When I was a kid I spent a lot of time in the biography section of the one-room school library that served third through sixth grades. This section was packed with great American lives- -George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton. The stories of these folks fascinated me. They were incredibly famous, but they’d started out as kids, just like me.
I still read biographies, but these days I write them, too- -not the lives of famous people (not famous yet, anyway) but the lives of my fictional characters. It’s my go-to tool for learning what those characters are all about.
Creating a biography is a discipline I first encountered as an acting student. I’d cull details about the character I was playing from a script, gleaning what I could from dialogue, stage directions and whatever exposition the playwright provided. This information was supplemented with research reading about historical period, local legends and beliefs, etc. Sometimes the pickings were slim. Whatever wasn’t available on the page, I made an educated guess to fill in the picture.
Biography affects how a person talks, moves, listens, how they dress, what they hope for. It’s good for keeping details straight, too. Eye color, for example. It is absolutely no fun to search through a manuscript for inconsistencies when you discover a character’s green eyes somehow turn brown half-way through.
I start a character biography with a name (one that makes sense for the character and the story) and jot down everything I know about appearance and background. My characters have families, work and education histories, religious beliefs (or not), political views and, most importantly, goals. Some of this information evolves in a story’s first draft, some of it comes later as the characters and I become better acquainted. Once I’ve nailed down the basics I might develop a set of questions to ask each character:
“What’s the most important thing you hope to accomplish by the end of the day?”
“Who is the one person you’d most/least like to see today, and why?”
“What happened today that you never expected?”
If the story takes place over several days or weeks, I’ll keep asking the same questions over time. The answers come from the character, giving me more clues as to how they speak and which “hot button” topics get them riled. Q & A helps me find nuances, evolving relationships and the shapes of story arcs for individual characters. It can also highlight aspects of the plot that need adjusting to make the story flow.
I’ve recently had to write a non-fiction biography- -mine! It’s a component of my soon-to-be-launched official writer website, and you bet I’ll share the link when construction is complete.
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