I read this blog post recently. It discusses the fact no character is an island and that if you (as a player) give your character proper connections to the world, you'll have a better game. I strongly agree, and it got me thinking about my characters.
The first game I ever played was a Buffy game in which we were playing ourselves in a Buffy-verse version of our local area. This inevitably gave my character a connection to the world, and I learnt how much fun that can be. I was 16 or 17 and the friends I was playing with mostly in their mid-20's, so the GM had fun having my Dad phone me up because I was out too late, and problems sneaking me into the nightclub over our hellmouth (funny story, it was a real club and I ended up working there for several years. There was no hellmouth,
sadly fortunately). When I run my Buffy game, I'll be setting it in a smash up of my home town and my uni town, and if I end up with a campaign there, the nightclub will reappear much as it did in that first game.
One of the other players invited me into his ShadowRun game and talked me through making a character. I had a very distinct idea of Kamaya, a speedfreak adept from Canada. She moved down to Seattle after killing the men who'd got her brother hooked on BTL (better than life) chips - she'd sworn vengeance after he'd died and tracked them down on a train. Seattle was the last stop, so that's where she settled. She was half-Native American, half-Japanese and an elf (though her brother was human). Her family had been close until the decline and death of her brother, and her subsequent vengeance-quest. She idolised her brother; he taught her to fire a gun and use a whip and various other skills, and never babied her. She's got a faint scar across her nose from an accident with a whip, and a freckling of powder burn on one cheek from learning to shoot. I remember the GM being particularly impressed when I mentioned those details. I suspect his pride and praise were a huge part of why I like to make my characters detailed and real to me: that group of friends were surrogates for the elder brother I'd always wanted.
With that backstory, I had great fun trashing a load of BTL stuff we found somewhere that the others wanted to steal and sell. As a post for another time, there is a line between doing the thing your character would do and doing the right thing to keep the group together and the story moving forward. Trashing that stuff was minor enough it created an enjoyable roleplay moment without damaging party loyalties or real world friendships.
I'm finding it really hard, now, not to just talk about all my characters and their connections to their respective worlds as built into their backgrounds. Chrissie and her conflict with her parents. Kirri and her slaughtered tribe (a LARP character that led to a scene where somewhere played a repentent member of the group who killed her family and asked her to kill him and she couldn't and we were both actually in tears and it was amazing). My new character, Ragna, with her cult of ecstacy mormor and sleeper family back in Norway, making her actually a little lonely and often very lost in LA. Kella, whose home and family became so vividly real. Ursella, the halfling druid, may well be suffering sufficient wanderlust to have walked away from her home with no backwards glance - but she had a home, and in this setting such an act was very common among halflings. Kally Hopebringer, whose story ties her not just to the world but also to another PC. So many more. I think the only times I don't have some sort of connection to the world is when we're playing amnesiacs - and even then, I'll try and build something. It's the way I learnt to play.
As I'm currently playing her, I want to talk about Solomon in Deadlands. She had friends in the orphanage she grew up in and links there. The loss of her eye gives her another link, too: we created the characters using the deck of cards method and she drew 2 jokers, giving her night terrors and creepy shadows. I combined that up with the one-eye flaw, and decided she'd lost her eye in the same event that caused the other two problems. She thinks she was attacked by a puma, and the nightmares/shadows make her fear she's a were-puma. I've put it to the GM that maybe, actually, the puma was trying to defend her from something - that if it hadn't leapt at her when it did, she might be dead or... taken over somehow. That the shadows are actually the little bit of whatever it was that really attacked her that managed to get through despite the efforts of the puma-shaped creature. A connection to the world doesn't just have to be in people and places, but can also be events.
I think the time I went most overboard was Pathfinder. Our GM described the part of the world we were from (Brevoy) and asked us to design characters on that basis - including telling him where they came from. I had the idea that I (Svetlana) was from a small farming community (though my family brewed cider). This meant we were from the south of the country. I knew my human mother was young when she had me and never fell in love again, and my father was a powerful elf sorceror desiring a male heir (I love the idea that Svetlana has loads of half-sisters of varying ages, all with at least minor arcane talents - and no brothers). She had four friends she was particularly close with, and I had a pretty good idea about them and their reasons for not joining her on this adventure. As the game progressed, I fleshed out the community, eventually naming it 'Beacon' after the way it was founded (the seed of the story is in the history of the pub). I wrote about her father. I statted all four of her closest friends (Anya, Misha, Devin and Piotr). I've even starting drafting a novel based on the adventures of Devin's mum! And the GM has run with this, giving them their own lives and occasionally having them show up to hang out with Svetlana. (And with Pathfinder in mind, the whole Svetleski love story reminds me that connecting to the world doesn't end with character creation, but should continue through the game. But, to paraphrase the Emissary in our Exalted game, that's a post for another time.)
If you followed even some of the links, you may well have noticed that a lot of this is mutable: the secondary meaning of Solomon's puma attack was a later addition to the tale. The history of the pub belonging to Svetlana's extended family became the history of the entire settlement, with the pub becoming one of the oldest buildings. Chrissie's drift away from her parents became explained by their interest in material success and her rebellion against this; the drift became more angry. I don't think this is a bad thing; I think it can take a bit of time to settle into what you really mean with a character. When writing a novel, that's fine; you can go back later and edit. In a roleplay game, I think it's best to accept that, at least to begin with, the finer details of a backstory are butterflies: you may see the form, but until they're pinned down you can't be sure of them.
... I wonder if I can get some of my friends to do guest posts on this theme...