Writing a Character Background: Setting the Hook
June 29, 2019, by Courtney Trudel
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The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.
- Jim Butcher, "Blood Rites"
Like the first line of a book, the opening line of your character background catches your reader’s attention, sets the tone of the character, and gives them their first taste of the character that they’ll be playing. Before they start reading, the player already has a bunch of questions: who is their character? What’s their core theme and/or conflict? What does their character want? What kind of costume should they bring? How should they talk while playing their character? From the very first line, you need to start thinking about how you’re going to answer these questions — after all, that’s what a character background is for.
Authors agonize over the first line of their book for ages, because they know how important it is. You probably don’t have ages to spend on your opening line, but you should still give it some special consideration.
Sometimes, you’ll want to come up with your pithy opening line right out of the gate. Sometimes, you may need to write out your character as a whole before you go back and decide on that all-important introduction. Either way, you should be chewing on how you want to catch your reader’s interest. In the following article, I’ll be going over some techniques for how to refine your character’s opening paragraph.
The Halo Effect
Before we get started on examples, I want to explain why it’s so important to get your opening right.
The human brain is subject to a bias called the Halo Effect. When you first meet a person, you often make snap judgements about them based on their appearance, their tone of voice, their haircut, etc. From then on, you will tend to interpret all of your subsequent interactions with that person in light of that snap judgement, whether for good or for ill. When you meet a person in a labcoat, for instance, you may assume that they are very intelligent, and will give their opinions more weight than you otherwise might have done. When you meet a person who’s just gotten done yelling at someone in front of you, you might assume that they have poor temper-control from then on.
For our purposes, the Halo Effect is important because it means that your reader will interpret the entire character background that follows through the lens of their first introduction to that character. If you want to set up a character theme or an absolutely essential character relationship, the first paragraph is the place where you want to do it. That way, as the player continues reading, they will be subconsciously watching for further references to that theme or character as they go.
Above all else: do not waste this opening space. You only get one opening line, and one chance at your reader’s absolutely undivided attention. Make it count!
I’ve compiled a list of examples from previous characters, grouped roughly by the function that their character opening serves. You’ll notice that some of these examples serve multiple functions — and that’s great, if you can pull it off, but don’t feel obliged to cram a bunch of functions in at once! Go through these examples when you need to brainstorm an opening line for your own character background.
Establish a Character Theme
Some characters have a particular theme that keeps cropping up in their background — a central question that they’re meant to ask and answer during the course of the game to come. This question might be something like “how important is your family” or “when is violence an appropriate solution to a problem.” In this case, the background to come will keep indirectly asking that question — but you need to hint at that from the get-go.
Example: Simon Oliver
You're kind of new at this whole 'hero' thing and, like an expensive suit cut for another man, you're not quite sure it sits right about the shoulders.
Simon thinks that being a hero is for suckers — but he’s now been forced into a situation where he must play the role of hero anyway. Over the course of his background, the question will come up over and over: is there value to the role of hero, or is it only going to get him into trouble?
Establish the Character’s Main Problem
Some characters are based around an external conflict which they must solve. Often, this external conflict has a complementary internal conflict to go with it — but you might need to establish the first one before you can explain the second one. In this case, it’s a very good idea to get the external problem out in the open from the very beginning.
Example: Rue Murphy
In three days, you may be responsible for the destruction of the White Council.
Rue made a fateful mistake, and it’s gotten away from her in a big way. Everything in her background will have to do with her navigating this mistake and trying to figure out how to fix it.
Establish a Character Tone or Personality Trait
If your character has a truly unique voice or personality trait, your opening can illustrate this for the player. A really good opening in this vein will get the player thinking about how they want to put this trait on display when they’re actually playing the character.
Example: Roach McRib
You own everything! That thing over there, that’s yours. And that thing. And that other thing, whatever it is, you have no idea. You saw it first and then you put your face on it, and that means it belongs to you. Forever. And it belongs to you for Double Forever if you lick it, and you know this because no one ever wants it back after you do that.
Roach is a cat who can turn into a human — but they’re not a very convincing human, and this inevitably comes across in their background. This opening gives the player a sense of the weird behaviours that they might exhibit while playing Roach.
Set Up a Seeming Contradiction
A great way to catch your player’s interest is to set up an apparent paradox which can only be explained by reading further. Generally speaking, this contradiction will also have something to do with the character’s themes, plot, or personality, so it serves a dual-purpose.
Example: Brother Gabriel
You never really stopped lying, even after you became an honest-to-God priest.
A lying priest! Clearly, the player needs to know more! The background that follows will explain that Gabriel used to be a con-man, but he’s straightened out his life and joined the Church. He uses his old talents to fight monsters now, and he’s still got a bit of an irreverent attitude — but he’s a good man where it counts.
Start with a Shocking Statement
You can catch the player’s interest by making an outrageous statement that absolutely requires more explanation. This is quite similar to setting up a contradiction, but the two are not always one and the same.
Example: Jack Nordstrom
When you die, it is going to be so awesome.
Jack wants to die, but not because he’s depressed. He’s the child of one of the Norse gods, and that means he’s trying to die in the most glorious way possible so that he can make it to Valhalla. Most characters are doing their best to survive, but Jack is actively looking for the most amazing suicide mission he can find.
Set up a Question in the Reader’s Mind
You don’t have to ask a question outright in order to plant it in your player’s head. All you have to do is make a statement that leads to an obvious question.
Example: Jared Ward
At least you can say you weren’t caught because you were stupid.
What was he caught doing? If he wasn’t caught because he was stupid, then why was he caught? What were the consequences? The background will explain that Jared is a con-man who tried to rob Hades’ daughter. He didn’t know that the supernatural existed at the time, so even though he did absolutely everything right, he still got caught. He’s now under a magical geas, and he’s been forced to become her personal secretary.
Build ‘Em Up and Knock ‘Em Down
A more advanced technique is to set up an expectation and then abruptly subvert it. I normally suggest that only very experienced writers do this, as you have to keep your reader’s attention for a whole paragraph before the subversion. When done properly, however, it can pay off with a gasp or a good laugh.
Once, you were the Lord Marshall of Summer, personal servant to Her Majesty, Titania, the Summer Queen. You commanded armies; your slightest withering glance sent mortals into fits of terror, when you deigned to interact with them at all. The most powerful of supernaturals would have feared to show you the slightest hint of impoliteness.
Those days are so far gone they’re pushing daisies.
Gwydion was once a high-ranking sidhe of significant power. A bad deal with a mortal resulted in his ignominious fall — now, his power has faded greatly, and he’s forced to sleep on a mortal’s couch. This opening gets a bit of a laugh, but it also sets up the character’s wounded pride and his tendency toward arrogance.
Establish an Important Character Relationship
Maybe your character has a ride-or-die best friend, a boss who haunts their every move, or a family member that they have to protect at all costs. If they’re going to spend most of the game either following this other character around or doing something because of them, you should probably establish this relationship in your first line.
After your third laboratory exploded, Chang He said he wouldn’t pay for another one just so you could blow it up again.
Pyros is a mad scientist who works for NovaTech. The head of accounting, Chang He, is the Cogsworth to Pyros’ Lumiere, and they’re constantly bickering. Chang He has been formally put in charge of keeping Pyros out of trouble, so the two of them are forced to go everywhere together… except for the times when Pyros sneaks away.
Give the Character a Strong Opinion
You can start your background by giving the character a very strong opinion, for good or for ill. This is especially useful if that opinion was directly developed due to events in the character’s background.
Example: Antonia “Toni” Catalano
Let’s be honest: boys are dumb. Even Papa, much as you loved him, was no exception to this rule. That’s probably why he’s dead.
Antonia came to power within the Italian mob by being a ruthless criminal. She’s been constantly overshadowed by patronizing men of dubious talent — in particular, by her step-brothers, who she murdered. Antonia later sets up a truce with her family’s historic enemies within the Irish mafia, primarily because she finds out that another woman has recently come to power there. This is a direct example of how her opinion of men influences her decisions, and it’s a character trait that can be used against her during the course of the game.
Express the Character’s Values
What does your character consider most important in life? If you tell your player what these values are right off the bat, they’ll always remember what their character cares about most.
Example: Count Mikhail Petrascu
Family is the most important thing in this world, perhaps followed by a solid reputation and a sense of practicality.
Mikhail Petrascu is a Russian vampire of advanced age. His entire plotline hinges on the fact that he is after vengeance for his dead vampiric daughter. Here, we emphasize to the player that he will stop at nothing to get that vengeance.
Set up a Unique Skill
If your character is the absolute best at something — a true expert — you can start by emphasizing just how good they are. This is a great way to tell the player what they should expect their character’s role to be in the game. Once they know what they’re good at, they’ll keep an eye out for situations where they can leverage that talent.
Example: Quinn Morrison
You can talk your way outta trouble in any language on Earth. Oh, you haven't tested all of 'em yet, but you've fast-talked your way through a solid chunk, and so far your mouth hasn't gotten you killed yet.
Quinn has a magical talent: as long as they keep talking, no one can attack them. This is used to hilarious effect several times during their background, and it gives the player the immediate impression that they’re going to need to practice their babbling skills. They should immediately realize that they’re the perfect character to set up a distraction, when the situation warrants one.
Set up a Plot Point
If you know your character’s whole plot hinges around a particular plot point, you can set it up immediately. This works particularly well if the plot involves an object (a “MacGuffin”) or another character.
Example: Harper West
To some people, running is a coward’s move. To you, running is a talent and an art. That’s probably why Magda McCarthy thought you were the perfect person to hand her package to. She knew you’d run forever if she asked you to.
Harper is a courier who handles dangerous packages. Their plot begins with a mysterious package which they must deliver to someone they don’t know how to find. Given that the package is so important, it’s definitely a good idea to mention it up-front.
You can mix and match these opening types to your heart’s content. After all, why waste space on just one purpose when you can make it pull double-duty? Below, I’ve put together some examples which serve multiple purposes. See if you can spot which ones they each fulfill!
According to Mr. Tall, there is no 'right side of the street' to grow up on in the Big Apple; we all just dig our heels into the muck at the bottom of the sewer and try to stand tall enough to keep our heads above the shit. You got mad respect for Mr. Tall — not only is he the leader of the Lobos Locos, but the man's got a way with words, and you can appreciate the hell out of that.
You never thought you’d read your own obituary. You’ve got Robert Rhodes to thank for that.
Not everyone understands Russian humour. In your 550 years of existence, you’ve learned that any story can be turned into a joke by adding, “and then they all died horribly” to the end of it. By which logic, you are living in hilarious times.
Morning, Sport! Welcome to fighting for the good guys! Better lace up your shoes and roll up those shirt-sleeves — Denarians aren’t gonna thwart themselves!
Never in a million years would you have expected dear old Mom, Mab herself, to ask you for a favour.
From your mother, you inherited a no-nonsense attitude, a sense of style, and a head for numbers. From your father, you inherited a close connection with dead things and a miserable supernatural bipolar disorder. He didn’t even send birthday presents, the bastard.
Love is, like, so lame sometimes. Your mom always told you it was selfless. And fickle. Well, you always knew one of those things was true.
Who knew the apocalypse would be so good for business?
Before I close, I feel it’s important to add: you cannot lose track of your opening line. If you pose a question, the background that follows must answer it. If you set up a theme, you must make sure that you constantly refer back to that theme throughout the background. If you convince the player that a character relationship is going to be important, you’d better make sure that character appears in the background incredibly often, and ensure that you flesh out how each character feels about the other.
Opening lines are your thesis statement. Make them strong, and make them matter.
Courtney has been running large-scale live action roleplaying games for more than fifteen years. She is currently president of the non-profit gaming group known as Urban Myths. Many of her posts are written for the instruction of gamemasters, but much of the advice can also be applied to writing in general.