don’t want her to be just-another-goblin-number-65763, if that makes sense. One issue I think that I made with Tyrinne is that she’s too much of a blank state – she has a background, but where did that lead her? Being a trainee whose story makes it difficult to interact with most others. I’d like to avoid that this time… If I go too much “mary sue” please tell me ^^
The general idea I had is that Melissandra used to be a fighter in the Brawl’gar Arena, making her gold both by bets and by fighting. At one point, someone approached her, offering her a payment for killing someone they’ve had a fight with in the bar next to the arena. Before that, all of her fighting was done for sport – but what sane goblin would have denied an offer of a thousand gold?
It was a silent kill – Melissandra did not wish to ruin her reputation. A gunshot through the head at night. Melissandra claimed her gold and went on with her life as a brawler. But it quickly became obvious that word had spread; suddenly, she was asked for more killing, offered more gold… She saw the profit to be made there. She also warned her clients that if word was spread to the wrong people – people that didn’t agree with her actions – they would have a taste of bullets themselves.
She did have morals, although flawed – the gold made her believe most lies she was getting told. She would not kill innocents. It wasn’t untill one day she was cornered by a group of Darkspear Headhunters that she found out all her missions had her do just that – murder innocents. Her tasks, as she was told, were all given to her by Kor’kron. Garrosh’ Horde.
Rather than being slain, she was offered a deal. The group of Trolls had heard of her accomplishments, and her skill. Not only did Melissandra fear SHE would be killed once she wasn’t useful to the Kor’kron – she did after all threaten them, she also wanted to make sure said Kor’kron paid for making her kill innocents. If she were to slay each of the orcs that ever had her kill someone, she’d be free to go. And so, she sniped, and did exactly that.
She bonds with her animal companions more so than she would with most people – she spoils them, and in return, they’re loyal to her. She does realise, as a goblin, she doesn’t look quite as intimidating – that’s what her pets are for. Some of them… Others are taught tricks in order to give shows for small change.
She has committed herself to Vol’jin and his rebellion. She finds it hard to forgive herself for the innocents she killed, and as such won’t rest while there is Kor’kron near, and wants to show that, by aiding the rebellion with explosives, trained beasts and the occasional gunshot.
She does still kill for gold, but has chosen to only do so with wildlife – tiger fangs, shark fins, animal fur… Any part of an animal that can make her gold.
So. This might seem like a cop-out, or even a bit mean, but trust me, I’ve had this exact same revelation with my own RP within the last couple of years.

You’ve done what I did the first time I made an RP character; you’ve made their past more interesting than their present. You’ve sited all their conflicts, all their big “who am I and why am I doing this” revelations in the past, like it’s a self-contained story that you’re writing rather than a story you’re going to be telling, with other people, for a good couple of years.
Character development that happens off in a backstory is a closed book unless people happen to ask about that backstory (or, I guess, unless you choose to tell the whole thing to total strangers in bars, but that tends not to go down very well). You have to tell people about that. Character development that happens in play is the stuff you get to show people, the stuff that they actually get to see happen, maybe even make happen.
When I started playing Sybeth I had this whole intricate history for her that tied into WCIII and the Undead questline and everything, covered why she was a Warlock and what she was getting out of being Forsaken and everything about her clearly justified and explained. It never came up. Never got to reveal a hint of it except some stuff about the Revantusk trolls. When I started playing Nivienne I had a string of descriptors: “drunken man-hating runaway genius engineer”, something like that. Everything else about her – why she ran away, why she tried to sober up and turn her life around a bit, why she hates men, that she still has any family left alive at all, all the backstory stuff that happens on the blog – has developed over the couple of years that I’ve been RPing her, and emerged from interacting with other people. I’ve made it up when it’s become relevant and noted it down somewhere so that I don’t contradict it later. She wasn’t even lesbian at the start – it just became obvious from the way her interactions with male and female characters were going.
The great advantage here is that there’s nothing in the concept to limit who she can and can’t interact with, what she can and can’t try to do; there’s also nothing in there that’s wasted, that I’ve thought up and never get to tell people. The thing is, most people are interested in their own characters first and yours second; they’re going to be more invested and more involved in stuff you do together than stuff you tell them your character did on their own.
The other thing to watch out for is a character who’s ‘done’ – who’s passed through all their big moments already. There’s nothing to do there, nothing to strive for. If Meli’s still hunting for the Kor’kron she used to work for, still earning her place in the revolution, that gives her a goal and a reason to interact with others. Hell, you could even persuade someone’s orc to be one of her former employers.
This is a way in which backstory can work – if you have another player who’s also invested in it and who’s developing it at the same time as you. Then, again, it becomes something interactive; your two characters are doing stuff together and that’s inherently more interesting and inviting for others, see? This is what I’d like to do with Tyrinne – have Nivi meet her and introduce Tyrinne to her master and to the other guildies and then we’re two characters who have a bit of history together and a structure to our interaction, rather than two strangers. I have a stake in it because training up a little Mistweaver and fellow elf runaway will be good for Nivi, it’ll teach her about empathy and leadership and not punching people in the boobs when they annoy her; you have a stake in it because Tyrinne’s run away from home and she’s a stranger in a strange land and here’s this hot older lady who seems to have been through the same sort of thing and survived. And other people have a stake in it because they were there when Nivi decided “fuck this, I quit, I’m going to the Serpent Temple to learn to be a monk” – something that happened in play gives them a reason to care.
Not that what you’ve come up with isn’t interesting and fun and coherent, because it is! I just think you’ve overdeveloped it a bit. Save the good stuff, the character-defining stuff, for in play, and don’t worry too much about having a reason for everything before you start. Think about the person you want to play and play them, worry about the why and wherefore of it if people ever ask.
If I were you, I’d boil Meli down to a sentence or two, stuff that describes her personality as well as her past – who she is rather than what she is. I quite like “former Kor’kron assassin, hunting down her former employers to prove herself to the new Horde, likes animals more than people, strong ethical streak by goblin standards, keen sense of style.” That’s probably more than enough to give her reasons to interact with others – I can think of a few guild characters with whom she’d get on very well!
Let the rest of her emerge during play rather than worry about having it all staked out and watertight in advance. It’s worked for me.

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

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