Is There a Point in Character Bios?

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I can already hear at least once pantser preparing to explain why they don’t do this.  If it helps, person with fingers at the ready, you’re right.  Character biographies don’t work for everyone.  They aren’t even universal because everyone has their own way of doing them because every author has different needs.  Some even change from story to story or as our own skills grow.  I know that I’ve been all over the map as you’re about to see.

Character bios are where I started since tabletop games were my first inspiration alongside fantasy books.  This resulted in my originals being more about numbers stats and basics instead of depth.  I had hair, eyes, height, weight, skin, and physical attributes with very little variety.  I couldn’t tell you what the real difference between a 4 and 5 in strength really was.  A 1-5 ranking was probably a dumb choice.  I added gear, personality, and skills to the bottom then left it alone.  I used this for Legends of Windemere too, but I had notes on other papers for evolution.  This system didn’t change for about 20 years because I spent most of my time doing quick outlines of other stories without doing any meaty bios.  By the time I came back to that tactic, I no longer cared about the physical stats.  I changed it to be a paragraph explaining history, role in story, goals, key events, general appearance, personality, and unique pieces of gear.  This gave me more wiggle room and it created the possibility of subplots as I wrote along.  It also reduced it from one character per page to 2-3 depending on importance.

The benefit of character bios is the same as any planning activity.  It gives you a direction to go with the character.  You get a sense of how they fit into your story and world.  The writing stage doesn’t begin with you shadowing an unknown figure, but walking alongside an acquaintance or friend.  Things may very well change as you go along because you don’t factor all story events into the bio.  It’s only a guide for that character.  One could even call it a starting point because things can be altered.  Everything from hair color to personality is fluid until you hit publish, so never think that your bio is the end of creation.  It’s only something you can go back to if you need to revisit a character’s origins.  If you have to stop writing that project for a long time then these can be very useful in jogging your memory.  This means you can add notes to it as well.  Whatever it takes to help you stay consistent.

Another use for character bios is with promotions.  You can easily turn one into a behind-the-scenes blog post or video.  People like these peeks into the process.  You can show how things changed from the origins, which tends to happen.  Turn in into a discussion or a lesson about the character instead of an info dump.  We avoid those in books, so it’s best to do the same when promoting too.  Of course, you can do this without a bio, but it doesn’t hurt to keep track of the evolution.  For your own amusement, you can go back and see how you and the character grew.

So, does anybody else create character bios?  What’s your style?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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28 Responses to Is There a Point in Character Bios?

  1. V.M.Sang says:

    Excellent post, Charles. I am someone who doesn’t write it down but I know a great deal about all my characters in my head. I guess it’s not the best place to store them, though. I usually want to get on with writing the story rather than detailing individuals.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. L. Marie says:

    Yes, I include this information in my people/places/things document. My bios are not as extensive as yours, but I have to know who the characters are and what makes them tick. I wind up changing their bios as I write because I’ve learned new information about them as the story progresses. But writing the information is invaluable. I even like to know if the character is an introvert or an extrovert. I have taken the online tests for the characters to see. Though I never mention those terms, it’s helpful for me to know how the characters will interact in scenes.

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  3. I’m a slacker on this part. I keep a cast of characters, but often come up with supporting characters on the spot. Only then do I add a few lines to my cast sheet.

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  4. acflory says:

    -laughs and waves hand in the air-

    I’m a pantster hybrid so no, I don’t write character bios up front, but I do write them after the fact because all my stories are looooong and memory is deceptive. By the time I reach book 3, I need some easy to use reference that tells me whether that minor but pivotal character back in book 1 had brown eyes or blue.
    To be honest, I outline in reverse too. Not to tell me where the story is going but rather to tell me where it’s been.
    Btw do you still play games? I assume your table top games were like D&D?

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    • Sadly, I don’t play D&D anymore. Haven’t for a long time due to limited time. Could never find a stable group either. I would join, parenting or work would cost me some sessions, and I’d get left too far behind to be of use.

      I do an information document as I go along in a big series. It helps with continuity.

      Liked by 1 person

      • acflory says:

        Ah hah! I’ve never played D&D but I have friends who did. I just play MMOs when my brain shuts down for the day. 🙂

        I’m not organised enough to do that, but I am lucky that StoryBox gives me the option of labelling each chapter & scene as I go. That way I’ve got a kind of running outline that I can check at a glance. I’d be lost otherwise.

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      • That’s a really helpful toy from the sound of it. I stick to notebooks personally. A big reason is because I can access them during lunch breaks or free periods without risking my iPhone’s battery charge. Everyone knows how nightmarishly weak those things are.

        Liked by 1 person

      • acflory says:

        lol – I imagine so, although I have a Samsung. Come to think of it, the Samsung battery doesn’t last that long between charges either.

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  5. First, I would like to thank you for an excellent post. Yes, I do use character bios. I tend to use worksheets with questions about the character, so that I can either answer the questions from the characters point of you or I can simply write out what I think the character would do or say in such a situation. I also have a couple of other sheets on personality and psychological wounds and stuff like that. It’s quite the process for me now. But I enjoy it all the same. I also added my characters amulets, talisman, and special powers to their character sketches. It’s actually a lot of fun. Keep creating! CSA

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  6. Really I write on the cuff. I don’t plan and I make it up as I go along. If what I think I’ve written is a good idea, I like to go into more depth on it: character bios, where the story goes next, even a show bible. I know its not how most people like to manage but anything other than the actual work can feel like it’s taking me of track. And, of course, my favourite part is the looking back and editing. So get down the bare bones before fleshing them out.

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    • I’m not the biggest fan of editing runs, which is why I do planning. I found that I will start changing things for the sake of changing them if I edit for too long. This helps me focus and get all of my pieces in order. Probably why people say there are two types of authors: Plotters and Pantsers. There are a lot of people who write off the cuff from what I can tell. I’ve always wondered how you stop yourself from getting off track during the writing though. Can’t the story or characters head in a direction that doesn’t go anywhere?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, that can happen, but then it’s a test of your talent to see if you can get out again. Or, if I’ve write a scene or chapter or whatever that isn’t great or isn’t moving the story along, it’s out before I head in a dangerous direction. And if you’ve really dug yourself into an inescapable hole, I’ll go back to where I went wrong and ✂️ (my favourite part 😉). Admittedly it’s not efficient and it’s probably wiser to plan, but I just want to write (probably more a flaw than a perk)!

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      • Yeah. My limited time for actual writing since I was a teenager is why I aim for efficiency. I’ve bee miserable the few times I’ve had to go back and rewrite because I feel like those precious days or weeks were just wasted. Doing character bios and outlines during lunch breaks or before bed give me a taste of writing when I’m too busy to get to the novels. It also helps me dive right in with a clear goal once time dies appear.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I guess I feel like writers need to start somewhere. World building, character biographies, the price of tea… whatever gets you going.

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  8. Pingback: Is There a Point in Character Bios? – Written By Charles Yallowitz – Writer's Treasure Chest

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