Monday, October 27, 2008

A Character is a Character

I started writing short stories. From there I slipped into novels, and now I find myself writing television dramas. These transitions were not as difficult as one might have thought; it was more a tenuous slip into places that were still very familiar. The main reason that writing short stories, like writing novels, like writing TV scripts seems so similar is that it is all about your characters; knowing your characters and what sort of mischief they might be able to get up to.

Before I start writing a novel, I make an A3 size map of my characters’ relationships with each other. From there, I put together my descriptions of the characters, a page for each to start out, duly filed in a binder. I do the same thing when beginning a television series- in this case television folk refer to them as character bibles.

As your plot moves along your characters will reveal things about themselves. Each titbit dropped along the way should be duly noted on their character bible, if not somewhere down the road you will find yourself with an adult character talking on the phone to their mother who died when she was seven. Your character bibles are vital to keep your characters alive in your head, on the page, or on the screen.

What sort of things must be included in the character bible?
Here’s a place to start:

• Full name
• Age
• Family relationships
• Strange quirks
• Occupation
• Friends
• Hobbies
• Physical characteristics
• Relationships with other characters
• What they like
• What they don’t like
• Moral issues
• Where they live

Get a basic outline down before you write anything. Get to know these people. As you write, make sure you add any detail that comes out. Does her ex-boyfriend now have a name? What day did she get fired? What did she say was the name of her favourite teddy when she was a girl?

All of these details are important for you to understand your characters’ motivations. They are not details that need to be used in the script, though. I have written a whole series without a main character’s surname being revealed. I knew it, but it just never came up. Don’t clutter your writing with information that doesn’t move your plot forward. The point of the character bible is for the writer to get to know and keep track of each character, it is not the place to find plots. Make your characters three dimensional and they will build the plot with you. Another benefit of good character bibles at the start is that editing and rewrites caused by conflicting facts will be minimised, and which writer doesn’t appreciate less edits?

Lauri Kubuitsile is a full time write living in Botswana. She writes anything that requires words to be placed on a page in some semblance of order, but her love is fiction. She blogs on just about anything that enters her head at Thoughts from Botswana.

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  1. The characters are my favorite part about writing. I usually don't start to put together character sheets until I've started writing. It's just easier for me to listen to what he characters have to say, and take dictation at first. It may cause more work in the end, but so far it hasn't really been too much of a problem, especially with shorter stories. Now, novels, I do tend to start taking actual character notes earlier on in the process, so if I get to page 116 and can't remember Dan's mother's name (even though Dan and his girlfriend are heading home for the holidays,) I can skim over the character sheet. Great advice.

  2. A useful suggestion about how to approach this enjoyable task.

    An author/editor friend says she invites her major characters to lunch, where she interviews them. She asks them a series of personal questions and says that their answers often amaze her.

    I suppose you could go so far as to consider what type of restaurant would appeal to the character you're trying to get to know, which would give you additional info about her.

  3. Really good post. I believe in bibles. I try to do entire book bibles. Knowing your characters is essential, especially if you hope to have a series.

  4. Great suggestions. I usually do my bible, but only after I get caught with a character in first draft. Seems when I first start, I don't know the characters, but then over time they reveal themselves to me. I'll give your method a try and see if I can get acquainted a little earlier.

  5. I'm with Sylvia, I start with bare bones with a character and then go with how he or she develops as the story goes along. I tried doing the in-depth character bio or bible when it was highly suggested by another writer, but I would just sit there lost.

    As I am writing, I do jot notes and actually end up with something close to what Lauri suggests. And she is right that the bible is a must if you are doing a series. I just do it backwards. :-)

  6. Invaluable article. I do something similar which I guess is a character bible, although I call it the Character Profile. Without it, little details would slip away. Thank you for sharing your techniques. You are very generous.

  7. Jenny, with short stories I usually just write one page as I go along especially for anything with a mystery sort of twist. I don't like leaving my readers saying "Hey that can't happen".

    Shelley -at the start I don't go very detailed. Basics. Then I let the characters reveal themselves as I go along. People are right- for series (I have a local detective series) it is very important. If you don't you'll spend large amounts of time searching for details and that's no fun.

    Glad my post was helpful. I've been tortured wondering how this writer would find her place with all of you excellent editors.

  8. Like Selma, mine is called a Character Profile. I create it within my planning notes because I like to link the effects my characters' decisions and personality have on the plot and on each other.

    I totally agree that you need to keep adding to the notes as you write - I often copy and paste descriptions, etc, straight from my manuscript into my notes, so that I know exactly what I wrote.


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