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How to create D&D characters with believable backstories

Updated: Jan 3, 2023


When you start to create new D&D characters, either as a player or a DM, dice rolls are only the beginning of the process.

You are engaged in a practice familiar to novelists and screenwriters, you are taking a figment of your imagination and bringing it to life. The adventure your character is going to undertake, along with others will be as compelling as any movie you've watched and the hero in the story will be an extension of you.

Your character can have a story as complex or superficial as you like, and there's no rule that says you must write some complex Dostoevsky-esque character study before you get started playing.

In fact, much of what you will learn about your character (and much of what a DM will learn about an NPC) will be revealed through the process of adventuring. A character often seems to come to life when they actually experience adversity.

That said, the crafting of a powerful and compelling backstory helps us to understand the character, their motivations and their goals. In role playing terms this is important, we might choose to create a warrior or mage that simple does whatever they want or whatever is expedient in the moment but characters with backstories are shaped by the events of their lives.

Just as in screen writing or fiction writing, the character's journey before the adventure begins will determine the choices they make, the burdens they bear and the sacrifices they endure when the action begins.

This is our guide to character creation (with a couple of character case studies below)

To create a complex character, you'll need to think about their background, personality, and desires, interactions with one another and who they've crossed in the past. Here are some tips to help you get started:

1. Consider your character's backstory:

A character's backstory can be a rich source of inspiration for their personality and motivations. Think about where they grew up, their family and relationships, their experiences, and any major events that have shaped their life.

We all have a story (yours and mine might not involve our family being captured by demons), but every person who has ever lived took the sometimes random and confusing events of their existence and crafted them into a structure that made sense to them. Others might recognise and agree with the story, some might beg to differ (especially if they are cast as the villain in it), but without a narrative as to 'how we got here', life doesn't make much sense.

You might choose to randomly generate a backstory and create a coherent narrative out of a series of events that the dice choose. Often this can spark some really exciting creativity, if we start off with a fixed idea of the story we can cut off other possibilities. Randomness can often be the spark that causes us to think differently about the character.

For example, if I write a warrior backstory that involves her being orphaned at an early age after an evil overlord killed her family, then the rest of the backstory becomes pretty straight forward to create. She spends years seeking revenge, Arya Stark style, finding a mentor and getting close to her target etc.

Not completely dull, but not far off.

So we throw in a random event. The dice tells us she is imprisoned by an enemy power and left to rot in a dungeon, so we need to make something interesting out of this now.

In brutal twist of fate the person who rescues her is the self same overlord who killed her family. He knows that she is trying to assassinate him, but instead of letting events take their course he saves her life.


  • Well because maybe he didn't kill her family after all. Instead it was some demon that was working through him that he has escaped from?

  • Maybe this is kinda true, but the 'person' rescuing her is actually the demon.

  • Why does either the lord or the demon want to rescue her? Because of the sigil tattooed to her wrist which unlocks a door to a parralel dimension of course.

By throwing in a random event, we can subvert the standard revenge narrative and transform the backstory and this in turn can start to shape the bigger story that the GM wishes to tell in the campaign.

2. Determine your character's personality:

Your character's personality should be a reflection of their backstory, experiences, and desires. Do they tend to be outgoing or introverted? Do they prioritize their own needs or the needs of others? Are they impulsive or more calculated in their actions?

There are several ways of determining a character's personality, but if we start from the not unreasonable perspective that a personality is the product of a life lived then personality will be informed by the backstory. The warrior in the previous example might have started out as a trusting type with a sunny demeanour, but it would seem unlikely that the traumas of her life wouldn't have left their mark. Perhaps the warrior is resolute in the face of adversity and defends the weak, perhaps she had acquired a mean streak or is simply a morally compromised survivor who has to do whatever it takes in a world that has given her no quarter.

None of us are merely the product of the darkness we have lived through, however. We have things we like, things we enjoy and things we value. Our hero might have a prized possession, a place she loves and cherishes or a person who has been kind or caring to her. She might have a skill or an ability that she knows will always get her out of trouble (swordsmanship, for example) and have confidence that in a chaotic world a longsword will always be her insurance policy. Because your character is adventuring in a party, it's important to establish how they interact with others and whether they are a team player (whether they trust others) or whether they are a loner. To some extent, working in a party forces even the most isolated types to muck in with the rest of the team, but for some people it comes more naturally than others.

3. Identify your character's goals and desires:

What does your character want out of life? Do they have a specific career or personal ambition? Are they driven by a need for power or recognition? Understanding your character's desires will help you make decisions about their actions and motivations in the game.

It is difficult to write a character that is motivated by nothing and wants nothing. Even a nihilistic villain like the Joker wants something - chaos. Because we as human beings have a conception of the future, we tend to orient our thoughts in that direction and imagine what might be achieveable in weeks, months or years to come. Three fairly standard motivations for characters are:

  • Personal growth: A character might want to become stronger, more skilled, or more knowledgeable. They might seek out training, new experiences, or challenges to help them improve their abilities and achieve their potential.

  • Wealth or power: Some characters might be driven by a desire for material wealth or social status. They might seek to acquire valuable items, earn a fortune, or rise to a position of influence or leadership.

  • Adventure: Many D&D characters are drawn to the excitement and thrill of exploring new places, facing challenges, and solving mysteries. They might seek out adventure for its own sake, or to achieve some other goal or purpose.

But of course, there are darker things that drive us:

  • Revenge: A character might seek to avenge a perceived wrong or injustice, either for themselves or for someone else. They might be driven by a desire for retribution or to right a wrong.

  • Greed: Some characters might be motivated by a desire for material wealth or power. They might be willing to do whatever it takes to acquire wealth or to gain an advantage over others.

  • Corruption: A character might be tempted by the lure of power or influence and be willing to betray their morals or principles in order to achieve their goals. They might be motivated by a desire for personal gain or to further their own agendas.

4. Consider your character's flaws and weaknesses:

No one is perfect, and your character should be no exception. Give your character flaws and weaknesses to make them feel more realistic and relatable. These can also create interesting story opportunities and challenges for your character to overcome.

It's pretty common knowledge that the most interesting characters in any movie or story are the compromised, the conflicted, the flawed. We can see in them the dilemmas that we as humans with feet of clay experience on a day to day basis. The struggle within us between Id, Ego and Super Ego, which can be summed up as 'I know I should do the right thing and be good, it's what society expects, but that thing over there that I long for is sooo tempting and it would be so easy to just take it,' probably exists to some degree in all characters we create.

Imagine if it wasn't though? If we had the perfect paladin who resists all temptation to do anything other than that which is utterly selfless. What an interesting character to play; this isn't a character free of flaws, just one who fights twice as hard as the rest to resist them. My pet theory as to why so many Jedis in the Star Wars books and movies succumb to the dark side is because Jedi-ing really sets up some unrealistic expectations of how incorruptable an individual can actually be.

If your character has negative character traits, it's important to act them out, irrespective of the consequences, otherwise they're a forgetable detail on a character sheet and the character is simply a bland automaton wandering round a dungeon. Here are some of the flaws a character might have:

  • Pride: A character might be overly proud of their abilities or accomplishments, leading them to overestimate their own abilities or underestimate the abilities of others.

  • Greed: A character might be driven by a desire for material wealth or power, leading them to make selfish or unethical decisions.

  • Anger: A character might have a short temper and struggle to control their emotions, leading them to act impulsively or make rash decisions.

  • Cowardice: A character might be afraid to take risks or face challenges, leading them to avoid difficult situations or make decisions based on fear rather than courage.

  • Jealousy: A character might be envious of the success or accomplishments of others, leading them to act out of spite or resentment.

It is perfectly possible that throughout the course of an adventure you feel the character changing. Perhaps they start out as a coward but become courageous? They begin as a greedy self interested character but learn that there are bigger things in this world to strive for. If so, paly into this change and talk with the party and the DM about it, this is the real great part about role playing, exploring how the adventure changes a character and forces them to grow.

5. Think about your character's relationships:

A character's relationships with others can be a key part of their personality and motivations. Who are the people your character cares about most? How do they interact with them? How do their relationships influence their actions and decisions?

Friendships will hopefully already exist between the players and this will translate into the characters they play normally. However, there is always scope for more complex dynamics (see Case Study Two below).

Bringing together disparate adventurers with contrasting stories, experiences and lifepaths, often in an alliance of convenience is bound to create interesting interactions if the players choose to really get into character.

If all players agree that their characters would undertake a hazardous quest because it is the right thing to do, then be prepared for some pretty bland gaming to ensue. Instead challenge the players on the actual motivations of the characters. Imagine that four PCs find themselves in a small village and are asked by the elders to rescue a villager who has been dragged down the well by some unspeakable horror. They claim that the creature has hoarded treasure down there over the years. The players might be motivated by the following conflicting desires:

  • Personal gain (get the monster's treasure): Players may be motivated to take part in the quest in order to gain wealth, power, or other valuable rewards. This could include things like treasure, magical items, or even just the satisfaction of achieving a difficult goal.

  • Adventure (the PC is bored and needs a challenge): Many players are drawn to D&D for the opportunity to embark on exciting and challenging adventures. Taking part in a quest is a great way to satisfy this desire for excitement and discovery.

  • Friendship (A PC will follow their comrades to the ends of the earth): Players may be motivated to take part in a quest in order to bond with their fellow adventurers and strengthen their friendships. Working together towards a common goal can be a great way to build camaraderie and trust.

  • To make a difference (A PC acts from the most noble of instincts): Finally, players may be motivated to take part in a quest in order to make a positive impact on the world around them. This could include things like helping to save a village from danger, or righting a wrong that has been done.

Players might also be motivated by darker motives:

  • Revenge (The monster ate a PC's relative, years ago, they came to the village looking for payback): Players may be motivated to take part in a quest in order to seek revenge against someone or something that has wronged them. This could be something as simple as wanting to get back at a rival, or as complex as seeking to avenge a loved one who has been killed or harmed.

  • Power (If the PC drinks the monster's blood they will become all conquering. apparently): Players may be motivated to take part in a quest in order to gain power and control over others. This could include things like seeking to become a ruler or leader, or seeking to acquire magical or technological items that give them an advantage over their enemies.

6. Don't be afraid to experiment:

As you continue to play your character, you may find that they evolve and change. This is completely normal and can be a fun part of the role-playing experience. Don't be afraid to adjust your character's backstory, personality, or goals as you learn more about them and the game.

One of the great things about D&D is that it allows players to fully immerse themselves in their characters and explore different facets of their personalities and backgrounds. As you continue to play your character, you may find that they evolve and change over time. This is completely normal and can be a fun part of the role-playing experience. You may discover new things about your character as you play them, or you may simply find that your own understanding of them deepens as you spend more time with them.

Don't be afraid to adjust your character's backstory, personality, or goals as you learn more about them and the game. This can help to keep your character feeling fresh and interesting, and it can also help you to better understand and role-play your character. You might find that your character's motivations shift as they face new challenges and situations, or that their personality evolves as they grow and learn from their experiences.

Overall, it's important to remember that your character is your own creation, and you are free to shape and mold them as you see fit. Whether you want to keep them consistent or allow them to change and evolve over time, it's up to you. Just have fun and enjoy the process of exploring and discovering your character's unique personality and story. So, it's a great opportunity for players to enjoy the game and explore their own creative potential.


Case Study One: Boromir

As a young man, Boromir was chosen to be a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, a group of nine individuals tasked with destroying the One Ring, a powerful and evil artifact that could enslave the entire world.

Boromir's character backstory plays a significant role in shaping his personality and motivations throughout the story. As the eldest son of the Steward of Gondor, Boromir is expected to live up to a certain standard of honor and duty, and he takes these responsibilities very seriously. He is a skilled warrior and a loyal member of the Fellowship, but he also struggles with his own inner demons, including a desire to use the power of the One Ring to defend Gondor against its enemies.

Ultimately, Boromir's character arc is one of redemption, as he overcomes his own flaws and sacrifices himself to protect the members of the Fellowship and ensure the success of their mission. His backstory as a noble warrior and loyal member of the Fellowship is central to his character and helps to define his actions and decisions throughout the story.

Boromir is tempted by the power of the One Ring and briefly succumbs to the desire to use its power to defend Gondor against its enemies. As a result, he tries to take the Ring from Frodo Baggins, the Ring-bearer, and this action leads to a rift in the Fellowship and the temporary loss of the Ring.

Boromir realizes the error of his ways and deeply regrets his actions. He apologizes to Frodo and the other members of the Fellowship, and seeks to make amends for his mistake. He also confesses his temptation to use the Ring to Aragorn, the leader of the Fellowship, and seeks his forgiveness.

Boromir's redemption comes when he sacrifices himself to protect the members of the Fellowship from an attack by orcs. He fights bravely and selflessly, allowing the others to escape and complete their mission. In doing so, he redeems himself for his earlier mistake and proves his loyalty and honor as a member of the Fellowship. His ultimate redemption serves as a powerful and poignant moment in the story, and demonstrates the transformative power of selflessness and sacrifice.

Case Study Two: Steve Rogers and Tony Stark

The dynamic between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark is complex and multifaceted. Despite their differences in personality and background, the two characters eventually become friends and allies, working together to fight against villains and save the world. One key aspect of their dynamic is the tension that arises from their conflicting ideologies and approaches to problem-solving. Steve Rogers is a traditional and conservative hero who values honor and duty, and he often disapproves of Tony Stark's more reckless and selfish behavior. Tony, on the other hand, is a brilliant and innovative inventor who is not afraid to take risks and bend the rules in order to get results. This can lead to disagreement and tension between the two characters, as they try to find a balance between their different approaches to solving problems. Despite their differences, Steve and Tony also have a strong sense of mutual respect and admiration for each other. Steve recognizes Tony's intelligence and resourcefulness, and Tony respects Steve's dedication and bravery. They also share a deep sense of responsibility to protect the world and do what is right, which helps to bring them together and strengthen their bond.

If you enjoyed this article, check out our brilliant GMing and World Building articles here:

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