Backstory for a character is an aspect of Tabletop RPGs that is often misrepresented as one of the weirder/dorkier elements. Though it can be very detailed, it is also a staple of the game, so much so that companies have actually created full guides or generators to help players create a cohesive story.
However, many people disagree with the necessity of the backstory. They see a detailed backstory as frivolous. Essentially, many GMs don’t care where your character is from as long as they are motivated to the adventure and stick to the campaign. That’s their prerogative, so fine, let them run the game the way they want, but I personally feel this approach to a key aspect of character creation comes from a vast misunderstanding of the importance of backstory.
A backstory on the surface does seem a bit frivolous, sure. It’s a series of details about a fictional character that players will never see or experience, and some players may not even know all the details of a certain player’s story. And it’s true some people put a TON of time into the history of their character. A friend I play with regularly is known to build pages upon pages of backstory for his characters. This can definitely create issues when you write this much detailed lore around one individual just to have them be killed just after reaching 2nd level (which is the most recent example of this individual, you know who you are). A lot of GMs use this as a reason to say “screw backstory, just make a character and let’s get rolling.”
So why have a backstory? Well, some might say that it adds depth to the character as a narrative tool, like in a novel or comic series. This is true, but that relies on the idea that an individual will dump ample time into the backstory and that others will get all the details of this history. Others might say it makes the player feel closer to the character, and indeed it can, but this is easily countered by the above example, making backstory seem like a useless waste of effort.
Backstory’s importance to the game honestly falls into one simple idea: roleplaying. Backstories should be used to act as guidelines for the motivations, challenges, choices, offenses, fears, etc. of your character. A droid that has been gifted free-will after years of reprogramming might be super against mistreatment of droids or might go out of his way to rescue even the simplest of automatons. A Ranger whose family was tormented by Ogres might have an uncontrollable phobia of ogres and ogrekin. A witch who lived with an alcohol dependency before getting sober might be angsty when the party spends all night in a tavern. These details enrich the play of the game on a social, interactive level. So yes, they make you as a player closer to your character, but more in the sense that you can bond with them on a mental/emotional level a little easier by looking at what kind of shit they had to go through to get where they are.
One thing to note is that this does rely on your GM promoting an atmosphere of roleplaying over rollplaying. Rollplaying games tend to focus more on mechanics and less on character/narrative. People rarely get in or stay in character, decisions and conversations are less narrative and more formulaic. This isn’t a WRONG way to play, it just does eliminate the need for as deep of an understanding of your character. However, even in a game that takes a more extrinsic view, it can be helpful to have a more solid understanding of how the character would react to the world around them. Figure out how your GM feels about backstory (and then write one even if they say no, because bump that noise).
Ultimately, I feel backstory cannot and should not be omitted from gameplay. However, the amount of time you want to pour into this is entirely up to you. For me, I typically just spend a bit of time at character creation thinking of my story. Get the details known to me, maybe jot some quick short hand. I rarely ever write paragraphs of backstory (mainly because I’m a lazy bastard). Some people, like my friend and his now murdered Oracle, prefer to write pages of story. It’s entirely up to you. If you’re having trouble getting a cohesive story, work with you GM or check out one of the various backstory guides online or in book form (I HIGHLY recommend the Ultimate Campaign Guide for Pathfinder players). Worst case scenario, your character’s backstory can be that they are an adventure hungry adrenaline junkie. That in itself will provide plenty of motivations and fears for your character, even it seems like the most basic RPG. Never count out any backstory as being too much or too little. Because their effect on your ability to play your character is all that really matters.
(sorry for the tiny gif at the top. Seriously felt like the most appropriate for this post. HERE’S the clip it is from. Enjoy.)