Origins, Demise, and in Between
While we don’t need every last detail of where a character came from, it helps to know their original continent, at the least, and preferably a kingdom, too. The latter might wait until we’ve invented more and decided on the governments and quality of life there, as discussed in detail in Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2). Decide whether they still live there, have taken up residence elsewhere, or became a wanderer. Create a quick reason for their choice, which may have been influenced by familial concerns, such as keeping relatives safe by going far away and lying about origins. Or if the government made life horrible for people, they might have left. Or maybe life was wonderful and they left to help those less fortunate.
Our choices will impact much about their worldview, assuming we’ve created cultures as detailed in Cultures and Beyond (The Art of World Building, #3). The society they came from will have beliefs and customs, and while the latter is not hugely important, the former is. There are basic ideas about how life should be lived, such as how different genders are treated. This is more important for characters that we intend to use as more than a reference, but if the Kingdom of Norn viewed woman as little more than sex objects and our male hero is from there, this would impact how well he gets along with people in other cultures that differ. Is this the reason he couldn’t get along with peers and worked alone, for example?
Once we’ve decided where they came from, decide where they’ve lived or even if they just kept moving as if in search of something. Having multiple sovereign powers they’ve been influenced by helps create personality. This is another thing we needn’t worry about too much at first (if at all) unless planning to use their residence in some way, such as a story where people end up there. Their home might have booby traps, whether mundane, technological, or magical. In SF, surveillance from a distance is likely, but we can still do this in fantasy with spells or magic devices. Decide how simple or majestic their home is. Personality will figure into this, but so will the fame heaped upon them and whether they’ve monetarily benefited from their exploits or not.
If the character is dead, decide where the remains and any special items they possessed are. Is the body intact? Is it ashes? Is that grave actually empty but few if any know it? Maybe their grave is guarded, revered, or haunted. Their items can be buried with them or hidden. Maybe the items are lost, or just believed lost, and someone secretly has them, though it can be more interesting if more than one person has the various items, especially if they are needed together.
If they’re still alive, where are they living now? What are they doing with their time? Are they hunted and living with lots of protection, or are they celebrated and afraid old enemies will destroy those they love? Are they imprisoned? Living world figures can be fun, though maybe nothing beats undead ones.
One thought on “How to Create a Hero Character’s History”
Characters should never exist in a vacuum, unless they are space amoebas.
The protagonists may be visitors to the setting, but even so they ought to have familiarized themselves with at least some of the way things work in this place. And if it only means that you must yell more often and louder in your native language to get things done.
Antagonists can be immigrants or visitors, too. If they have a base in the area, they are likely to have a better grasp of the local customes and mores, and probably better networked to other groups or individuals in the region than the protagonists, Having them deal with local prominents like e.g. the sheriff on a first name base might alert the protagonists to this advantage.
Most of the time a character will be native to the part of the setting where he is encountered. Leftovers from characters long dead (or gone) will still be coming from a somewhat alien culture, with different values, foes, etc,, which may matter in a higher technological or magical setting if the leftovers retain some agency. In such environments, these items will have a definite maker’s mark, too – whoever made the item with agency will have imbued it with some of their motivations. If you go to a species or corporation famed for their craftmanship but notorious for their temper, ideosyncracies, or greed, don’t expect the item to be well-behaved. The item will most likely be to specs, but will have ideosyncrasies which crop up some time after the item has been taken in use.
The networking of an antagonist may be a bigger obstacle than the antagonists themselves. Here, too, you will find characters with a modicum of background info, e.g. Guard 4, former military, local boy. If you have the slightest idea about military incidents the guard may have participated in, you will have a set of information about dislikes and preferences that you can use when it comes to dialogue. He might be approached exchanging local gossip (or the equivalent of football matches), or he might be a source for local gossip that might contain leads.
Nobody booby-traps their homes, only their lairs. Homes may have alarms which will call up guardians, or they may have “wandeing monsters” like noisy pet dogs or parrots, perceptive roombas or household spirits. They may crawl with servants, family, or security,
A toddler may be an intruder’s worst nightmare. Even more so if it really is an avatar of the home AI or the household spirit, with control over all manner of noisy and flashy effects, and possibly the ability to keep certain doors closed no matter what. “You succeed to pick the lock. The door still doesn’t open. And you hear the lock closing again.”
If you want a more combat- or action-ridden scenario when invading a home, think of going in against McGyver protecting the inhabitant. Just don’t put the Nuke-button next to the Nurse-button. It doesn’t make sense.
If your task is to collect the former regalia of a past ruler, or to collect the encrypted data in the possession of a departed character, quite a lot of those items may be owned by other characters who may or may not be aware of these items’ ties to the departed character. Putting the best magical swords into the tombs may not be a sustainable custom, and tombs may contain replicas rather than the real things, conveying the symbolic character of the item rather than the item itself. Those replicas may still function somewhat similar to the original device, but might be lacking in certain aspects. Like places, items may change their names over time, and they may be enhanced or included in other items – take for instance the holy lance in the Habsburg regalia. In the magic of the Catholic Church, there is such a thing as “contact relics”, symbolic representations of a suitably powerful that the lesser magic of the contact relic which was exposed to the original magic still is worth having. A concept alien to Thermodynamics but also found in New Age esoterics, with light oils and energy crystals.
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