Writing a Character Background: Diving In

July 1, 2019, by Courtney Trudel
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Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.

- Lewis Carroll

After you’ve set your hook, how do you actually get started? You’ve got a lot of information to go over, but you don’t want to lose the great momentum you built up in your opening hook.

I’ve got a deceptively simple answer for you: start at the beginning.

Start at the Beginning

I try to leave out the parts readers skip.

- Elmore Leonard

I want to be clear: by start at the beginning, I do not mean you should start at the beginning of the character’s life. Instead, what I mean is that you should start from the first event in the character’s life that is potentially relevant to the game that you’ll be running.

Your first instinct as a beginning writer will be to start with the following: “You were born in a small town in Montana, an only child. You had a close relationship with your mother…”

None of this is relevant to the player, and it is deeply unlikely to come up while the character is chasing after vampires on night one of your game. Moreover — it’s boring! You had a great hook, and your player was excited to keep reading. Now you’ve dropped them off the cliff into a sea of monotony.

As with most writing, you should skip the boring parts. If nothing in the section you’re writing excites you or adds substantially to the character — don’t write it at all!

Instead, after you’ve set your hook, start another section like so:

The day after you graduated college, a vampire tried to kill you.

You’ve skipped all of the unnecessary bits this way, but still successfully placed the starting event within the timeline of the character’s life.

If you’re writing a character with a very strange upbringing that you can’t easily skip over — for instance, if you’re writing a literal angel — you can still sum up this strangeness quickly and skip ahead to the relevant parts. I once wrote a character whose background sums up the Beginning in roughly the following way:

In the Beginning, God created the world, and you, and a bunch of other angels of whom you weren’t too fond. But who wants to hear about the dawn of time? The Bible already covered most of it pretty well.

I’m sure a lot of interesting things happened at the dawn of time. But few if any of those things are going to affect a plot to do with vampires, so it’s pretty safe to ignore them.

Example: Jared Ward

At least you can say you weren’t caught because you were stupid.
Well, okay. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that you were caught because you did a stupid thing. But you only did a stupid thing because of magic. And who the hell can plan for magic? You’ve never heard another con man outline ‘magic’ as one of the potential pitfalls in his plan. No, you’re comfortable in the knowledge that your plan was a good one, that you had your bases covered, that if the world were really as normal as everyone thought it was, you’d be sitting in Tahiti sipping on some fancy coconut drink by now.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the dumb-but-drop-dead-gorgeous intern at the office batted her eyelashes at you, and you suddenly forgot how much you secretly despised her. In fact, you fell suddenly, madly in love with Leeann Summers in a way that wasn’t normal. You spilled your guts to her about everything: you told her you weren’t really a top-notch executive consultant, that you’d been a career criminal since you were eight, that you were planning on bilking NovaTech for all it was worth and then disappearing into the sunset, and would she like to come with you?

Remember our buddy Jared Ward, the con man? Here’s his introduction in its full glory. Note how it doesn’t go into detail as to where he grew up or how he became a con man. It doesn’t even mention how he conned his way into NovaTech — it just skips right to the part where he discovers that magic exists, because that’s the most relevant starting point to our plot. Our story starts with Jared getting caught — just as his first line implies.

Keep Up Your Momentum

There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony. There is time for work. And time for love. That leaves no other time.

- Coco Chanel

At the risk of repeating myself: as you continue to write sections of your character’s life, feel free to skip large portions or sum them up with a single sentence. If you give a player a detail, they are going to try to remember it, on the assumption that it will be important to the game. Be kind to your players: don’t give them a giant laundry list of cool but unnecessary details to memorize.

We’ll be going over how to tell which events are necessary and which ones aren’t in a later article. But for now, it’s enough for you to know that you should avoid covering every single detail of a character’s life.

Focus on what’s most important, and keep your eye on the plot.

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.