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How to assemble a character history for your roleplaying character

Anne Stickney

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In World of Warcraft, that player is you! Each week, Anne Stickney brings you All the World's a Stage with helpful hints, tips and tricks on the art of roleplay in WoW.

Last week, we talked about roleplaying descriptions for characters and what should be considered a descriptor for your character. Along the way, I also mentioned that a lot of people make the common assumption that a character's history should be a part of their description as well. After all, part of what makes up a person is everything that's happened to them, right? Sure! But not when we're using roleplaying addons that have a clearly defined spot for character history.

And that clarification is important, because there are still roleplay addons out there that don't have a character history tab at all. Does this mean you should type up your character's history as part of your description? Absolutely not. Descriptions are for descriptions, and history is for history. If your roleplay addon doesn't allow for a character history tab but you're really gung-ho about writing up that history for everyone to read, I'd suggest finding a roleplay addon that has a spot for all that backstory you're dying to tell.

Except for one thing -- you don't want to tell everyone everything.

Writing a successful character history

There are a few things that are absolutely essential to writing a great character history.
  • Length Keep it short. I am absolutely serious about this. While yes, it is really fun to share all that wonderful prose you've written about your character's life, not everyone wants to read it. And the longer that description is, the less likely it is that people are going to do so. If you keep it short and succinct, with just enough to capture someone's interest, you've done your job.
  • Legibility It may not seem like a video game is some place where you'd want to use a spell-checker, but you'd be surprised. If your character's history is written completely in internet shorthand, other roleplayers will have to spend time deciphering just what exactly it is you're trying to say. And if they have to spend too long on that, they will give up before they figure it out.
  • Lying low If your character has a deep, dark secret, blurting it out in the opening line of your character history wouldn't really be much of a secret, would it? Don't give away everything there is to know about your character in your character history -- all that does is tell other roleplayers everything there is to know about you. And if they know everything, why would they feel the need to say hello?
The purpose of writing a character history in your roleplay profile is to engage other roleplayers, to make them wonder about your character, to give them a reason to interact with you. My rule of thumb with character histories is that you only want to write material that another character could easily figure out, the sort of things you'd find in a census. If your character has a dark past, you can certainly allude to that, but I'd avoid spelling it all out.

Character descriptions and histories can work really well hand in hand with each other. If you've got a dwarf, their history can include where they were born, where they grew up, possibly who their parents were, if they had any schooling, where they went to school -- general information about that character's life. But say that dwarf is harboring some sort of dark past. Maybe they were secretly working for the Dark Iron dwarves at one point in time or another. How do you put that in a character history without giving it away?

Mention that they were mysteriously absent for a few years, with no explanation. On your character description, add in an item that tips toward the Dark Iron dwarves -- a piece of jewelry, or an item of clothing, or even an obscured tattoo. You don't have to spell these things out for other roleplayers; you can simply set the clues there for them to put together at their whim or investigate further if they're curious.

Points to avoid

Keep in mind, this is not the be-all, end-all guide to what should and should not be in a character history, nor is it an attempt to tell you how to play your game. Roleplaying is an exercise in cooperative creativity, a game where creativity is encouraged and, above all, a social activity. You can certainly roleplay anything you want, and you can certainly write anything you want. However, if you're including any of the points below, you may be alienating others -- and that's going to cut down on how much roleplay you actually get to do. Roleplay what you like, but be warned -- the following items may limit your roleplay rather than letting it flourish.
  • Inappropriate language We discussed this last week with character descriptions, and the same applies to character history as well. ERP, or erotic roleplay, is one of those quiet facts of life on roleplaying servers. However, there are those who enjoy flaunting that aspect of their roleplay through roleplaying addons. As I said last week, there is no guarantee that the person reading your addon is of an appropriate age for that material. If you wouldn't want your younger sibling or child to be reading that type of material, keep it out of your character history.
  • Impossible characters So you really, really like the idea of faeries, or catgirls, or anime characters that have suddenly found themselves transported to Azeroth, or zhevra/troll hybrids, or any other assortment of thing not normally seen in Azeroth. Look, if you really want to roleplay that kind of character, nobody is stopping you. However, it becomes less and less likely you will find anyone willing to roleplay with you if you are one of these strange, assorted things that do not exist in Azeroth. Roleplay it if you like, but you will be limiting yourself severely by doing so.
  • Lore breaking Want to be Thrall's secret night elf companion? The long lost love child of Illidan and Tyrande? Rhonin's identical and far more powerful twin? Here's the problem with that: You don't exist. There is no such character in Warcraft lore. What about a Gilnean worgen that is 6,000 years old? That's right out, too -- Gilneas wasn't even around back then. The undiscovered new Guardian of Tirisfal? Nope, sorry, that's Med'an, and he was introduced in the Warcraft comics series. While the thought of somehow folding your character into official Warcraft lore is a tempting one, the problem with that is that the lore has already been established. Again, you are free to write this out and roleplay that kind of character if you want to, but most roleplayers are also fans of the lore in one way or another, and they'll avoid roleplaying with you if you're breaking the lore.
When you're writing a character history, you want to keep your facts straight, and you want to make sure your character plausibly fits in the context of the Warcraft world. If that character doesn't fit or if there's something really outlandish or bizarre about your character's history, other roleplayers will invariably notice, and they may not choose to roleplay with you at all. Roleplay is no fun if it's a solo activity!

Resources for character development

We've written a ton of posts on character development here, and there are other resources out there as well, of course.
  • Wowpedia If you're looking for a brief history of your character's race, Wowpedia is pretty succinct (and pretty accurate, too). It also works if you're looking for the names of various locations your character may have been at one point in time or another in their lives or organizations that they may have been involved with.
  • Time lines There are a series of articles on racial time lines that you can use to help you pinpoint lifespans and where your character may have been in their lives. You can find them here.
  • Plot points If you're looking for more current history to refer to, rather than the distant past, check out this series of plot points for the various races of Azeroth.

This history is history!

What if you don't want to write your character's history at all? That's perfectly fine -- honestly, the majority of my characters have absolutely nothing in their history tab. It's not that I don't enjoy writing it out; it's that my characters are all selective enough about their pasts that it is highly unlikely anyone would know anything about them at all. That said, putting in a character history for the whole world to see seems slightly counterproductive to me, so I simply don't do it.

In general, character descriptions are by and large appreciated by the roleplaying public, because they'd like to know if there's anything to your character beyond what they see on the character model. Character history is like dessert -- it's nice to have around, but you don't really need it to enjoy your meal. If you don't want to include it, you really don't have to.

Character histories are a good way for other players to get to know a little more about your character and to draw their interest and, potentially, their roleplay. But when you're writing those descriptions, keep people's attention spans in mind and don't reveal more than you'd like people to know about. And remember, whether reading or writing a character's history, that history is out-of-character information. What you read out of character isn't what your character knows -- it's what you know.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. Let us help you imagine what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying or even RP on a non-RP realm!

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