The Character Biography

The Character Biography – Writing More To Write Less


Writers Write is a comprehensive writing resource. In this post, we talk about the character biography and explain the process of writing more to write less.

Charles Dickens could get away with starting a story with the birth of his protagonist. J.D. Salinger chose not to start there and called it ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’.

Now, before I am lynched, let me say that I am a huge fan of Charles Dickens, but David Copperfield was published in 1850. Catcher in the Rye, although very advanced for its time, was published in 1945. Today. we don’t write like either of these two authors.

This is the 21st century. What do we do?

  1. In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins tells us simply that it is the day of the reaping. She doesn’t explain it or tell us what it means.
  2. In The Fault in Our Stars, John Green jumps in by telling us seventeen-year-old Hazel is depressed because she has cancer. She is in a support group almost before we hit page two.
  3. In Room by Emma Donoghue, Jack wakes up on his fifth birthday. He is in Bed and switches on Lamp and has an interesting conversation with Ma. We know something is up and weird, but Emma strings us along. She tells us nothing.
  4. In The Good Luck of Right Now, Matthew Quick writes about Bartholomew Neil who is clearing out his deceased mother’s underwear drawer and finds a form letter from Richard Gere. The death of his mother and his one-sided correspondence with Mr Gere takes us on a journey that is at once sad, sweet and enchanting.

Now, this is not a post about inciting moments although each one is a brilliant example of a moment of action and change. This is in fact a post about character biographies.

Imagine if I started my post with: To begin my post with the beginning of my post, I record that I wrote (as I have been informed and believe) on a Sunday night at eight o’clock while everyone else was watching the Sunday night movie. (I ain’t no Dickens, that’s for sure.)

How do great modern authors create characters so complete that I am interested in them even though I only met them a page ago? They spend time creating characters.

The Character Biography

All authors start with an idea. It could be plot first or character first. It doesn’t matter. But, if something happened, it happened to someone. And this is where my character biography begins. I start out with perhaps a paragraph of the things I know about this person. I add details as my first draft progresses.

I split this list into three (from Writers Write):

  1. The physical: What do they look like? I find a picture on the web or in a magazine and stick it up on the wall. Eye and hair colour. Tall or short, etc.
  2. The sociological: What were their circumstances growing up? Are appearances important and why? Are they rich or poor? Did their parents love them? Was their father a drunk, or was their mother the chairperson of the PTA, maybe both? Were they a bully?
  3. The psychological: As I write, their psychological attributes become clearer. I might start out knowing they were very stubborn or ambitious or perhaps a coward. As I write more, I start figuring out why they are like that.

I write all of this down. I reread or rewrite this biography every few thousand words. This is a great writing tips to remember.

You have to know everything about them. To decide what is important for the story. You have to know more about them than you know (or admit to knowing) about yourself. That is how these great authors fall into a story with seemingly effortless brilliance. It is because they have filled in the back story; they know what is important for the reader and the story.

Indulge in your Copperfield crap. You need it, but remember that the reader doesn’t – at least not all of it.

If you are looking for a detailed character questionnaire, read: The Only Character Questionnaire You Need

 by Mia Botha

If you enjoyed this post, you will love:

  1. 5 Things I’ve Learnt From My Literary Autopsies
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  3. A Writer’s Sketchbook

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

This article has 0 comments

  1. Teresa Edmond-Sargeant

    I think the reason lengthy backstories in fiction don’t apply nowadays is the media’s constant rivalry for our attention. Between the thousands of TV channels, the Internet, our other gadgets, films, books and ebooks, public attention has become the brass ring on the merry-go-round. It has become important to plop the reader in the middle of the story instead of starting with the protagonist’s birth (if it doesn’t lend to the story). In Dickens’ day, books and theatrical plays were common forms of media. Therefore, readers can sit with a 500-page novel and indulge in it for days on end.

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