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How to create D&D characters with believable backstories

Updated: Jan 3



Introduction


*** Get Your FREE 'Call to adventure' backstory prompt sheet here***


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.


Why?

  • 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.