One of the most fun parts of playing D&D is the ability to breathe life into a truly unique, personalized character and plop them into a fantasy setting to run amok. Rolling stats, choosing races and classes, and choosing equipment is just the tip of the iceberg. Your character does not truly come to life until you give them a backstory.
Backstories can be daunting for some. It seems that in order to truly make a fleshed out character, one has to write their life stories beat by beat. The thing is that this is not necessary at all. A character is not made of the mundane, everyday actions they take. They are forged in the fires of major events, tragedy, and key decisions.
For those who are ready to shape your character into someone that feels like a real, living, breathing person, I offer these tidbits of advice. They are never mandatory, but I tend to follow the same formula when giving my characters a backstory that will not only help define their character, but give my DM something to work with to rope my character into the world.
Keep you race and class in mind when rooting your character in the setting
While many races and classes populate the various realms of D&D, it can sometimes break immersion if you say your Circle of the Land (Forest) elf druid is from a desert. Do some research on the campaign setting before giving your character a hometown. If your DM is using a homebrew setting, ask them to give you some details about where different races live in the world. Then, find a reason why they are the class they are. For instance, my dwarf fighter Orrick Fireforge is a fighter because he served in his providence’s army before becoming a scholar. This leads me into my next point…
Use your character’s background liberally
Giving you character a background from the Player’s Handbook or other sources can help give you an idea as to how your character fit into their hometown. Were they part of the local artisan’s guild? A local noble? Perhaps a craftsperson? This can give you a jumping off point from where you can develop a reason why your character traded in their occupation for adventuring. Orrick’s background is Cloistered Scholar, as he retreated to the safety of the Master’s Library in Impiltur (Forgotten Realms) to live out the rest of his days…presumably. This is where you…
Make the reason your character leaves a great one
If your character has spent all their life as a blacksmith, what would make them drop their tools and explore the world? This question can be answered in many different ways. A tragedy could strike their hometown, forcing them to take up arms and avenging their friends and family. A divine being could spur them into a religious quest. Or they could simply get tired of their job, sell everything they own, and pursue greener pastures. This is a great place to be a bit vague in the details, as your DM can use this event to create personalized storylines later on in the campaign.
Only write what the character knows
Characters are aware of the events in their lives, but they are not usually aware of the events and people behind those events. Your character only knows their story from their own point of view, so tell your backstory that way. Being an unreliable narrator allows your DM to fill in the spaces for you, allowing for very personal and motivating surprises in the future.
Link their bonds, flaws, personality traits, and ideals to events in their lives
Each background in the PHB gives you the ability to choose a few ways your character behaves in the form of traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws. Your character has these specific traits because of events in their lives, so connect the reasoning behind their behavior to events in their backstory. Orrick is not only awkward in social situations because he’s naturally an introvert and prefers a good book to conversation (unless the conversation is about said book). He also talks down to people who he thinks are not as smart as he is. This is due to his extensive time in the military working with incompetent soldiers and spending so much time in the Master’s Library learning.
Once you have a decent backstory (usually around a page or so), you can use that as a guide on how to roleplay your character and your DM can use it as a tool to incorporate your character into their game world. This makes for a much more fun game experience. If a player is not invested and rooted into the world they are playing in, they can easily lose focus, motivation, and feel like their actions and decisions are not doing much of anything. Whether you choose a tragic or not so tragic backstory for your character, doing so will make your fun at the table all that more enjoyable.