Starting from backstory
The last survivor of an alien race from a dead planet. A prince from an old kingdom attempting to restore himself to the throne. A doctor thrown into desperate conditions with others depending on him for leadership. Some characters are instantly recognizable from the abstract of their backstory, and others aren't. But it's often a good place to start when you're reading about a game's lore -- picking out bits and pieces that might make an interesting foundation for a character.
Obviously, you're not going to have a multi-page essay written out from just a snippet of backstory. That's fine. (It's actually even better than a multi-page essay, but we'll talk more about that when we go into backstory.) But from a couple of sentences you can extrapolate an awful lot about the character's personality and the skillset they would need to develop.
By way of example, we'll use the City of Heroes backstory and focus on an obvious premise: a now-adult character who was 13 when the Rikti invaded and who watched his father sacrifice his life against the attackers. It isn't hard to step from there into character who needs to live up to his father's legacy, someone who watched something massive change and wanted to be half the man his father was. That gives you a personality right from the get-go -- self-sacrificing, generous, and almost cloyingly protective in the hopes that he can emulate what he admired.
It also gives you a fair idea of what his abilities should look like. Considering his personality, he's a shoo-in for a tanking or healing build, someone who really tries to rally and keep others safe. Of course, he's also got to be a step down from his father in some way. Personally, I'd probably go with a Scrapper heavily set toward tanking -- never quite as good at protecting people as his dad. It's easy to see how all of it relates back to his personal history, and it all ties in to just a single sentence explaining him in the abstract.
Starting from abilities
Sometimes, the lore doesn't light you on fire, or it doesn't even compare to a cool ability that you know is in the game. That's when you turn toward taking a character and basing them off of their abilities. This can mean anything from basing your character around a single class to basing them around just one particular ability -- although the latter generally requires something less class-focused. You could theoretically build a character around Hammer of the Righteous, but that's a touch counterproductive.
Most every skillset has some sort of lore behind it. Even the most basic of classes has some sort of implied story -- a Rogue (or Thief, or Burglar, or other synonym) is clearly someone who tends to be sneaky and most likely has a bit of a liberal view of other people's property. And most abilities give some idea of what attitude would arise from having them. An invincible superhero isn't going to be afraid of much, for example, as very little can actually hurt him.
In Star Trek Online, I knew I wanted to create a Tactical officer that captained a Science ship. (Why? Because I like combining things that seem to contradict one another.) I didn't have any clear picture beyond that. The question to ask at that point was why one would go with the other? Clearly, the ship was engaged in some sort of research, but weapon research seemed too mundane and ill-suited to a science ship. The only logical conclusion was that the ship was doing research on bioweapons and military applications of same.
The concept gives a pretty clear spot in the lore for such a character -- Section 31, the wing of the Federation that deals with strictly un-Federation-like activities. That also gave a clear idea of what sort of person would be associated with such a project, someone with such loyalty to the Federation that the overall cause was more important than the method of achieving it. Once again, it's easy to see how both backstory and personality tie into the core concept. (I'm not being terribly subtle, I know.)
Starting from personality
The last point to start from is the one that usually requires the least knowledge about the game -- starting from outlook and demeanor. On the one hand, this is the easiest method if you want to figure out how the character will actually interact with others. On the other, however, it also gives you the dimmest picture about the character in every other aspect. Still, if you don't know enough about lore or abilities, the personality is a great place to start, especially as it's the most visible aspect of any individual.
You've probably noticed the recurring advice, and it's true here as well: personalities come from somewhere, and they lend themselves to certain skillsets. Someone with a quick sense of humor and a bookish history probably won't have abilities that require a great deal of physical exertion. Personalities are a bit more flexible, of course -- you can wind up with someone whose personality doesn't quite match the "expected" history or skills, like a holy knight with the aforementioned quick sense of humor. A nudge in the right direction for abilities or backstory can help a great deal here.
Let's turn to Guild Wars for now, where I know I want someone abrasive and visibly amoral. (I may be basing this character off of first-season Sawyer, but that's another column.) Right away, I know that I want him to be from Ascalon -- the Searing is the perfect incident to trigger a sudden burst of nastiness in anyone. That informs my choice of abilities to an extent as well, because of the structure of the game. Considering that he's going to be the sort of person who needs to survive on his own, there's an obvious suggestion of a Ranger.
However, I want to go at this a bit sideways, so I'm going to aim instead at Mesmer. (For those unfamiliar with the class, Mesmers are debuffers and status-inducers without much pure offense.) He's still someone outside of the norm, and there's a place for him to be amoral and nasty -- his country's been demolished, after all -- but there's also a good reason for him to wind up working with other people. Since most MMOs are going to kind of necessitate group activity, that's a good thing.
Summing it all up
There's a lot of ground to cover when you're creating a new character, but there are also obvious hooks within each aspect. And there's so much to cover that this only scratches the surface. Still, we're working at laying a groundwork here, so we're all on the same page.
Thanks for showing up for another installment. Next week, we're going to dive headfirst into the nuts and bolts of backstory and how to make it work for you instead of against you. As always, comments, questions, and suggestions will be read in both the comments and via mail to Eliot at Massively dot com.