Writing Character Backstories

As we are all currently in the throes of writing character backstories for our upcoming Dead Suns and Ruins of Azlant podcasts, I thought I’d share with you one of the best, if not THE best one, I’ve ever received. Not surprisingly, it’s from Skid. He sent this to me weeks before we started our Jade Regent campaign so many moons ago and it has raised the bar for every character backstory I’ve received since. Remember, yours does not have to be this long or this detailed, but if you need some inspiration, here’s a great way to do it.

WARNING: The following contains graphic language as well as sexual and violent themes.

Ikemafuna Olagundoye – Human Barbarian

Ike was a hunter.

Dim those memories seemed, even now. But he was a hunter. The best in his village. His father the chief swelled with pride when he spoke of him and his strength and gentle nature were renowned from the Silver Coast to the Valley of the Leopards. His skills brought food and wealth to his village and to the joys of his life: his wife Oka and his newborn son Abayomi.

After a particularly grueling hunt, Ike made his way back through the jungle to his coastal village with a tapir slung across his broad back. The sun danced across his face between the leaves and he thought of home. He smiled as he imagined the look of happiness on Oka’s face as she saw what he brought her and the pleased cooing of his tiny boy.

As he approached the rise he saw smoke.

This was not the familiar smoke of the cookfires. He knew this was trouble. He dropped the carcass of the beast and tore up the slope of the hill. When he reached the ridge he saw the village was ablaze, and strange men were chasing his terrified people down through the burning horror. And just offshore loomed three tall wooden ships.

In a blind panic he rushed into the fray, frantically seeking his wife and child. He finally spotted them through the chaos being rowed towards one of the anchored ships. He cried out and rushed toward the beach, only to be knocked to the ground by a savage blow to the head.  Four men were needed to subdue him, and the next he knew he was in chains aboard the Harpy’s Shriek.

Many days and nights he languished below the decks of the pirate ship. Beaten by his keepers and constantly tormented by the captain, Black Thom Boneway, he desperately sought any chance to escape and seek his beautiful wife, his little boy.

Finally the damned ship docked in the ramshackle city of Bloodcove. Ike was dragged above decks and immediately overwhelmed by his first view of “civilization”. Smoke billowed from buildings made of stone. White men and even stranger creatures writhed about in a horrible frenzy on cobblestone streets and a horrid stench assailed his senses, worse even than that found in the belly of the Shriek. When crewmen tried to drag him to the auction block he guessed their purpose and resisted his captors with terrifying ferocity. Even chained as he was it took gargantuan effort to beat him down and drag his half-dead body up the wooden steps to the platform.

The public show of rebelliousness certainly affected his asking price, much to the consternation of his captors. The only bidder was a sinewy builder tasked with renovating the fortifications around the pirate city, who was undaunted by the apparent risk. “His strength is as formidable as his spirit. I trust we might exploit one while breaking the other,” he mused to his scribe. Through an interpreter he made it clear to Ike that no defiance would be tolerated and the hunter was set to work hewing stone.

Ike fought his overseers at every turn, determined as he was to free himself and find his family. He suffered the lash time and again, until finally he broke free of his leather bonds and broke the neck of his torturer and tore the throat from a hapless guard.

The builder was a cruel man, but he was also miserly. Instead of hanging Ike as the law would have him, he tracked down Black Thom in a filthy dockyard winesink and demanded that the pirate take back his troublesome property and refund his hundred gold pieces. Thom of course refused, until the builder threatened to bring his questionable business practices to the attention of the local authorities.

Furious, Thom took the now scarred hulk of a man back aboard his ship and set sail for northern waters. He spit over the rail. “Set a course for Westcrown, boys. Perhaps our monkey will provide the Chelaxians a show in their fighting pits.”

Storm clouds gathered as the ship skirted the Eye of Abednago and soon the winds began to blow with the very fury of the gods. After sunset the captain drunkenly stumbled down to the brig even as the deck heaved beneath him, spoiling for a fight with his cargo.

“You’ve given me a lot of trouble. You hear me, you fucking ape? TROUBLE. Doesn’t matter now. Soon you’ll be Westcrown’s problem. Food for a bear, maybe. Or worse. Their tastes run dark in old Cheliax, my son. Near as dark as mine.” He pulled a swig from his jug.

“Maybe I’ll get back some of the money I’ve lost on you, monkey. Either way I’m cutting the throat of that cunt of a builder when next we come to Bloodcove. Nobody threatens me.”

After weeks among pirates and colonials Ike had discovered a knack for the common tongue. A word here, a phrase there.

“My…wife. My…child. Where?”

Thom’s eyes went wide. “The monkey speaks. You’re full of surprises, aren’t you?” He gulped another mouthful of grog. “Why, you don’t mean that pretty little thing we took from your shithole excuse for a village, do you? The one who wouldn’t let go of that squalling infant?”

Ike leaned forward, straining against the iron collar about his neck.

Thom nodded. “She had a lot of fight in her, same as you. Oh yes.” A horrid gap-toothed grin crept across his face. “Ordinarily a girl that pretty would be worth her weight in silver on the block. But the lads get lonely at sea, you see. Very lonely. And sometimes they just can’t help themselves.”

A sip this time.

“They…well, they just did what comes natural, understand?” He made an unmistakably rude gesture to make sure that Ike did.

“Again and again. It was just too sweet, you know. I had to join in meself after a time. Couldn’t resist. But she fought us, your girl. Bit the tongue right out of old Croy’s mouth she did.” Thom snapped his crooked teeth down on his own tongue to demonstrate. “The boys got mad then, and no mistake. There was nothing for it, no stopping them.” The pirate slowly and deliberately drew his finger across his own throat as his face darkened. “No. More. Wife.”

Fire leapt in Ike‘s black eyes as he pulled against his restraints.

“And of course a healthy child can bring a pretty penny, too. But we’re at sea. There’s no wetnurses out here. And without a mother to feed it…well…” He made a tossing motion with his free hand, and a whistling sound as he pointed his finger down into an imaginary ocean. “Glunk.”

Lightning flashed. The giant Mwangi roared and surged toward the slaver with an impossible strength, tearing an entire spar right from the ship’s hull by his neck and snapping the chains that bound his wrists. His enormous fist crunched into the face of the pirate, blood splattering the cabin and a dozen yellowed teeth sent bouncing off lantern and beam. The force of the blow spun the pirate completely around as he landed sprawling on the floor. Ikedove at the man and locked his powerful hands about his throat. He would kill him now.

Just then an enormous wave struck the ship broadside and the world turned upside down. Both men flew headlong through the breadth of the compartment, smashing into the opposite wall. The terrified cries of the crew could barely be heard above the roar of the storm and the horrible splintering of the hull.

Ike pulled himself to his feet, his eyes searching maniacally for the cause of his newfound fury. Finally they found him, drunkenly struggling to free himself from a tangle of rigging. The barbarian started towards the dazed pirate with murder in his eyes when another wave racked the ship.

An explosive CRACK filled the world and water plunged into the cabin. The force of it knocked Ike violently to the floor, wrenching the collar from his neck and forcing seawater into his lungs.

Air. He needed air.

The ship that had been his prison was coming to pieces all around him, capsizing. An enormous hole led out into the open water and he kicked furiously towards it, aware only of the flashes of the storm in the sky above. After an eternity his head breached the surface and he grasped a piece of flotsam, coughing the sea out of his barrel chest. The waves carried him away from the wreck as he watched the Harpy’s Shriek and her crew of slavers meet their doom.

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7 Comments on "Writing Character Backstories"

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Dicey Knight

Well written!

Disturbed a bit

Man, that is sad. I hope he was lying about the baby.


Vivid imagery. In reading, and enjoying this, I get flashes of ‘Roots’ and ‘Amistad’.


I also had an idea for a Mwangi character for Jade Regent. Hmm….


Skid is the master. Always has been, always will be.


Wow! Bar raised. Holy heck that’s good. I’m showing this to my players so that when I inevitably tpk them they’ll know what their back up characters should aspire to match.


Whoa. I knew Skid was good, but still, that’s heavy. I wish backstory was part of our campaign setup.