Yikes. The posting's been light lately, I know, but that's mainly because I've been busy -- and busy gaming. Two nights a week of Labyrinth Lord plus a new 7th Sea game just starting up has made this a very good semester.
I think I'm getting better at building characters and writing backstories, too. Time was, I'd just have my character's whole family killed off by some mysterious, unnamed menace and call it "giving her motivation." I resisted that temptation for my first character for Trollsmyth and have so far been very happy with the results; her brother has popped up in game directly (working, quite naturally, for a group that is not as bad as some of the other "bad guys" in the campaign, but still pretty bad on their own) and, more importantly, her relationship with her family has shaped the way she's reacted to most of the various exciting disasters that have befallen the party.
So in making the two characters I've built since then, I put a fair amount of thought into their families, and their relationship with their families. If nothing else, it gives me a reliable foundation for figuring out what makes that character tick. "Family" hasn't been as big of a deal for the cleric I made for the second Labyrinth Lord game, but it promises to be a major part of the 7th Sea game, seeing as how Trollsmyth is playing my character's half-sister.
But my old style of building characters did have one thing going for it--uninteresting as they were in themselves, those backgrounds did make it fairly easy for the GM to tie my character into their own schemes. In actual practice, what tends to happen with a really wide-open background like that is that it gets ignored in favor of the characters with a few interesting details filled in. You know, the ones that give the GM less work to do.
Taken to less extremes, however, throwing a few mysterious open-spaces into my backgrounds has turned out to be a handy technique. That brother I mentioned, I'd originally described as having disappeared a few years back, my cleric has a few mysterious NPCs of mysterious motive in her past, and my pirate has what I think is my best twist on this idea so far: a fight that he apparently started, but doesn't have any memory of, that went on to get him into a lot of trouble and eventually was what got him involved in the starting events the campaign. There's a couple people who he thinks might have been responsible for said trouble, including the guy who he got into the fight with (who now has an important family MacGuffin, so my character is going to go after him either way), but he's really not sure what happened.
This may or may not turn out to be a big deal in-game; likewise, the cleric's background hasn't come up yet in a significant way, but that's okay. There's already more than enough excitement going on in the game the cleric is in, and the point isn't so much to get the game to revolve around my character as to give the GM a few more options and ideas. Although it's certainly nice when a background does get used in a major way, it's not essential.
While it's too early to tell exactly how well this latest character will function in-game, he's the main reason I say I'm "getting better" at this character building business: I had more fun making this character than any I've made before, and put a lot more detail into it. Partly this is because I interlocked his background with Trollsmyth's character, and Trollsmyth writes ridiculously detailed character backgrounds, but mostly, I'm just getting better at the whole business of coming up with and picking out appropriate details, and, I think, connecting "things that have happened to my character" with "how my character acts," without tying myself down to boring or obnoxious behavior. Like most else in the hobby, it's a skill, and one I'm glad to finally be getting so much practice at.