Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Building Character

Hi y'all. If my notice serves, we have some new friends in the audience. Thanks for stopping by, lovelies. It's a pleasure to have you. Take off your coats and stay a while.

I just want to say, my copy of Paranormalcy by Kiersten White arrived yesterday afternoon, so my capacity to get anything done instead of holing up with the book is, in my opinion, laudable. (No spoilers, or I'll be forced to do something really nasty.) Hope you're all facing similar book-related temptation and enjoying what you're reading. On to my post...

Based on the comments to my most recent post, it seems to me that most people experience their characters, at least at the start, in flashes of knowledge and not in one fell swoop. This indicates to me that somewhere along the way, we build our characters. Some of us, possibly, more literally than others.

Even as I work on Cordamant's Heir, I'm building a character for my next project. Her name's McKinley Gallagher, she took up residence in my skull late this January, and I've a feeling that if I don't start working her out, she's going to start picking fights with my other "guests." She's not violent by nature, but for a quiet girl, she seems to be growing increasingly vocal about the stance that she's up next.

Anyway, for McKinley's story, I'm employing a character analysis technique I picked up in a screenwriting course. I'm writing a character biography. Actually, it's one I wrote myself, and it's sort of a blend between a character profile and a bio. Just the sort of thins I think one should know about a character and their chronological history.

In the past, I didn't write character bios. Well, I sometimes wrote 200 words or so about the MCs and maybe 100 about the minor characters, but I didn't put a ton of effort into creating a record about them. I just knew what I knew and assumed I knew everything. Sure, I'd find out surprising things about them along the way, but I never knew how much I didn't know. I didn't know a lot.

Even though I've never done a character bio for a novel before, I'm already finding it a tremendously useful exercise. Because, after I write down everything I already think I know about that character in that aspect I start free-writing about them, I'm learning all sorts of things I normally wouldn't figure out until free-writing my novel. (Yes, I do that sometimes. My fingers move and words appear and I don't even know if there was a thought process for that. Hint: sometimes, I do it on this blog too.) I've learned that McKinley always has a runaway backpack in her closet, not because she actually intends to run away but because her mother used to move them at the drop of a hat. I learned (while thinking about her bio in a movie theater) that she can't stand sci-fi that takes itself seriously but doesn't mind sci-fi that knows it's ridiculous.

Because of this experience, I'm definitely considering making these character bios a regular part of my writing routine. They're dead useful.

Now, what I'm saying above should not be construed as a belief that a character bio, once written, is set in stone. No, these things can and will change over time, just like your novel will. No matter how long or detailed your character bio is, you'll learn new things about your characters as you write about them and think about them more. Heck, you might even learn that you were wrong. (Shocking, I know.) Still, the fact that they can change is not a reason to write them off, as it were. After all, first drafts change, but we still make them. (In fact, we need to make first drafts. Otherwise, there'd be no book. Just saying...)

A good post on this issue can be found on Natalie Whipple's blog. Just click here.

Do you write character bios? Why or why not? If you do, are they very detailed? What sort of stuff do you include?


  1. Well, McKinley Gallagher is a pleasant name. Perhaps I should look her up in my family tree.

    I don't do character bio's per se, I sort of write little notey things on scrap paper and then compile them all together at some point to look at before I start to write; pieces of dialogue, a setting, a fond embrace.

    And it's fun when they do stuff you don't expect isn't it.

    Thanks for stopping by the last few days. I haven't been around much lately - school and all.

  2. I've never done character bios before, but I am working on them for my next project. Like you, I'm finding it useful.

  3. I've never done a character bio, or interview as people suggest but I think I have a better grasp on my character than I do of anything else when I start my story. They visit me sharing their name and what they'd like to accomplish... for instance a few weeks ago one stopped by saying this:

    Sadie Elizabeth Jones, destroy Queen Bee

    From there I marinated ideas with her for these said weeks until we've put together a story. Now I'm 7.5K words in and looking to get into some heavy waters I'm not sure I'm prepared to walk into. Guess we'll see where it goes!

  4. I write character bios for all my characters and I try to make them detailed. It's definitely a great place to start before writing a first chapter. I include the basics such as appearance, age, occupation, likes/dislikes, strengths/weaknesses, and then their background and what they hope to accomplish.

    Of course, as you mentioned, my characters have still changed and strayed from the bios I wrote for them. Characters should grow and develop.

  5. Piedmont -- I'm glad you approve of the name. ;) I've definitely used your method. I've got post-its about books in a bunch of places. My pleasure, by the by; your blog's great.

    Susan -- I'm glad you're finding them productive.

    Jen -- Marinating is definitely important. Good luck with the new story.

    Amanda -- You seem to have a pretty good grasp of what makes a good character bio and have a working process in place. I'd be interested in hearing more about your style.