Roleplaying games are collaborative endeavors from start to finish. While a GM can plan a campaign or a session alone, ultimately he needs players to run through that story. The story doesn't just consist of the encounters GM sets up but also how the players resolve those encounters. Both the GM and the players are working together to tell an epic story that everyone can be a part of. The more collaborative the story telling experience, the more fun everyone has at the table.
I think that this type of collaboration has a place at character generation as well. Normally, in my group, character creation is a very individual process. A GM announces the type of game that he wants to run, details the setting, and lists criteria that he'd like the players to follow. Then the players go off on their own and write up a character in the way they think best. Almost all the inter-player discussion that happens revolves around balancing party mechanics and the interaction of abilities, spells, and the like. A couple of weeks later, we all sit down at the table, proudly placing our fine-tuned character sheets down only to be stopped dead by the dread question, "So how do your characters know each other?"
But cooperating with fellow players during character creation holds rewards beyond simple party balance. The opportunity we're missing here, is to incorporate elements of other PCs' backstories into the write up of our own PCs. Instead of a mad scramble to figure out how a motley crew of adventurers would immediately get along come the first session of a campaign, we could be hammering out backstory and working out the exact details of our characters' pasts with one another. What's more is that we're missing the opportunity to craft a deeper and more engaging story even before the adventure has begun.
I think ideally, the first session of every campaign should be character creation. We would all sit down at the table and work out what classes and races we wanted to play. Then we’d determine whether or not our characters had any sort of shared backstory then work out that backstory as needed. I think as an individual, the average roleplaying gamer has a strong sense of what he wants his character to be. So when two or more players work together to create a shared background for their characters, it can become a tricky little thought exercise to mesh two strong ideas of character together.
I think getting into the habit of having these thought exercises with your friends can be a fun way to foster creativity when coming up with PC backstory and motivations. After all, you can’t think of everything. And bouncing ideas off of one another can end up creating more compelling backgrounds than one player could have alone.
The other benefit from these exercises is that while working with another player in order to come up with a shared background is that you and your fellow player are investing the time and thought to become intimately familiar with your characters. You already know what they’ll do and how they’ll act in a given situation. The fact that you’ve spent so much time thinking about where these characters are from and what they’ve done together has given you a solid basis from which to build a compelling personality.
So go forth! Collaborate! Generate! Roleplay!