I sometimes label myself as a “practical player” on forums. I’m not even sure this a correct translation of what I have in mind. One aspect of that is the lack of background for many of my characters. I was inspired by the discussion between Jim of LotFP and Rob Conley on background.
You do have a choice of either front loading the process by making it a part of character creation or back loading it through play. – Rob Conley
I am in the camp of those who like “back loading” it. I am fond of saying that what we’re playing right now is going to be the backstory of our future characters.
What I usually do is picture my character, and some sort of personality element. Supersticious, simple minded, happy-go-lucky, fearful of a human’s short lifespan – anything will do. As we play the first two or three sessions, I’ll be on the lookout for other elements to add. My goal is to get a list of maybe seven items. Thus, I started out as an ugly dwarven wizard with Charisma 6. I picked “disgusting” and started poking in my nose, miming that spells like Grease involved sucking the head of my toad familiar, pointing out that I never changed my cloak that had soacked up so much sweat and dirt that it would keep standing if I sat down slowly. When the monk saved my life on the second or third sortie, I offered him my cloak of resistance and added “loyal and thankful” to my charactersheet. When the fighters in the party didn’t like the disgusting dwarf but the other halfling wizard befriended me (we’re playing a West Marches-style game), I added “considers fighters to be cannon-fodder” to my character sheet. That’s how I build my personality as we play.
Sometimes, however, I play with dungeon masters who seem to enjoy long background stories. DM James handed in five pages of backstory when he joined my Rise of the Runelords campaign. Thus, when I created my background for Rhysalis Eina or the background for Orland I read the campaign material available and added some connections – cities I had been to, friends and tutors I had, societies I belonged to. All with an eye to adventure: Potential kidnapping victims, causes for revenge, agents of betrayal, friend to help out, to organize rescue parties, to resurrect me if necessary, to ask for information. Once I have some text online, I will add to it after a few levels, or after a resurrection and similar traumatic events.
As you can see, I like back loading my story, but I’m not opposed to front loading my story if I think the DM will like it.
These days I try to remember and ask my players the following:
And when my fellow players look at me quizzically as I write down a word or two after a scene I explain that I was adding personality elements to my character and writing it down so I would not forget.