Writing a Memorable Backstory for DnD 5e: A How-To Guide

Last Updated on November 29, 2022

Creating a character in a roleplaying game can be incredibly exciting and incredibly daunting. Like any creative activity, it’s something we can put as little or as much effort into as we want. 

Some of us create pages upon pages of lore for our characters. Some of us are satisfied with just a few lines. Either way, there’s a process in deciding who our character is going to be.

In this article, we’re going to help you in that process. We’ve brought in all the tips in our arsenal so that you can create the most exciting backstory for your next character.

What Is a Backstory?

A backstory is a story we create that makes our character more than just some stats on a piece of paper.

It is a tale of their lives that has brought them to wherever their new journey starts. A backstory is the answer to the question: “Who are you?”

Backstories are also more than what they sound like. They’re not just stories behind you; they’re the groundwork for the rest of your life.

Having a good, fleshed-out backstory gives you a template for how to roleplay your character in a wide variety of situations.

Sparknotes!

This article goes over a lot of important topics, but I understand that sometimes we just want quick answers.

So just for you, the person who wants to skim through and learn everything in a minute or less, here’s the short-and-quick of how to write a character backstory.

  • Create conflict that motivates your character’s actions.
  • Connect them to the world.
  • Give them flaws, but don’t make them a painful cliché.
  • Use your character sheet to come up with key details.
  • Interview your character, and ask them questions about their life.
  • Remember that it’s all about making the character that you want to roleplay.

Character backstories are an interesting category of fiction. They give you the opportunity to say anything about who your character has been.

Often, we tend to use this as a platform to talk about all the heroic deeds our character has accomplished and the trials and tribulations they’ve gone through. 

An important thing to remember as we go through the rest of this guide is that you have a backstory.

If you were to receive a call to adventure as soon as you stop reading this article, your backstory would consist of everything that has happened in your life so far. 

Knowing this is helpful because it reminds us that backstories can be grounded while still being amazing.

I don’t know you, but I’m sure you’ve experienced pain, joy, excitement. I’m sure you have dreams and have accomplished great things and failed at others.

All the things that life brings us create our own personal stories.

The same is true for our characters. Whether your new character is descended from a god and burdened with an incredible task or they’ve simply worked on their family farm, they have lived a life. 

Anatomy of a Backstory

This section is going to take us through some key components of a backstory and try to explain how to incorporate them into your character.

In each section, we’ve included some questions that you can use to start the process. The following sections will help you outline the adventurer you want to build.

  • Early life
  • Conflict
  • Connection to the world
  • Goals
  • Flaws

You may notice as you start to answer some of the questions below that these sections start to blend together a little bit.

Your early life may be the source of your conflict, and your flaws may be related to your connection to the world.

This is all great; the more interwoven the answers are, the more this begins to look like the tapestry of a real life.

Early Life

Your character came from somewhere. Even a warforged that was built yesterday has a past, if an admittedly short one.

Understanding your character’s early life is important for understanding how they got to where they are.

Early life doesn’t necessarily mean childhood. For a high elf, it could be what you did for the first couple hundred years before you thought about becoming an adventurer.

We really just want to know what made them who they are.

Important Questions

  • Where do you come from?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Are there any traumatic events in your past? How did these affect you?

Conflict

Conflict can be something terrible, like your tribe being slaughtered, or something mundane, like getting fired from an apprenticeship.

No matter how big or small, conflict motivates change. This is likely what drove you to a life of adventure in the first place. 

A great thing to remember about conflict is that it can be either external or internal. We are just as capable of causing our own problems as we are of being victims.

In fact, external conflict can often spark a struggle within ourselves.

Think of a character you really enjoy. From Luke Skywalker to Carrie Bradshaw, that character has something going on in their life that causes problems.

Dead parents, PTSD, acceptance seeking, a horrible curse, the list goes on. Even a character that is just out adventuring for the fun of it has something that troubles them.

This can be tied to a traumatic event from your past or something entirely different. 

Important Questions

  • What conflict drives you?
  • How do you cope with it?
  • How could the conflict be solved? 

Connection to the World

No character exists in a vacuum. Your character, be they a hermit or a prince, has some connection to the world outside themselves.

Being tied to the world allows things happening around you to have more impact, and that’s where good roleplaying really begins.

Connection is also interaction. How we feel about the world around us tells us how we’ll interact with people and react to events.

Knowing where our character stands is vital to having an immersive experience, not just for you but for everyone at the table with you.

Aside from just relationships and hypotheticals, this is a great time to sit down with your DM and ask them questions. Since D&D is essentially just collaborative storytelling, we see the best results when we collaborate. 

If you want to create a Halfling character cursed by the goblin deity Magubliyet to live out their days as a Goblin, talk with your DM about interactions between the gods and mortals in their world.

If you want to create a character who is 5th in line to the throne of Kaar’n Agiea, talk to your DM about how to incorporate this kingdom you’ve created into their world. 

This can be such a fun process for both you and your DM. It helps them with their worldbuilding, gives them story hooks that will be meaningful to you, and lets you feel like more than just someone rolling dice at a table.

Important Questions

  • Whom do I care about?
  • How do I feel about strangers?
  • Whom do I dislike?
  • For your DM: How can I fit into the world?

Goals

Normally a direct result of your conflict, a goal is something your character hopes to accomplish. They could hope to be the best there ever was or hope to avenge their dead parents; they could even just be seeking greater serenity.

Whatever the case, this is the positive motivation you have for adventuring.

It’s not uncommon for a character to have one overarching goal and nothing else to support it. “I seek revenge on the man that murdered my father,” is pretty basic.

If we want our goals to have substance, we must add more to that. Perhaps a smaller goal attached to that is becoming the greatest swordsman alive. A simple goal most people have is to make money and survive. 

A healthy amount of side goals is great for putting together a believable character. You can break these down into quests, aspirations, and hopes.

Quests then are large goals we seek to accomplish/overcome, aspirations are small goals we set for ourselves, and hopes are goals that we would like to achieve.

Important Questions

  • What goals do I have?
  • Why do I have these goals?
  • What can I do to achieve them?

Flaws

All great characters have flaws, something that makes them less than perfect. This goes for any character you make, be they the hero of the land or a curly mustache villain with a secret lair.

Giving your character weaknesses is more than just making them believable, it’s simply necessary.

I’m not talking about kryptonite here; this isn’t the one magical item that will be able to topple your character. I’m talking about emotional damage, difficult personality quirks, or any sort of character defect you can come up with.

Just like in real life, flaws come from somewhere. It’s your decision whether that’s nature or nurture, their basic instincts, or a reflection of the world around them.

Flaws are so important that all 5e backgrounds even include a table of them so you can make your life a bit easier.

We’ll talk more about backgrounds later, but you can definitely use them as a jumping-off point to come up with your flaws. 

Important Questions

  • What sort of flaws do I have?
  • Do I see my flaws as coping mechanisms, is it a problem I seek to overcome, am I unaware that I have flaws, or do I have some other relationship with them?
  • What influenced these flaws?

Using Your Character Sheet

Now the basis of this article is that your character is more than just their stats, but I’m going to take a moment to talk about how they’re more than just their story.

In fact, a great character in D&D is built with balance between who they are and what they are. Your class, race, and background should all have some sort of influence on your backstory, and vice versa.

Class

Bilrin Pebblebeard grew up in a workshop fetching tools for his father. He learned everything about automatons: how they work, how to make them, how dangerous they are in the wrong hands.

One day he came home from a meeting of the Tinkerer’s Guild to find their workshop in complete disarray. 

Pieces of machinery were thrown about the place, blueprints were no longer in their proper place, and arcane batteries were shattered into a million pieces. Among all the wreckage, his father was taking his final breaths.

When Bilrin approached, his father handed him the family gauntlet, a tool that had been in the Pebblebeard clan for ages, and uttered his last words, “Stop them.”

Now wouldn’t it be just absolutely insane if I told you this was a story about a druid? Clearly, this is a setup for an artificer.

I figured an example might be the best way to show you how your class and backstory work together. Not every backstory will be so obviously connected to the skills you have developed, but there should be some connection.

A warlock doesn’t just suddenly make a contract with some otherworldly deity, or maybe they do.

If our backstory is how we lead up to becoming an adventurer, then the details of that backstory are how we lead up to the details of what kind of adventurer we are. 

I won’t try to explain what backstories work with which classes – that’s a job for our class and subclass guides.

Understanding how the class you want to play works should allow you to come up with a compelling backstory that feels fitting.

Race

I don’t buy into the idea of a xenophobic fantasy world where all the races are constantly at odds with each other, but it should at least be a given that the races are different.

While I strongly suggest avoiding the “I hate dwarves because I’m an elf,” cliché, I do suggest understanding the culture of your race.

Our race guides do an excellent job of covering what makes a race unique beyond the stat block and how they look.

If you’ve landed on a race or even if you’re just speculating, check them out to see what cultural tie-ins you can make for your character’s backstory.

Some races have some pretty easy hooks, like how tieflings are often rejected by society, while others can be a bit more nuanced.

A wood-elf can set you up for some great connection to nature, but what that means is entirely up to you.

It’s important to understand the race we choose while also allowing our backstories to be flexible.

Just because I create a dwarf doesn’t mean they have to be a blacksmith; there are plenty of other ways a dwarf character can exist in a fantasy world.

Backgrounds

Backgrounds are layups for your backstory. They provide you with personality traits, flaws, bonds, and ideals, all of which you can use to make your character more convincing. They also give you, well, a background. 

These are almost all extremely straightforward ways to develop your character.

Someone with a soldier background was at some point, you guessed it, a soldier. As with every piece of a backstory we covered though, what that means is up to you. 

The PHB makes it very clear that the backgrounds they offer are there to make your life easier.

With your DM’s consent, you can create whatever background you want, and you can always modify an existing one to match your narrative needs. 

Backgrounds in a huge way provide you with a template to build your backstory on. Of course, you can build a backstory first and find the background to match it – that’s entirely up to you.

What’s important is remembering that these aren’t simply interchangeable.

While a backstory and background may reflect one another, they are not the same. Your character is more than a Guild Artisan, Noble, Bounty Hunter, or whatever you may have chosen.

Putting Together a Backstory

Knowing what makes a great backstory sometimes still isn’t enough to actually make one. In order to do that, you’re going to have to start somewhere. The question is, where should that be?

You can realistically start with any of the topics discussed above. Asking some of the questions and coming up with intriguing answers is just as effective as choosing your class and working outwards from that.

My suggestion is to find your motivation before you do any of that.

Motivation can come from a lot of sources. You can pull from your own life experiences, a character you really enjoy, or even just a simple character generator.

Whether this is your first time building a character or your 50th, give yourself some time to think about what you enjoy about D&D and why you’re playing it. 

You want to be able to play a character that you can assume the role of, so they should be someone that you find interesting.

If you really enjoy combat, start thinking about what sort of martial combatants you enjoy seeing portrayed. Maybe you like the reluctant hero, or maybe you like the ruthless savage.

Exploring archetypes that peak your interest will not only give you a character that you’re excited about, it will also make them easier to play once you sit down at the table.

Character Generators

Here are a couple of character generators that will give you some form of backstory as a jumping point.

  • Tetra-cube Character Generator – This is a great tool that can let you generate whole characters, down to the subclass and background traits. It also gives you plenty of “hook” information that serves as an excellent skeleton for your backstory.
  • Kassoon’s Backstory Generator – Here we have one generator that hits all of my questions and some more. You can even choose your class or background to have something more tailored to the character you’re trying to build.
  • Xanathar’s Backstory Generator – This generator uses tables from XGtE’s “This is your Life” section for an authentic 5e randomized experience.

Cliché Backstories

There are a lot of clichés in character building, and D&D backstories see a lot of this.

The definition of cliché is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. So, on average, using these is pretty frowned upon.

It’s a great way to get your table annoyed with you, and the more you lean into it, the worse it’s going to be.

As you build your character, watch out for clichés that you might accidentally find yourself in.

BUT, and that’s a big but, don’t let these stop you from building a character you want to play. The solution here is to ensure that you bring original thoughts into the picture as you build. 

You can have a tragic orphan character that doesn’t play into all the same tendencies that most players are so tired of seeing.

Again, having answers to the questions above and more that you may come across as you build is going to go a long way in ensuring this doesn’t happen. 

In most cases, these clichés are seen as annoying not because of the redundancy but because of how it affects the rest of the story and your fellow adventurers.

If you can manipulate a cliché to not be so annoying, you’ve actually made a very unique character.

Anyways, here’s a brief list of clichés to keep an eye out for.

The Chosen One

Making your character the prophesized hero is a pretty cheap move. It takes away agency from every other player who’s trying to be a hero at your table.

Avoid this by making them think they are the one spoken of in prophecy, only to quickly find out that’s not the case. 

You can have a lot of fun with this by acknowledging how absurd it is.

Tragic Orphan

I get it, you like Batman. We all get it.

Characters that use their parents’ death as an excuse to be an absolutely awful person to everyone around them aren’t fun for, you guessed it, the people around them. 

Forever the Victim

A character that was kidnapped/enslaved/brainwashed/etc. and went through (insert traumatic suffering) here. This character is now ever-so hardened to the world around them and absolutely refuses to let anyone in.

These characters aren’t team players, and that is only helpful if it’s a flaw you acknowledge and have your character actually attempt to work on.

This is another backstory that longs to be the center of attention. Don’t wave the “woe is me” flag at every opportunity you get, and you’re probably off to a good start.

Racist

Listen, it’s a real backstory in our world, but that doesn’t make it a good one. No one should hate all of x just because of one situation or even many situations.

I feel like people often have a huge target out for orcs, like “ooh all orcs are bad, I hate all orcs, I’ll kill any of them that I see.”

Not only is this not creative and annoying, it’s indicative about what kind of person you might be if this is a fantasy you’re seeking to live out. No one wants to play with a racist. 

If you want to “successfully” pull this off, it’s another situation where a caricature works incredibly well.

Have them secretly attracted to the race, or jealous, or whatever does the trick. It should still be a one-off joke and not the basis of an entire character.

I’m Insane!

People trying to play crazy characters often completely miss the mark and end up with characters that are off-putting and unrelatable.

What you need to remember if you want to do this right is that crazy people don’t think they’re crazy.

Play them paranoid or schizophrenic, but have everything they’re doing make sense to them. Watch or read Happy to get an idea of how this plays off successfully.

There are too many more clichés to list each one.

What I want to get through is that building a character should further the purpose of making a great role play experience for everyone at the table. It shouldn’t be making it all about you or annoying and unrealistic. 

You can make a stereotypical character without having them be a cliché. That’s just called an archetype.

Bringing Your Backstory to the Table

Once you have a backstory, you’re good to go sit down and have a great time with friends.

Of course, we want that to be a good time for everyone involved, so incorporating our backstory artfully is something we’ll want to make sure we do.

No one wants to hear you read out a five-page backstory. Okay, well I do, but I’m a writer and an avid reader, can you blame me. Still, that’s not the point of D&D.

If you want your backstory to be really impressive, don’t tell it all at once.

There’s a tendency for first sessions to be a place for everyone to suddenly share their life stories.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not really how I introduce myself. I normally start with my name and just let things flow naturally.

That’s how our characters should interact if we want them to be believable.

The first things out of Bilrin’s mouth if he’s at a tavern meeting a party to pick up a quest shouldn’t be about his dead father – they should be about the quest.

Leave the juicy life story for sitting around a campfire, or bring it up as a way to identify with someone who has lost a loved one down the line.

What I’m getting at is that your character’s backstory isn’t a monologue you prep for day one. It’s a cheat sheet for you to be able to roleplay your character for the rest of the campaign.

A backstory is for you to know and your party to find out. 

If this is confusing in any way, think about a few relationships in your life. Maybe choose a close friend, a new friend, and a work colleague.

Consider how your relationships developed with those people, how much they actually know about your life, and at what points you told them things that were truly important to you.

Use this as a baseline for roleplaying, and you are using a character backstory to its fullest potential.

I truly hope this has helped you. Creating characters is something that I love so much, and I want that experience to be shared with you.

My wish for you is that this process isn’t scary but exciting and that you end up with a character that you’ll treasure for years to come.

My typical sign-off feels very fitting for this article, so as always, happy adventuring.