July 23, 2009

Character Bio's: Why and How

It's important as a fiction writer to know your characters. Giving your characters in-depth backgrounds, goals, and features and keeping all of those things consistent provides believable people for your story.
Not only should you know your characters, you should know them better than your reader. How do you get to know them well? By writing answering questions about them for yourself. Whether you commit them to memory or miniature character biographies is up to you. Benefits?
  • Helps writing a character's actions and reactions come faster and more natural
  • Well rounded, interesting, and deep characters engage readers and are more believable than two-dimensional, shallow, cardboard cut-outs
  • A Bio/dossier gives you a complete picture of who they are so that, with this in mind, you can take them on a journey that hopefully helps them grow
Most writers can create good characters off the cuff but is that character vivid in their minds? Can the writer instantly judge how they would act or react in a given situation or intimately understand where they are and where they're going? Most likely not.

If you really DO have a vivid idea of what your character is like then a character bio is a sure way to keep it consistent as the story progresses, or as a reference to revisit later.

Your biographies are mainly for the purpose of developing complex, three-dimensional characters. And so the "how" of the three dimensional character bio is based on Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing's three dimensions of Physiological, Sociological, and Psychological (i.e. physical, environmental, mental/emotional). Each plays an important part in who the character is. I'll give you his take character bio's first, then mine.

Egri's handy-dandy checklist:
  1. Physiological (physical) - height, weight, age, sex, body color (eyes, hair, skin), age, sex, race, health, equipment, clothing style. Beautiful or ugly, short or tall, fat or skinny, etc. Identifying features.
  2. Sociological (environmental) - social class, place they grew up, education, groups they were a part of, how they interact with people, pet peeves, childhood (values taught, scarring, different places they visited, fond or haunting memories), parents' attitudes. Lots of friends or few friends in the past, introverted or extroverted, assertive or passive, bullied or bully, or neither. Past experiences, organizations, and people that have affected them. Write their resume.
  3. Psychological (mental/emotional) - The true make-up of a character and each point affects strongly how your character interacts)--Fears. Guilts. Wants and Goals. Aptitudes. Special abilities. Talents. Habits. Irritability.  (possibly) Mental illnesses. How they view themselves. Favorite phrases and words. Reasoning and Beliefs. Who are they?
My take on Character Bio's:
  1.  Mental (because it's the most important). First off, hate and love. If a character hates/hated something/someone, or loves/loved something/someone, these are defining points of their psyche and approach to life. Second off, defining characteristics, i.e. how would their friends describe them? If they're known for being stoic, belligerent, poetic, pragmatic, whatever, if it stands out I make a note of this mentally and/or on paper. Thirdly and secondary to the first two: anything else that could drive them. This includes their fears, guilts, goals, habits, and talents, and should just as closely tied into their past as their hates, loves, and defining characteristics. 
  2. A little background (where they were). Past events, upbringing, groups they've been a part of, these things all add interest, depth, and believability to a character.
  3. Where they are and where they're going. This falls in line with plotting. But knowing their emotional/mental state at the moment and where you want to take this character and what you want to do with them GREATLY adds to the continuity and depth of both the character and the story.
  4. Appearance. I list this last because it's the least important. If readers wanted an exact description of everyone and everything...they'd watch a movie. Written stories provide us an entrance into a character's mind and a depth of insight into a scene and story that cannot be done with dialogue and scenery alone. While it's important to know a general sense of what your characters look like, unless it's integral to a scene or the character's personality, past, or present situation, it doesn't really matter. I make sure to know some of the things from Egri's checklist, but leaving something to the imagination is a positive, not a negative.

    I'll give you a little example. Once upon a time I was having a bunch of friends beta read several scenes of mine and give me their thoughts. I forget what led me to do this (maybe a piece of scenery one didn't like) but I asked them to describe in their own words how they pictured the inside of this prison block on a spaceship, as well as the halls of the ship itself. Then I asked them to describe the main character. You know what happened? Each of the responses was slightly, if not wildly different, and made me realize both what I needed to add to the scene and what the human imagination is capable of completely making up on its own.
Something I left out of my take on Bio's, but just as important to character development:
Whatever defining traits you give a character (especially a main one!) should be exaggerated. Even less defining traits shown more strongly in a situation help make a scene more interesting. An angrier, more stoic, more belligerent, more paranoid, more giving, or more (insert adjective here) character can and will be much more interesting to read in action than a moderate perpetrator of the same trait. The opposite of "exaggerated" in character development is bland. While a bit of background and realism can prevent these exaggerated traits from coming across as cheesy or cliche, cheesy is better than bland.

An effective (and easy) way to give characters depth is to make them emotional firestorms. Deeply troubled, deeply idealistic, deeply wounded and lacking inside (which consequently leads them to a deep addiction to a substance). An extremely effective way to push two-dimensional secondary characters into the three-dimensional range. This makes them more interesting right off the bat and communicates without a doubt who they are.

In conclusion:

A well developed character can drive an entire scene, even an entire story. A character's wants and desires spur action, drive the characters, and sometimes even drive a scene or story. People pursue what they want. If you set three different characters in a room and give them each their own unique desires and goals for that interaction, you can quickly begin to work out how it might turn into an interesting scene. Real people want things and take action to obtain them. They don't just float through life reacting to the bad things that happen to them, though conflict is important for an engaging plot as I talk about in the beginning of this article.

Writing, or even thinking about, a character bio can help you flesh them out and produce a more vivid character, scene, and even story.

Thanks for reading :D Liked what you read? Follow The Writing Tools or try checking out the popular posts linked to at the top of the side bar. For a related topic on character types, try One, Two, and Three Dimensional Characters and How to Use Them


Bella Dove said...

Wow! Amazing tips you have provided about writing bio, I am looking for biography writing services do you provide these services?

Taylor said...

A corporate biography includes only what is relevant, and discards unnecessary information, such as education.

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Emma Glour said...

Wow, great post.

Emma Glour said...

I visit the site for second time. I have read your most of the post in this blog. You are great person or experience person about BIO writing. Thanks always for great work.

Luise Anrik said...

This is really a nice post and worked for me. thanks website

RobertKY said...

This is writer's talent that how beautifully they write on someone. Bio writing is special art so if you want to write visit the site and learn more techniques to write biography.

Naina Laky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Naina Laky said...

I maade 4 Character Bio's in my life. I read you writing style its reall good this article will help me in future thanks

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