Monday, August 11, 2014

Character Bios

A few years ago, I was noticing in my writing that my characters all seemed rather similar.  Each one was me.  Maybe a girl me, or an old me, or a think me, or a all-star second baseman me.  But it was pretty obvious that they were just me.  So, I decided I needed to work on that.  I read a few books about  creating good characters, and I read several web posts about the same thing.  I made a really big list of questions that I needed to ask myself about a character before I try to write about them.

Sadly, the only time I've ever really done this planning in full was on my story The Battle of the Ideas, and even then, I didn't go through and answer every single question I put on my list.  It seems like a little too much preparation for a simple short story, answering a few of the most important questions seems like enough for that.  However, for a novel, it seems like it's probably pretty important.

Right now, as I'm trying to work on the next chapter of Sunny and Gray, I'm trying to sort through this stuff.  Sunny and Gray is going to be a novel, and therefore it needs this stuff to be done.  Since I'm looking at this stuff, I thought it might be cool to share the work that I did on my list, share the questions that I think are worth asking, and see what you think.

If you think there are things that I missed on my list, then please let me know in the comments.  If you have any other techniques to make a character interesting, memorable, or worthwhile please, also let me know.  I'm a pretty new writer; despite the years I've been at it, I haven't written that many stories; so, I'm always looking to improve.  So, any help you might have would be appreciated.

Okay, on to the list. Obviously this is just for major characters, although I've heard it said that minor characters would be more worthwhile if perhaps you found one or two of these questions and answered them about those characters, so they're slightly more memorable and different.

I tried to organize them into categories.  So, here you go:

What is the character's role in the story, and what is needed for that character to fulfill that role?

First design the essential nature of the character, then expand their back story etc.

What actions will they perform?  What is their motive behind these actions? Will readers like or dislike this character, and why?

What is their name? Age? Occupation? Are they good at it or bad? What is their attitude toward their job? Or are they going to school? What grade? What is their attitude toward school? Hometown? Present town if different? What type of home/neighborhood are they in?

What was their past like? What is the character's name? What does this name say about them?  What kind of ethnic or geographic background does this name bring with it? Who are their parents? Siblings? What kind of relationship did they have with them? Position in family? Other close relatives? Was their family religious? How much schooling do they have? When did they first have sex? What was/is their attitude toward sex? Were they shy or outgoing? Their friends? Did they have special childhood problems? Where did they live growing up? Have they moved away from that place? What were the major experiences in their life? What is the single most important experience in their life? When were they most happy? What was the single most happy experience in their life? What experiences scarred their psyche? What experiences do they treasure? Who are the most important people in their life? Past occupations? Who was their first love? What's the most terrible thing that ever happened to them? What was their dream growing up? Did they achieve this dream? If so, in what ways was it not what the character expected? If your character never achieved the dream, why not?

What is their reputation?  What do other people think of the character? Are these reactions fair or are the people who have these opinions unkind?

What stereotypes do they fit?  What stereotypes do they defy?

How do they act different with different friends? What is their strongest positive personality trait? Strongest negative personality trait? Sense of humor?

What habits or patterns do they follow?  What traits and mannerisms do they have? Do they cover insecurities or fears with jokes? Bravado? Does your character have a habit? Foot tapping? Nail biting? Teeth grinding? Wear sunglasses? Chew his lip? Blink a lot? Twirl her hair? What does this trait mean? Nervousness or tension? Or some sort of mental disturbance or emotional state? Arms folded across chest a lot to protect ones self? Or something like that? What are your character's good and bad habits?

What is their relationships with the opposite sex like? Same sex? Both? Are they married? Boyfriend/girlfriend? To whom? Do they have children? Who are they?  Who are their friends or are they a loner? Enemies? Influential person?

What are their talents and abilities (music, art, science, athletic, etc)? What's their IQ level?

What is their personality like?  What about their temperament? Leader or follower? What are their tastes and preferences? What do they do for fun? Favorite movies or TV shows? Favorite foods? Drinks? Magazines? Books? Comics? Sports team? Athletic? Favorite sport? What hobbies do they have? Favorite foods?

What is their appearance like? Ways of walking? Posture? Patterns of speech? Vocal quality? Clothing styles? Hairstyle? Personal habits and mannerisms? Is the character fat?  Sloppily fat or just comfortably padded? Are they thin? Hungrily thin or elegantly slim? Is he bald? Is their hair neat or shaggy, long or short? Does he have a beard or a mustache? If so is it trimmed or long and bushy? Do they wear glasses? A hearing aid? Have any other disabilities? A bum knee? A bad back? A missing finger or arm or ear or...?

What kind of clothes do they wear? High fashion or old fashioned? New or old, clean or dirty, freshly pressed or rumpled? Are their shoes scuffed or are they shined? Wing tips or moccasins? Are there holes in the soles? Does he wear neckties? If so, are they wide or narrow, conservative or gaudy? Bow ties?

What kind of car do they drive? New or old? If old is it well maintained or rusted and falling apart? Is there a bumper sticker? What does it say? Good luck charm hanging from the mirror?

What is their bedroom like? Tidy or clothes all over the place? Bed made? What kind of pictures on the wall? Stuff on the nightstand? Magazines? Books? Pipes or cigars on the dresser? Stereo equipment? What music? Rock? Country? Classical? What color is the room painted? Are there curtains? Lace or corduroy?

What twist on the expected trait do they have?

What is their moral or ethical code? Philosophy of life? Attitudes? Thought processes? Are they liberal or conservative in their views? Are they a bigot? Moral? Immoral? Do they have vices? What religion do they profess and do they practice it?

What are their personal goals (both in life and within the story)?  What are their fears? Greatest fear? Things they definitely aren't afraid of? If you asked about his or her greatest dream, what would your character tell you? What's a secret dream that he or she wouldn't tell you about? What kind of person does your character wish they could be? What is stopping them? What is your character afraid of? What keeps them up at night? What does your character think is their worst quality? What do other people think your character's worst quality is? What is a talent your character thinks they have but is very wrong about?

Who do they love most in the world? Who do they hate? In what situation would your character become violent? In what situation would your character act heroic?

What is the character's arc? Most important thing to know about this character?


  1. I think if one answered all of those questions about each character, you should be thinking about a series of novels. That is very in depth, but also very constructive and useful. The only other question that he provide some insight:

    What does this character think about when they can't sleep at night?

    1. Yeah, Marshal, you're probably right. This is pretty excessive, and when it comes down to it, some of the quesstions are probably even repetitive. I haven't ever answered every one of these questions for a character that I wrote, but I'm going to try it for the main characters of Sunny and Gray and see how that goes.

      I'll add your question to the list too.

  2. I like that you included quirks and habits, that is what makes characters stand out for me, give them something that can be easily repeated in the narrative, but makes them unique. And I agree, it is a really long list.