Writing a Character Backstory

On the weekend just past, I had a chance to play Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) after a substantial gap of around two years. This was to be a fresh game that required a new character.

The Dungeon Master (DM) is the person who both manages the game and reacts when a player takes an action. She asked each player to write a backstory for our characters that could then be worked into the game.

When writing a novel, it’s a good idea to write up the backstory of the main characters. This helps to keep the action consistent throughout the story, even if you don’t end up using every detail.

The same technique can be used with a D&D character. Mine is called Kat Herder, and she:

  • grew up in a small town and worked as a butcher’s apprentice
  • left to join the military so she could travel, and became a highly-ranked soldier
  • unexpectedly left the military after 15 years, but kept travelling and taking on casual work

But I also don’t have to think of every detail. We’re playing the game in a fictional world that already has its own story, and Kat simply needs to fit into it.

The DM has asked me further questions to enhance the story, so I’ll be working on that this week.

Improvisation and Motivation

Over the weekend, I had my first experience of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). If you’re unfamiliar with this, here’s a brief introduction.

I enjoyed my experience because players are allowed to improvise parts of the storyline beyond how the Dungeon Master has described the scene. For example, my character had a vivid dream as part of the story, but I could interpret the images any way I wanted, and that interpretation would contribute to the direction of the story.

The experience reminded me of an exercise from drama class in high school. Each participant was given an outline of a setting, plus an individual motivation kept secret from the others until we revealed it through improv.

This produced natural-sounding dialogue, even from school pupils without an acting background. Similar methods are used by some reality TV shows, such as The Only Way Is Essex, to avoid the action sounding too scripted.

The same principle can be adapted for scripted drama. Aaron Sorkin takes the approach of working out what each character wants, then writing the scene accordingly. In this way, he’s produced The West Wing and The Social Network, among many other screenplays.

Over the coming months, I’ll be taking part in more D&D sessions. I think the key to making a more interesting campaign is to work out what exactly my character wants and bringing it to the surface when interacting with the other players.

I believe improv keeps me sharp, and roleplaying seems to be a great way to exercise that metaphorical muscle.