Background Ideas

Background Ideas

Writing a background can seem like a daunting prospect, especially if you're not used to doing a lot of creative writing. Some people have even asked why we require it. The first reason is to give you some practice thinking about your character as a three-dimensional entity, not just a series of stats. It contributes to more active, dynamic roleplaying. A second reason is, frankly, to weed out those who don't have enough interest in the game to commit the time to writing. It improves the quality of RP on the grid by making it so the people who are approved are those who want to play here.

A good background should be interesting to read. It should cover most of the questions addressed in '+news bg questions', directly or indirectly, without being simply a series of answers to the questions. It should, in essence, tell the story of your character — all the major things that shaped him or her before you hit the grid. It needs to justify your stats to a degree (not *every* stat needs to be in there, but we'd like to see justification for any stat above a 5 or a 6, or any major pieces of cyberware.

Hint #1: Plan It Out

Take some time to write up a synopsis, or have it clear in your head. Work out the chronology of these events: how old were you when these things happened? How long have you been in Denver… long enough to get established? What things were important, what things weren't?

Hint #2: This Isn't the Biography Channel

Remember when you were reading your history textbook and it talked about famous people, and you could hardly keep your eyes open? Biographies are a dry recitation of events and facts that are distant and remote. You can't really 'see' or 'hear' in your mind what's happening; all you can do is try to memorize it and hope it's on the test. Anytime you catch yourself starting out with the words, "He was born…" check to make sure you're not writing a biography. We don't want a dry recitation of facts. What we want is for you to illustrate what your character is like. Don't describe what happened to him in distant language ("He got his first cyberdeck."), instead tell us how it happened, why it happened, how he felt. Or better yet, *show* us.

Hint #3: Show, Don't Tell

This server runs in the State of Missouri, which is called the 'Show Me' state for a reason. We don't want you to tell us what happened to your character; we want to *see* it in some way. If you tell things from the point of view of a disinterested observer, then your background will be disinteresting.

Illustrate things with the character's thoughts — maybe not literally quoted, but his take on situations. Don't simply say, "He was happy"; instead, describe the tears of joy and relief that he shed upon seeing his comrades emerge alive. Don't say, "Her father abused her", show us a scene where it happened, or her having flashbacks, or show her after one of the attacks and how she felt. It takes a bit more space, but it results in a story that comes alive in the mind.

Hint #4: Break It Up

A huge block of text is difficult to read; the eye can't really figure out where one thing starts and the next ends. You can insert a 'line break' by placing a %r into your background. To separate paragraphs, either use two line breaks (%r%r) or a line break followed by a tab (indent): %r%t.

In proper grammar, a paragraph break is required each time you switch speakers. It should also occur at the beginning of a thought or section. Use them to break apart the text into managable chunks. You have 3 or 4 sentences about him going to college, then you flip to after he graduates. Paragraph break. In general, when you go from descriptive text to dialogue, you also need a paragraph break.

Also, please use periods and commas appropriately. A good rule of thumb is to use a comma whereever you'd have a pause for breath potentially as you read it aloud. Use periods at the ends of your sentences. Use ellipses (…) sparingly to indicate interruptions or a significant or unusual pause in speech. Do not use them in place of periods.

Quotation marks and commas are important. Use the following guides.

John said, "Let's go shopping!" "It's too far," protested Mary.
"I don't know," Steve mused. "This isn't easy."
Chris grinned. "I don't know about you, but I'm starved!"

Hint #5: Spelling and Grammar

Everyone makes the occasional typo, but it's important to try as hard as you can to spell things correctly. Improper spelling and grammar detract from the effect of your background and distract the reader. Most systems today have a spelling checker: give it a whirl.
Try to be careful of the words "there" (Over there), "they're" (they are), and "their" (belonging to them).
Also don't confuse "to lose something" (failing to find it) with "to loose something" (release it from captivity; set it free).
Don't confuse "it's" (it is) with "its" (belonging to it); the possessive doesn't take an apostrophe.
Try to avoid confusing "you're" (you are) with "your" (belonging to you) or "yore" (time long past).

Hint #6: Set the Scene

A lot of backgrounds simply start into a recitation of events — especially first-person backgrounds, where the character is writing or telling the story. It can be a powerful technique and a useful one, but to be effective it has to be believable. Who are you talking to? What are the surroundings? And more importantly, why are you telling anyone these things? What in the world prompted you to spill your life's story? Setting the scene as a psychologist's couch can be done as simple as, "Start at the beginning, huh, Doc? Easy for you to say, at a hundred yen an hour." Or by as little as two words: "Dear Diary". Or, "Hey, kiddo. I… well, you know, I might not make it out of this. So I want you to know something about your old man." Or whatever. Given that scene, it's much easier to make the dialog flow from that point.

Hint #7: Write Believable Dialogue

When you write your background, re-read it. See if it makes sense, or is it cliche? Can you honestly visualize your character saying that, or behaving that way? What about whomever he/she is talking to? Would your character really describe his life that way? Would he tell all, or would he lie? Would he skip over certain points, to conceal them — or maybe refer to them in an indirect fashion? What're her emotional reactions to what she's saying: is she angry while she speaks, sad, melancholy, disinterested, distracted?

Most people, if they were called upon to tell their life's story, wouldn't recite it in a straight line from birth to present. They wouldn't start with their birth. Instead, they'll go back to something significant, and might mention things in passing. They'll wander around from point to point. People in a conversation exchange information and react to what one another say, sometimes emotionally, sometimes simply with facts. Use interplay between characters to bring out aspects of who they are. For example, let's say a character is very respectful of his mother. He doesn't have to say, "I really loved my mother." Instead, you can use something like this:

"So you come from around here?" Jimmy was being his usual drekhead self, just giving me a hard time. "Hell, man, this ain't no place to raise a family."
I wasn't going to let it get to me. I was used to it. "Hey, it's all we could afford. My momma didn't make much."
"Yeah, not much demand for cheap whores around…" That's as far as he got. The last word emerged as a muffled squeak.
I let go of his throat as soon as I was convinced he got the message, never taking my eyes away from his. It was amazing. For the first time since I'd met him, Jimmy shut the hell up.

We've found out that the character grew up in a crappy area; that he respects his mother and won't hear bad words against her; that he's strong, somewhat aggressive, and from the fact that he said nothing in response to Jimmy indicates that he's a man of action, not words. We also know he's usually laid back and relaxed, but is able to act swiftly and decisively. We also know that he's well in control of his anger. We just found out a lot about this character, but little of it was explicitly said. It was instead shown, through the interaction of the characters.

Hint #8: Create Vivid Scenes

Everyone prefers to read things that make you feel like you're watching something that's really happening, being able to witness it, to visualize what's going on just as if you were standing there. However, you can't really do that with someone's life, and actually most of it isn't interesting at all. Usually, though, there are a few turning points in a character's life — points at which things change, at which growth and development occurs. For many magical characters, the awakening of one's power is such a point. Death of a loved one, a run that went south, that first Shadowrun, getting accepted into a school… everyone has some of these moments that are pivotal.

A good background can be constructed simply by taking these 'snippets' of a life type and describing them as scenes. Take a few minutes at a time, and describe them in-depth, giving the reader the sense they're really present. Show the tearful goodbye with one's family, the scene where your character finds the body, or whatever, just as if there were a movie camera present documenting every second of it. Within the scene, you can make references to things that occurred before, or maybe that will occur, via a character's thoughts, recollections, or dialogue, in order to include things that happened in between these vivid scenes.

Hint #9: Description

Description is the art of making something from a flat statement into a rich image for the reader. It's a matter of giving more information about attributes of things in the scene, about how something is done, about conveying emotions, feelings, and ideas that aren't explicit by letting the reader infer them from the description. The art comes into play in determining how much you can safely add without disrupting the flow of the scene. If you have a quick-moving action scene, you don't want to take time to describe the exact features of the woman shooting at you. Put it another way: as you're reading it, think of a movie camera. If the camera would be moving quickly, then use less description. If it's moving slowly, use more.

Things to describe include the following: eye movements, gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, clothing, hairstyles, height, weight, speed of movements, reactions, gracefulness, strength, etc. Include those things that are relevant to the image you want the reader to get. If you want to convey that the man is ex-military, describe his flat-top haircut, his alert eyes, the hard set of his jaw, the camouflage clothing he's wearing, the terse, commanding tone of his speech. Color of eyes and hair is irrelevant, as is how tall he is. Convey the military image without saying it outright.

Hint #10: Reality Check

Why? "Why" is a very important question to be answered when you're writing a story. Why do things happen? Why did that character say what she did? Why did that character do what he did? These things comprise believability. While in real life, we often don't know the reasons for things that happen, in our fiction we like to know that. Why did your father give you a gun? Tell us about him. What was his motivation? Why a gun and not a sword or a knife? What brought him to spend that much money on you? Why did he think you could be trusted with it?

Another question is 'how'. Cyberware is expensive. If somebody else bought you an expensive piece of 'ware, how did they afford it? It's also an unusual gift — not exactly a typical graduation present for a high school teen. It implies a preparation for military or combat action. If it's unusual, it ought to be explained. Show us and tell us what's going on behind the scenes that led up to this, rather than simply saying that it happened.

Giving the reader insight into motivations, thoughts, and emotions is always helpful to making a coherent, believable story. Readers can accept magic as a matter of course, advanced technology without blinking an eye, but we look with skepticism on the portrayal of people not acting like people. Simply by being alive, we gain a vision of how humanity thinks, a deep insight into human nature that is deeply ingrained in us. When someone acts contrary to our expectations, it should be explained — perhaps later, if not now. If it's unusual, show others reacting to it as unusual. If your father gives you a gun, and his reasons don't make sense, have your character react to it as if it's unusual, wondering as to the reasons behind it.


This little section of documentation isn't a quick-fix to becoming a bestselling novelist, but hopefully it gave you some ideas for how to approach background writing and create something a little better than you might have otherwise. As always, if you have any questions or ideas, feel free to ask a staff member or run them past folks on the 'new' channel.

Sample Backgrounds

Rather than just telling you how to write a background, we're also going to show you some examples of good ones. These are available on our web site in the Players section:

These backgrounds are considered to be 'above average' — yours doesn't necessarily need to be this long or this detailed to be accepted. We're posting these to help you see a bit of what we're looking for, not to intimidate you into not even trying :)

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