Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Character Bible

Before beginning the writing of your novel, you can save time and frustration by creating a Character Bible for your lead characters. Since you create these characters, you may feel you know them so well that they are alive in your head. Often, though, by the time you’re halfway through the book, you’re wondering if Jackie likes coffee or tea in the mornings. Then you have to thumb back through the pages or do a search-and-find to get the answer.

If you have to do this with your leads, you’ll for sure end up doing it with your incidental or supporting characters. That’s a time suck. Avoid wasting your time. Create a Character Bible for your main characters and a shorter listing for your lesser characters.

You can find lists of character questions on the Internet. I suggest you create your own. Some standard things you’ll want to include are:
Full Name
Hair Color
Body Type
Eye Color
Family Background
General Personality
Events that Changed or Cemented the Course of the Character’s Life

After that, you can pick and choose things to note on the particular character, like:

Pets - you don’t want to give Jackie a poodle to subtly let the reader know she’s likeable despite what her cubicle mates at work say, then send Jackie off on a business trip to Luckenbach, Texas, for two weeks and never mention the dog trapped in the tiny apartment because you’ve forgotten little Puff Ball….’cause the reader won’t forget or forgive the starving dog.

Hobbies - Jackie doodles a lot. She’s not an artist, but is good enough that she sends handmade cards to friends at Christmas. This will come in handy later when she sees a robbery and is able to do a sketch of the guy.

Etc. - whatever fits or is important to remember for that particular character

The list can go on and on, depending on how much you know and learn about each character.

The Character Bible will be shorter for your minor and secondary characters, but they, too, are essential to do in order to save you time. Note names, relationships, work, hobbies, looks, and anything you feel you’ll need to know.

Some things you will know before you ever put fingers to keyboard. Some things you’ll learn as you write. Take a moment, open the Character document and note them.

Trust me, by book three in the series, you’ll need to know this stuff. If you forget and you don’t have your Bible to refer to, you’ll either spend hours or days going back to gather it or boocoodles of money to get someone like me to create it for you.
Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free e-zine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its eleventh year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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  1. Definitely good advice if you're writing (or think you might be writing) more than 1 book with the same setting/characters. I'm not one to do advance planning beyond the basics, but I add to my character notes as I go along. I prefer to discover the nuances en route.

    Who knew my hero played the piano? I sure didn't until well into the book. But it worked, and I think my subconscious must have known he had that artistic streak. I only had to change one line after I found out he was a gifted pianist.

  2. This also works well in simple, one- or two-character children's books. You have to know your character well before you can expect others to know them - even if your character is an animal. Even when I work with first and second graders, I have them create a character sketch before they write their stories.

  3. This is extremely important information, Helen. If we don't know our characters even better than we know ourselves, we are bound to make little mistakes that discerning readers will find. To remain true to one's characters, a "character bible" is an invaluable aid. Adding to that bible as we go along--as suggested by Terry--certainly can work. We just have to be certain that what we're adding isn't out of character with one of his or her traits. Great post!

  4. Doing a character bible as you write the first book really helps avoid mistakes in later books.

  5. I learned this as I was writing and spent a lot of time going back and forth looking for little bits that I put in and forgot. I have also got a friends and family tree for my groups.

  6. Annay, isn't it funny how you can forget little things that you spent months deciding on and writing?!

  7. This does help. I happened upon a Character Chart online that had me answering all kinds of questions about my characters. I started the earliest one ten years ago and the characters have grown a lot. It's fun to keep track of their growth. I found out stuff about them that I never knew and it's really helped with the book. Course now I need to actually finish the book. -_-

  8. If you're a non-outliner or organize differently than the rest of the world, these may not be that helpful. When I've tried them in the past, I tend to end up with a list of questions that never get answered--just the names of the characters and sheets of paper taking up space. Things like if a character drinks tea or coffee in the morning is not a detail I consider important--I probably wouldn't even think of recording it, much less looking for it. The only thing I do record are the names of the characters, but not on sheets of paper. I need quick references, so as I come up with them, they go on Post Its until I no longer need them.

    A suggestion--come up with tips for us right-brainers.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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