I don't ask my players to write a backstory anymore. It's not that they don't know how to write good ones because not only some of them write quite a lot of stories in their free and not so free time (and a pretty damn good fiction also), they do know how to write good backstories. It's also not because I don't love reading backstories, because I really do. I stopped asking them to write backstories because I think that there are better ways to create a connection and to get a feel for the character. I still welcome backstories, but it is not mandatory anymore.
I now use a different tool, a series of 10 questions that I devised over the last year and a half, which I find quite satisfying. It gives me and them roleplaying tools, creates a feel for the character, enriches the world and takes far less time than it would take to get all of that from a backstory.
The questions are presented in this order, in these groupings:
1) What is your character obsessed about?
2) What triggers your character's rage and anger?
3) What scares your character the most?
4) What makes your character be her best self?
5) Who is your character's best friend?
6) How would he/her describe your character?
7) Where would he/she be wrong?
8) What is your character's goal?
9) What tools does your character have in order to achieve them?
10) How is your character connected to the other characters in the group?
After presenting those questions, I wanna take a moment or two and go through each question, explaining why I used this questions and what do I get from them.
What is your character obsessed about?
This question gives me a simple tool- something that I can get to draw the character to the story with, if I'll ever need one. But it does more than that. A player can use the answer to signal to the GM what she wants to see in the game ("my character is obsessed about killing orcs"), or he can use the answer to breath more life into the character ("my character is obsessed about flowers").
What triggers your character's rage and anger?
This is again a question that gives a simple identification tool. But it also gives us more than that. It is usually used to describe what one's character will fight about ("whenever I see injustice"). I, though, prefer using this answer to shed some light about my character's uglier self ("losing in something that I'm good at", for example).
What scares your character the most?
Every one of us is afraid of something, it part of what makes us real persons. It is also true for our characters. For that we have this question coming to the rescue. While its immediate usage seems like only for horror games (and in those games, it is preferable to answer with something that the player is afraid of also), I think that it has much more uses than that. In most heroic stories, the heroes and heroines face their fears and overcome them in order to win. But for that to happen, we have to have those fears in the first place, right?
What makes your character be her best self?
But our characters also have a good side, and this question is used to showcase it. These are the times when the character will do everything that she can in order to help the persons around her. She will defeat the adversaries, help the wounded or whatever else that she can in order to achieve this goal or to solve this problem.
But one of my players used this question to show another ugly side of the character. She answered this question with this answer: "Only when my character feels better than someone else".
Who is your character's best friend?
Remember all those tip articles about mining the backgrounds of the characters for NPCs to add? Here is my answer (well, the first part of it anyway…). This answer gives all of us a major secondary character to add to the story. It can be used to hook the characters for something, to illustrate the PC or anything else. It populates the world with a character that the player already feels for.
How would he/her describe your character?
This gives us the primary characteristics of the character. How she presents herself and how she is seen by everyone in the world. Answers such as "dependable", "smart" or "honest" gives us easy gates into the character's psyche, while others such us "pretty", "strong" or "has a keen eye" showcase more physical characteristics that can't be ignored.
Where would he/she be wrong?
This question I like to nickname as the twist one, or the "thank-god-my-friend-doesn't-know-about-it question". This is a usually dark or ironic twist about the descriptors from before. "My character is not brave, but just too scared for being afraid"; "my character isn't smart, but just recites old sayings". One of my players decided that his character isn't playful because she's afraid to lose her playful friend.
Take into account, though, that it can be used to illustrate the friend also. If we'll look at my player's example, we get a friend who has a territory- "I'm the funny and playful one"- and will probably fight for it.
What is your character's goal?
This is the ultimate goal of the character. This is something that should be unachievable till the end of the campaign (or at the very least very hard to achieve). This is the character's dream, where she sees herself in 20 years' time or whatever.
In my MLP campaign I tweaked it a little bit, changing it to "what is your character's childish goal", because they are children and as such their dreams are prone to change all the time.
What tools does your character have in order to achieve them?
The answer here can give me a lot of tools. If the player answers with NPCs, then we have more characters the players care for in the world. But other answers can be given as well- one of my players gave answered this question "because I really want to", thus making the character a childish one. It can also be used to showcase the character's most famous moves or whatever, showcasing the way she behaves and/or acts in the world.
How is your character connected to the other characters in the group?
Now is the time to answer this question. After we have the personalities of the characters, and we know who they know, we can finally answer this question organically. I always ask the players to come with an answer together. This way, they both feel that they're part of it and they all care for it more because of that.
And an end
And that's it, my 10 questions with the logic behind them. I hope that you'll find them as useful as I've found.
How about you? Do you use a similar questionnaire? If so, in what way? And if not, why not?