Everyone needs a background, even if it's wrong.
Backstories are not homework!Mandatory character backstories are not homework, and they shouldn't feel like it. Sometimes, when you're starting a new campaign or introducing a new player to your campaign, you want them to be fleshed out some. For a lot of players this feels like it's homework. This can especially be true of new players.
I'm not going to go into the types of players. It seems that every few years someone comes out with a new set of humorous descriptions for the various kinds of players. They dive into the gaming psychology and come up with a list of the five or seven or three kinds of players. To me, those are sort of like astrological signs. Some people believe they are really important to understanding people, and some people think they're stupid.
Some GMs are offended by the one line backgrounds that some players are so fond of. "Parents dead, no siblings, loner with no connections. Likes beer." Sometimes I get it. It's the mid-week game, mainly we're at the table to unwind, throw dice, kill monsters and rummage through their pockets for loose change. The player has made the effort to write up the character, and depending on your chosen game engine that might have been a major undertaking. So it's okay to let them slack off on the background, because.....
Your character history is what you know about your past. True or not!
You have a lot of options with those players who issue a one line background for their character. They have a rich past you can insert anything you want (within reason) into. Those players who gave you a novella for their character background have taken great care to provide you with plot hooks and opportunities. So did the players who gave you a single sentence, they just didn't realize it.
If you have a player that gave you the a background like the parents dead example I gave above might have a good reason. Perhaps in previous games they've been burned by the GM killing off all the people they love off screen or worse right in front of them using bad GMing techniques to prevent the hero from saving them. So accept whatever background a player gives you, because you can always change it!
Players who love story tend to also enjoy twists. Especially twists they later realize they were he seed of. I ran a super hero game years ago for a group of people who were not comic book buffs. They had a very limited knowledge of comics and super heroes, but they knew they wanted to try the genre. Well into the campaign another player joined the group. This person had an extensive knowledge of comic books and worked with me to help develop their background so that it would seamlessly mesh into the game setting.
The character they played was a psychic, and on a number of occasions in role play scenes with other characters she commented on how she never feels like she fits in, like she's living in the wrong time. It was partly that the player was new and so they had not developed a groove with the other players. Partly it was from her backstory, orphan who was in the care of a foster parent (also super powered) and never felt like anywhere was home.
About a year into the characters time with the group little bits of information started to surface that led the group to think they had found the characters birth mother. A super hero that had fought in WWII with the allies. This led to a lot of excitement and investigation and was a side plot that eventually ended up being a main story arc when the team traveled back in time to save one of the NPCs from being stranded. They discovered that the young hero they thought was the character's mother turned out to actually be the character. They had to go back to their own time before they could get to the bottom of it, but eventually they found out that the hero had volunteered to be frozen as a precaution to there not being any more super powered people being born.
The player's comments about never feeling like they fit in and maybe living in the wrong time ended up in my notebook, and inspired the story. The player was excited, and then shocked, and then more shocked when they realized they had given me the idea.
Players write the best adventures.So, even if they only give you a single sentence, you can fill in the gaps or make note of the things they say. Introduce old friends or former lovers, or their real parents. Just because they wrote you a short background doesn't mean they don't want to have an interesting back story.
What was something you did as a GM to take a character backstory into an exciting direction that worked out, or even that didn't? Let us know in the comments down below.