Thank you to Steve "Slurms" Lichtsinn over at Multiplaying for letting me guest post on their blog. Here is the article I wrote, with minor modifications:
So, you just started your new character in World of Warcraft (or one of those other, lesser, MMORPGs ;) ). You immediately get a quest or mission or whatever they call it in this game, go kill/collect/deliver whatever or whoever and report back. So off you go, continuing through quests and increasing in experience/level/skill. How exciting! But you may come to the point where you ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?" I don't mean playing the game, hopefully you're doing that because it's fun. More like, "Why would my character agree to accomplish this task for someone?" As actors of the Method school might say, "What is my motivation?"
A Motivational Speech
This is when the "Role-Playing" in MMORPG becomes important. I am not talking about sitting around Cantrips and Crows in Dalaran or The Prancing Pony in Bree and saying "thee, thou, and forsooth." Though if that's your thing, more power to you; I am glad you enjoy it. I don't generally do much of that in my own game play. What I am talking about is increasing the depth of your character. In real life, we make decisions every day based on our values--how we were brought up--and current circumstances and necessities. You may work because you need the money, and that is an excellent motivation in-game and in RL. But I bet you chose how you earn your RL money based on a completely different set of not-primarily-financial reasons. By the same token, your character may take a quest for the money, but why is your character a rogue, or a barbarian, or a science officer? You have a background, does your avatar?
Most of the characters I create for the MMORPGs that I play have some sort of backstory, even if it is only in my own imagination. I think of them as having come from somewhere. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what to name them. In World of Warcraft, this is complicated by the need to have a unique name. Having a good name, and not just some random Elvish or Caldari sounding mix of letters, is vital to the background of your avatar. Of course, that random jumble may be a good jumping off point. My first Bridge Officer, Tarah, in Star Trek Online still has her original random name as a "short name," though I did a little research and developed a full (though non-canon) Andorian name for her as part of her background. Her captain, Rowan Starblanket, has a middle name culled from an online Vulcan dictionary.
You'll probably want to know where your character is from in the game world. This can lead to other motivations based on the history of their homeland or homeworld. My twins in WoW, Rowanblaze and Hollyhammer, lost their home and family to an Orc incursion in the Redridge Mountains, and their upbringing in the shadow of the Cathedral of Light as orphans plays into their classes (priest and paladin) and their talent specializations. In EVE online, to have an Amarrian character means a natural inclination toward a certain set of religious values, perhaps even fanaticism. Or your character may rebel against that background and be a heretic. Gallentes would be perhaps more mercenary or at least mercantile in their outlook on life.
As your characters progress through the game, the tasks they complete and places they go become part of the background of the character. Different locales and situations have a greater or lesser impact on their motivations. These things don't even have to occur in-game. My aforementioned paladin, Hollyhammer, spent time with the the Scarlet Crusade before recognizing the fanatic cult for what it was, and escaping. Of course, in-game it is not really possible to join the Scarlet Crusade. But Holly's mildly fanatical attitude made that a logical thing to include in her story.
Your character doesn't have to have your own personality. You may be Mother Teresa in real life, but your avatar is a nefarious assassin, or a brutal warrior. The opposite may also be true. I would not surprised, however, if your toons are a reflection of you to some degree. Now you may want to to write down an elaborate summary of your character's life so far. You may even end up writing stories about your character's adventures. Or you may want to just have it in the back of your mind as you play. Either way, I would guess your avatar will become more of a living, breathing character instead of just pixels on the screen.
Oh, and READ the mission/quest/task before accepting it. Otherwise killing those Kobolds or Tusken Raiders serves no real purpose, and you might as well be playing Street Fighter.