I'd like to share a brilliant idea I had that is a solution for a complex problem. Like many brilliant ideas, this won't seem completely revolutionary and has components of obvious thought. Its brilliance is in elegantly stating a goal to help us focus on solving the problem.
So the problem, simply stated, is to create characters that are tied into a D&D campaign so closely that they naturally determine the direction of the story and the adventures. The main corollary to this challenge is that the story is a good story and allows the DM to collaborate on the story with the players, rather than just present the setting and opportunities and sit back and watch. This is a sticky problem, as many brilliant DMs continue to grapple with this challenge. In fact, this all came to me while reading a blog post about his game problems and what he wants to do about it by the august Robert J. Schwalb: www.robertjschwalb.com/2010/09/one-campa...
The solution I propose is for the DM to present the players with the Problem Anchor. This is the essential problem for the game that the DM has in mind for his campaign. The DM would be wise to bounce the idea, tone, and other planned elements off of the players before settling on it, but that's the subject for another post.
The important thing is to eventually settle on a simple and vague campaign Problem, and the players will then create characters with that problem in mind. The simple and vague concept will be fleshed out and become more detailed as the characters are created, background are made, and adventures are undertaken. Here are some examples:
Dominion of the Dragon Lords (Actual campaign) - The dragonborn empire has enslaved the world, throwing down all opposing civilizations, and all of their grandeur has been lost to the mists of time. The players further chose to set their game in an urban setting, where each character has for various reasons just joined a fledgling underground rebellion against the local dragonborn king. The players design characters with backgrounds that motivate them to band together with like-minded rebels to throw off the yoke of oppression, and some of their backgrounds relate to each other, though it isn't required.
An example character is a barbarian human from the wild lands whose people have been raided and preyed upon by the Dragon Lords for ages. The character vows to travel into the lands of their enemies and not return until the Dragon Lords have been thrown down and their people can live in peace.
The Kingdom and the Faeries - "The Kingdom" is under a rulership that is confused and disputed. Fear and superstition run rampant throughout the kingdom, with many blaming evil faeries for their ills. Meanwhile, on the other side of the veil, the fey despair that their magic and realm are fading away. Some blame human destruction of nature, but others look to the humans as their only hope to prevent their gradual decline. The players can choose to have characters from either side of the veil, and will find their paths crossing in the course of the very first adventure as they weave their own fairy tale and try to save both of their worlds.
An example character is a woodcutter's daughter who stumbles across a faerie ceremony on midsummer's eve, inadvertently fulfilling a prophecy and suddenly pursued by the witches of winter for reasons she can't understand.
A New Darkness in Middle Earth - A hundred years have passed since the defeat of Sauron. Agents are at work throughout Middle Earth, using a new strange magic to revive and support old evils thought banished from the fair lands of Middle Earth. Elfs and other powers are appearing from out the west with mysterious purposes of their own. The players choose what sort of characters might be affected by or looking into the strange doings. Perhaps they are agents of the High King, sent to contact any newcomers from the west, or perhaps they are innocents from The Shire who are approached by an enigmatic stranger who needs some help on a mysterious quest.
An example character is the half elven son of the king, come to prove himself against the wishes of his friends and family and to try to discover more about the elven half of his ancestry.
Now, most campaigns have some sort of epic challenge that the players will eventually be drawn into by virtue of their having proven themselves on a bunch of lower level quests. The difference with this model is that there's no need for artificial transitions like this; the characters are involved with the story from the beginning. In fact, the players help to construct the story by virtue of which characters they choose to play and WHAT they want to do about the Problem Anchor. This will also tie the characters much more naturally to each other than having been the only PCs hanging out in that particular tavern at the time.