Writing A Character Biography
In my last blog, I examined how an outline helps the book writing process. In this blog, I will attempt to show how I define characters at this early stage. As an example, I created three characters loosely based on my fourth book outline. So, let’s begin in an incorrect way. The character biography for James is: American, 31 years old, 6’ 2” tall, brown curly hair, black shirt, thin, in great shape, walks tall and lives in a modest home. While this is a good sentence for a book, that isn’t what we are looking for. What we need is overall details and interaction with other characters. With that in mind, here are three basic character biographies:
Type: Strong, smart, middle-aged.
* James. Likes him, loans him money, wants to take their relationship further.
* Pincushion man. Avoids him, talks down to him.
Traits: Talks with a Russian accent, dresses well, likes good food.
Strengths: Has a great perception, art/music expert, a good business person.
Limitations: Can’t get over the loss of her husband, unknown health issue.
Background: Born Russia, grew up on a rural farm, has a summer house that James has been to.
Occupation: Buy/sell art and music.
Desires: Make more money, get control of Pincushion man shipping operation.
Type: Average guy, not too bright, middle-aged.
* Pincushion man. Taken prisoner by him, intimidated by him.
* Grace. Met at the bookstore, initially intimidated by her, now at a basic level of respect.
Traits: Has a low opinion of himself, always complaining.
Strengths: Street smart, a good writer, great at getting information out of people, easy to talk to.
Limitations: No money, terrible friends, bad X wife, not good with money.
Background: Lives Seattle in a small house, moved around a lot as a child.
Occupation: Best Buy.
Desires: Write a great book, make enough money to make it through the day.
Type: Greedy, driven, dominating, old.
* James. Wants to get secret from him, treats him as a servant.
* Grace. Does not understand her, cannot relate to her goals.
Traits: Addicted to acupuncture, cheep, appreciates art, arrogant, selfish.
Strengths: Great at organizing, can immediately spot weakness.
Limitations: In poor health, bad at business, cannot relate to others.
Background: Born a long time ago in China, unhealthy.
Occupation: Independently wealthy, shipping.
Desires: Gain as much power and land as possible.
At this stage, I did not have a name for the “pincushion man” character and I used this as a placeholder.
As you can see, there is an of detail lot missing, including their appearance. At this early outline stage, we are only concerned about the aspects that directly affect the plot. When the writing begins, the fine details will be created.
When creating a character, I like to start with somebody I know. This could be a fictional character or a real person. I then think about their traits and expand on them to fit the story. The key is to build a mental picture and then use the character biography as a reference.
A big part of the character is how they interact with each other. From the above example, it is clear that the characters aren’t friends, but they have commonalities. That particular type of interaction was dictated by the plot. Friendly characters would have more personal interactions and background. Such as, James is married to Grace’s brother, Pincushion man.
Not all characters need a detailed background. Let’s look at a more basic example.
Mother: Tara; Fun, open-minded, kind.
Father: Greg; Reserved, easy going, knows baseball.
Daughter: Sarah; Pretty, dresses well.
Relationships: They live next door to James.
Patrick: James friend from a baseball game
Julia Rogers: Graces helper
Mr. Crowley: Pincushion man’s butler
It is key to record short biographies like this. This keeps all the character names separate and shows the relationships between the characters. For example, it would be difficult for the reader if the father Greg Smith was named James Smith. Readers might think: Main character James is married and has a daughter Sarah? When did that happen?
Now that we have established the character biographies we can see how they interact with the plot outline. At this stage, plot experiments can be conducted and major changes can be made. For example, a character can change gender, occupation or their background. This allows for a targeted character that fully compliments the plot.
Now that we have the character biography’s, we can begin writing. When it comes time to introduce “pincushion man,” we have the foundation and can give him a proper name. As the book progresses, character additions are made. For example, James needs to have next door neighbors. The author then creates the Smith Family. A quick biography addition is made with their background.
At the end of the book, all the characters should be captured in this biography. A quick check will show that all the names are distinct and the interactions make sense. It will also help in the editing process to keep things straight.
Overall, a character biography does take a small amount of time to create, but it is a key development tool. It makes the writing and outline process a lot easier. This allows the writer to focus on creating a great story that flows from one character to the next. I have had great luck with this technique and I plan to make better use of it in the future.
You’re the best -Bill
December 20, 2018
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