If you're anything like me, you have a disparate gaming group when it comes to making up character backgrounds. Some write novels, others fall back on the one-sentence "_____ killed my ______" (common fill-ins for this include Orcs/Parents, Elves/Parents, Barbarians/Parents, and Raiders/Parents. Parents rarely make it to a child's 16th birthday in the dangerous worlds of RPGs).
My solution to this has been what I call the Page of Three. Basically, the Page of Three has the players list a few (3) basic things their character does well, does poorly, some beliefs held, some instinctual behavior they posses, and also has them list three emotional attachments for their character. This actually evolved from the Beliefs and Instincts portion of Burning Wheel (which is well worth checking out for some of its really innovative system ideas as much as anything).
The Page of Three is one simple page; it allows the creative players to be creative without handing in a ream of background notes, and it provides a basis for expansion as they do develop the character (on their own time). For players who detest background and just want to get to the adventuring, the "things you do well/poorly" portions give them some incentive to answer (as you know it'll come into play), and provides them at least with the framework of a background and character study.
I've found that this method gives me plenty of plot hooks, get us ready to game faster, and is a healthy compromise that is best done as sort of a fun pre-game brainstorming session.
I've made the Page of Three available as a free pdf download. If you're looking for something to get your players starting to think about character background without overwhelming them, try it out. It doesn't even have to be the stopping point for pre-game character background, but it can be a good place to start. Its always worked for me.