Complexity is the thing. It's not about the specific backstory elements, but rather about how they interact and effect each other. Each such element is merely a sort of network node, and it's the network structure that makes the character, not the nodes.
A lot of writers (especially amateur & fanfic) treat backstory elements like the one's discussed above as the building blocks of character development. Like a child's alphabet blocks, they think if you just stack the right ones in the right order it adds up to something good/interesting. This is false.
If you want to write a good character, stop thinking in terms what they are or what they did or what happened to them, instead think in terms of how their thinking patterns and perceptions have been effected by these things throughout their life, and all the different ways these different lines and splashes of perception, reaction, bias, belief, emotion, etc all interact with each other. Don't think of it as a static system either: think of it as an energetic soup where every little meme is constantly moving, bouncing off others, recombining, shattering, mutating etc as they collide in different circumstances throughout the character's backstory AND during the story at hand. This Brownian motion of psychological causality is what makes a complex, lifelike, and interesting character.
Once you start thinking about the interactions instead of the events themselves, the events become somewhat interchangeable. You think of the network structure you want first, then work out what nodes you need where to create that shape.
This is not quite the same as imagining a persona, then isolating distinct rationalizations for it's parts. Again: complexity is what makes it real. You want subnets of causality and interaction that are layers deep and laterally inter- and extra-connected, never just a single direct 1/1 cause/effect relationship. 1/1 trait/cause relationships are nodes, not subnets.
As a corollary, your character doesn't necessarily need "interesting" nodes in their network for the network (and thus the character) to be interesting. Bad guy's a misogynist? A bias towards bitter reflection + bad romantic history + tendency to blame others for own failures + bases too much of his personal identity on his "manliness"... or was simply "abused by his mum". That's a four node subnet, each "mundane" node with it's own implied subnet below it, vs. one "interesting" node with nothing below it. Furthermore each of those nodes and subnets have their own respective broad effects in other situations (and subnets) unrelated to the misogyny node, helping him appear coherently complex instead of just a shallow grab bag of traits, and which also help you as a writer determine his actions/reactions and dialog in different circumstances. This is why flashy OTT traits like the one's people list above tend to come off as cheap, shallow, or trying too hard.
Which is not to say you can't add flashy traits, just that you have be relatively parsimonious in their use, and not use them as a crutch to avoid developing a fully complex network.
If that all sounds complicated and a lot of work, well, yeah. Real people are that complicated, so if you want your character to feel real, then you gotta make 'em complicated. There are no tricks, no shortcuts. Bad characters are always the result of someone in some way avoiding that work, either out of ignorance or laziness or both. Always.
Last edited by connectamabob; 12-04-2012 at 12:33 AM.
Exactly what Conectamabob said. Cliches exist, but the trick is to make them complex, how those events affect your character and drive their personality, their reasons. I admit, I have some of those in the list.
Scar from a young incident.
My main toon, Stunshock, went off as part of a Rite Of Age, where he went into the wilderness to skin some wild animals that are feroucious. This is something all children of his species goes through to enter adulthood. A week later, he comes back with his animal skins and scars on his cheek, from where the animals clawed him. But, during the Rite, he hallucinated that he had a greater calling. It was something he never forgot, and the scars were a constant reminder through his young adult life, ultimately lead to him selling his farm and joining Starfleet.
I also have an emotional Vulcan, caused by 'the sole survivor of (x)', in this case, a shuttle crash. Her mother shielded her from teh crash, which is why she was the only one left. This was when she was barely a baby. With only the ship's computer for company, she didn't go through any of the traditional training, but found the books and the films The Lord Of The Rings in the computer databanks, and became entranced by the Elves, partly due to their similarity to Vulcans. So she named herself after her favourite character, Arwen.
My Klingon is a xenophobe, as he hates all the new species that are in the Empire, and one time a Gorn officer ignored orders and nearly got the whole team killed. That leads to interesting actions among his crew, as he clearly favours the Klingon officers on his ship.
The trick isn't to avoid things that regularly happen, but ask how do these events influence who your character is. That is how you make a rich character.
Something I have noted happened a lot in bios as well. The Captain and the First Officer are a couple.
A Romulan Strike Team, Missing Farmers and an ancient base on a Klingon Border world. But what connects them? Find out in my First Foundary mission: 'The Jeroan Farmer Escapade'
Fed toon is an Andorian female named Statokjajok, or Stat for short. Joined Starfleet because she felt aimless in her youth, and was disinterested in the family business. Became a sci specialist, fell in love with a human while assigned to Jupiter station as a lab tech. Was ostricised/disowned by her family for this (in my headcanon, Andorians are warlike because family unit loyalty outranks societal loyalty to a borderline anarchic degree, and they more or less mate for life, so falling in love with someone she can't biologically have kids with is seen similarly to the way being gay is seen is some parts of the US). Scarred by this, she became jaded and distant from others, with the side effect of developing wanderlust and an apathy towards her cog-in-the-machine role as a lab tech. She changed focus and sought shipboard assignment, eventually working her way up to command, doing border world surveys and study in the wake of explorer ships. When Section 31 approached her, she agreed to be recruited as a kind of mobile listening post, providing them with border intel ahead of Starfleet. Her human mate now works on a starbase in the Regulus sector block. They don't see each other as often as they'd like, but they keep in touch via subspace and holo comm whenever possible. She knows humans' pair bonding instincts are more fluid than Andorians', and this causes her some insecurity. He fully does love her, and she knows, but she can never entirely let go of her doubts that he might someday fall out of love and leave, while she herself never will.
KDF toon is a female Klingon named Vas. She was a criminal street rat, born to no notable house. Was conscripted as part of an urban renewal police sweep. Performed well as a soldier, and made it into the KDF spec-ops infantry units- the KDF equivelent of Spetznaz or whatnot. Performed well there too, eventually making platoon leader. Ended up receiving a freak battlefield promotion to command the BOB transporting her unit during the Gorn invasion war. In the chaos, it took months for the high command to notice, by which time she'd built a power base by grooming members of her platoon to "accidentally" take ship commands of their own. That stopped once they were aware of her. They let her keep her command, but took measures to prevent further promotion. She is regarded by most in the high command as an unpredictable psychopath, with a tactlessness that should make her politically suicidal (all these by Klingon standards, no less), but her aptitude as a spec-ops commander has created intense loyalty in those under her. High command tries to keep her on a very tight leash, fearing she'll either pull a Kruge and go squirreling off on potentially disastrous missions of her own devising, or start plotting some way of breaking or working around her rank cap, but as long as the war with the feds is still hot, she's too valuable as a surgical strike asset to just outright get rid of. Every time they send her and her "sons" out on a mission, they secretly hope she won't make it back.
Parents/sibling(s)/lover killed in front of him/her
Not far from the truth, at least for those people who bother to fill in a character biography.
As for mine;
Federation Toon: Name: Heyerdahl Stark Species: Andorian Gender: Male Birth Location: Ocelot National Park, City of Quarth, Southern Hemisphere Birth Planet: Epsilon Indi IV Current Age: 31
Born on the Andorian colony of Epsilon Indi IV in the Federation year 2382. Stark joined the cadet ranks of the Andorian Imperial Guard once turned nineteen years of age. Here he spent almost six years training as a support engineer for various Imperial Warships and Cruisers.
Come 2407, feeling jaded with his position, Stark resigned from the Imperial Guard and applied to Starfleet Academy with the intention of learning more about the internal workings of starship operations and knowing that such a career would also work out an expedition into the stars; something of which was lacked within the Imperial Guard which acted more as a homefront.
Having enrolled at Starfleet Academy and surpassing his engineering career exam expectations, Stark's big break would come later that year following a Borg attack on Vega Colony. Stark was one of several officers who helped support key stations onboard the USS Khitomer when defending against a Borg boarding party.
Such notice would later be brought to the attention of Admiral Quinn, who, at the suggestion of Starks' superiors, granted Stark a command of his own; the first of which was the starship Spectre. Since that time, Stark has become a commendable officer within the fleet, currently commanding one of Starfleets fine Assault Cruisers.
And my Klingon Toon: Name: Bra'tac, Son of Ronac Species: Klingon Gender: Male Birth Location: Voodieh Suburbs, G'Kar City, 4th Continent Birth Planet: Mempa IV Current Age: 35
A proud warrior from a distinguished house within the Empire.
Born on Mempa IV, Bra'tac joined the Imperial Forces around 2340 following the footsteps of his father and elder brother; the latter of who holds position on the Ty Go Kor Defence Platform orbiting Qo'nos. Ronac, the father of Bra'tac lost his life during a failed assault on Cardassian-Dominion shipyards orbiting Monac IV during the Federation-Dominion War.
Since joining the Empire, Bra'tac has risen through the ranks with admiration, and has become both a respected and valiant warrior. Although proud, honourable and loyal to the foundation of the Empire, Bra'tac is weary of J'mpok and his war with the Federation; especially when other threats from the Tholian Assembly, Borg Collective and Undine exist, not to mention the rumoured looming threat of the Iconian.
Presently, Bra'tac and his crew patrol the Klingon borders, often exchanging fire with Cardassian and Tholian vessels which stray too far into restricted zones. Due to the respect Bra'tac has for the Federation as a society, stray Starfleet vessels are often given a verbal warning before more hostile measures are taken to extradite the unwelcome visitors; other intruders ultimately being met with weapons fire and no verbal communication at all.
I would say that you should avoid anything that makes your character seem too good. For example my primary character graduated in the middle third of her class. She's a good small ship captain, so, she doesn't fly the big cruisers, regardless of their advantages. I say this, not because I think this is the best thing ever written, but, because it shows what use you can make out of limits as opposed to strengths.
I think far too many try to make their character extra special by using the examples already mentioned, and not enough try to make their character special through their limitations. Reg Barclay is a great example of a superb character who had numerous character flaws, yet, he was a good officer, and a fabulous character.
If you want to have an emotional Vulcan, you could make this someone whose kin were thought lost during S'task's exodus (which is where the Rihannsu come from). Many ships were lost during that event, and the crews and passengers on those ships were presumed lost. Why could you not come from a small splinter group of those folk; recently discovered by Starfleet and attempting to reconnect with their Vulcan cousins?
For a Klingon in Federation service, you don't have to be related to Worf, you can be among a group of Klingons living in the Federation who chose not to go home. They liked it here.
My point with these examples is not that they are new, it is that you can use a great many ideas that are really simplejust don't overdo what you are doing. Make your bio make sense. Take the time to develop your idea, and don't be afraid to rewrite it!
It's important to note, though, that any one of these by itself is a perfectly fine backstory that offers some interest and possible future storylines (Worf being a sole survivor of a disaster, Data being the only one of his kind [until story happened a little later]). What you want to avoid isn't necessarily overused backstory elements, but having too many overused backstory elements.
That is a very good point, that thought didn't occur to me.