Conversations With Your Characters: On Building The Character Bible

American Gothic II: Diesel Boogaloo Imagine that we don’t know each other. Okay, okay, we probably don’t really know each other, but I’m talking complete and utter lack of exposure. Never seen, nor heard, of one another before.

The crowd parts. We each cross the room. We both stand by the chips and dip. I dip and chomp. You start to dip, and then notice that the tortilla chip looks like it might be branded with the Virgin Mary, and you show it to me, and wham, that starts a conversation.

That conversation is maybe interesting to the both of us, but it’s probably a little awkward at times, a little fumbling, a little uncertain. First conversations usually are. They can be filled with wonder and discovery, sure, but in general, those initial convos are purely expositional. Who are you, what do you do, are you married, where do you live, do you believe in tortilla chip miracles, nice pants where’d you get them, are we going to have sex in the bathroom or what? And so on.

Were I to meet another new person that night, the conversation would likely unfold in a similar way. (Then again, maybe I’m just a boring asshole. Reserve your opinions on that one, lest I loose the hounds, for the hounds have hungry teeth.)

Now, imagine that on such a night you and I became fast friends, and now it’s five years later, and we’re having another conversation at that time.

That conversation is going to be a whole different animal. Exposition isn’t needed. We know each other. We know the things that interest one another, we know about one another’s lives, we can ask targeted questions, we can lead the conversation down interesting paths. We can tell stories appropriate to the situation without doing a lot of testing the waters. It’s comfortable. I know which way you’ll jump. You know the way I groove.

To an outsider, I dunno how the conversation will sound. Alienating, potentially, because that person is coming in fresh, without any exposition, without any of that five-year build-up.

But I don’t care about that.

Why? Because I’m framing this in a certain way, damnit, and if you go asking too many questions you’ll have ruined everything and my only recourse is the whang! of a shovel against your tender head-meats, and then it’s all bodies and lime and bathtubs and the sizzle-stink of dissolving flesh and —

Well, nobody wants that.

Here’s what I’m getting at:

In any story being told, two conversations happen. The first is between the writer and his characters, and the second is between the reader and those characters. The first conversation exists — durr — during the writing of the story, and this is true whether it’s a short story, novel, screenplay, or doodled-upon napkin. The second conversation exists when — smacks head — the reader reads (or in the case of film, experiences) the story. I don’t mean this to be a literal conversation expressed through the story’s dialogue. I mean it as a meta-conversation where both writer and reader are communicating with the story and its characters, where we’d rather have a conversation with an old friend than a new moron standing by the snacky table.

In each case, the goal is to have a conversation that doesn’t have to go through those formative, fumbling stages — the who are you, hi my name is introductions. That shit is boring. We want down to the nitty-gritty. We want to know these characters intimately, and we want that as swiftly as we can manage it. We don’t want the, “Oh, so where do you work?” conversation. We want the, “Hey, so you went ahead and brained your boss with that hole-puncher. If I were you, dude, I’d bolt like a horse with a stun-gun shoved up its equine rectum.”

(“Equine Rectum” sounds like some Ancient Roman proclamation. “My centurions shall have the legal right of equine rectum over these English mares! So it has been declared by Cunningulus, Mad Emperor of Rome!”)

How to do that?

Why, the character bible, of course. What goes into such a thing? Read on, faithful marmosets.

The Lowdown: What’s She About?

The Weighted Companion Cube First, a caveat: this is my first character bible. It isn’t locked. I’m still taking ideas. You have thoughts, hurl them at my face. I’m working through this topic right alongside you crazy eggheads, and I’m literally going to end this blog post and go put this nonsense into direct practice. So, we’re all still finding our feet. Deal with it.

The details about a character are important, but at this point, for me, the thing I want to know is what the character is really about. A sentence. Three at the max. What’s the point? Why is this character in the story? What is she about? Does she represent something in particular? Does she serve some particular need for your story?

“Mary Beth is a girl who can’t get her shit together.” That says a lot. It’s simple, and it’s what she’s about. Sure, you could get loftier, and if it helps you, go for it. “Mary Beth represents the distinctly American phenomenon of adults who still act like children, who refuse to grow-up even in the face of a changing, troublesome world.” It says a little more, and if that helps you get your head around her, then great.

Why do this? You don’t have to. You could begin with raw details first; you have a number of ways into the character, just as you have a number of ways into a story. Me, I like to get this off the table. It allows me to encapsulate her starting point and overall story right from the get-go. Further, it allows me to build a series of details around this core concept — I won’t then be building a worthless house of odd angles and mismatched furniture, but I’ll be contributing elements that build to a whole.

When I go to say, “What does Mary Beth do for a living?” The answer is unlikely, “She’s a successful Wall Street broker,” because that clashes with the already-established fundamental core of the character.

Let’s be honest, too — this question is probably one you’ve answered in your head or in your gut. Putting it on paper crystallizes it. It makes it more true. It advances the conversation.

The Arc: From A To B, And Maybe On Toward Z

Winter's Icy Lash I’ve advocated this before, but I don’t want to leave it out of this uber-document — I want to have a loose idea where the character begins, and where the character ends. For my part, I want characters that change throughout the story, even if it happens in subtle ways.

Plot at least two points on this. Character starts at A (“Mary Beth is a selfish twat”) and moves to B (“Mary Beth sacrifices herself to save Polyester Lad, her superhero nephew”). Feel free to plot interim points, especially if you have your story’s act structure roughly configured. Maybe it’s A (selfish twat) to B (is made to realize her selfishness by a tormenting ghost) onto C (sacrificial girl).

This isn’t a hard-and-firm map; you’re free to deviate as you write and rewrite.

But it’s a good guideline. A general, “I’m heading West!” or “Southward, ho!” inclination.

The Deets, The Troof, The 411

It Is Coming Now? It’s all the little building blocks. Objective stuff. The elements that comprise this character’s existence and story. Parents? Siblings? Pets? Friends? Kids? Job? Education? What’s her neighborhood look like? What’s she got on the shelves in her bedroom? Favorite book? Bra size? Most cherished phobia?

You don’t need to hit all the bases, but I’d follow the rabbit hole as far down as it goes. Keep on tumbling. See where it takes you.

You’ll begin to hit on those details that interest you — and thus, that inform the character.

And that’s the goal. To inform the character. To build out the conversation so that when you write it (and when the audience experiences it), it feels like a five-year friendship rather than a first meeting. These aren’t just meaningless notations. One character works as a retail clerk at the mall, and another works at a sewage treatment plant. This may sound silly, but those simple details build out a world of story, because each job signifies wildly different life experiences. (Or, if they don’t, then that tells another story.) In fact, identifying those two jobs forces my brain to separate these two characters by building out unique stories. The guy who works at the poop palace is blue collar, he has a family he needs to support (why else work with somebody else’s feces?), he can be smart but isn’t well-educated. The mall-bound counter-jockey comes from a middle class family, is young, is maybe working to save up for college.

Two different characters spring to mind pretty immediately. Though, we could of course flip a lot of the details, as we’re not married to any of them. The shit technician was once wealthy but lost his job and now the only job he can find is combing through streams of sewage to look for tampons and alligators, and frankly, he’s just doing this because he’s got a wicked heroin addiction he needs to feed. The counter jockey is actually an older woman who should’ve retired last year but her husband died and now she’s out there desperate for human contact and the mall was her one option to do so.

Whatever. You get the point. You start building in details, and the details are there to serve the story, to tell the conversation.

Deeper Deets, Trickier Troofs

Spongebob Squareterror You’ve built a catalog of little details — the elements that comprise that character’s life — and now it’s time to see what lies beneath that surface. We want to know the things that the character may not know about herself. What are her greatest wants and fears? What emotion drives her? What are her habits? What are the things, externally and internally, that are blocking her from achieving the things she wants?

To me, what’s great is that the details have already unconsciously furnished some of this. Even by saying, “Hey, this guy’s a sewage treatment technician,” we now have a whole stampede of ideas that come bounding out of that notion — heroin addict, no job, maybe he secretly feels he’s no better than the job he possesses. The details all play together to create deeper ideas.

You could go in reverse. You could start with the deeper stuff (“Mary Beth wants to be left alone, but she fears that someone will make her grow up and enter the real world“) and then build details atop it, instead. You just need to figure out which is the skeleton and which is the meat you pack upon dem bones. Does this story, this conversation, first need the chicken, or does it first need the egg?

The character bible has no hard or fast rules, I figure. It’s tailored to your needs as a writer and to the story you’re telling.

And Keep Writing Until You’re Done

Taxing That’s pretty vague, I know.

Let’s rephrase it.

The character bible is equal parts interview and job application.

Your goal is to know the character intimately.

When you feel you know enough about that character to have a conversation with her — or to hire her for the job you’ve created — ding! You’re done. Further, the real point of all this is that, when you’re hip-deep in the story, you want to know the character well enough so that you’re never in doubt to know what she’d say or do. We all have people in our lives we’re close to (wives, parents, friends, whatever), and we have a pretty good idea how those people will react to certain situations or stimuli, and if we don’t know, we can damn sure make an educated guess. That’s what you want for your characters. When Mary Beth gets attacked by that sewer alligator in the second act, you want to know long before you get there how she’ll react. You want to know how she makes her decisions, and why. That gut-level intuition regarding your characters isn’t then pulled out of thin air, but rather built up from all the work you do in the character bible.

It allows you to understand and defend their motivations, their actions, their dialogue.

Believe it or not, it still leaves room for the character to surprise you, and in fact, I think it’s easier. Let’s be clear, the character isn’t supernatural. The character lives and dies in your head. Your subconscious mind has a lot to say about this character, but it’ll have more to say if you feed it more fuel. And the elements of this bible represent that fuel. Chomp, chomp, chomp, goes the subconscious mind. The more information it has, the more that the insane supercomputer inside your head will spit out results that are both surprising and sensible at the same time.

It’s a conversation. One that isn’t just beginning, but one that is ever-unfolding, and interesting for the intimacy it creates between the character and both writer and reader. You need to have this conversation. Without it, your story begins and you don’t really know these people, and you’re going to utilize precious real estate in your draft doing so.

Anyway — I’d better run.

After all, I have a character bible to write.

22 comments

  • You know what I love about this? We find out a little more about Codpiece Johnson every day.

    “The shit technician was once wealthy but lost his job and now the only job he can find is combing through streams of sewage to look for tampons and alligators, and frankly, he’s just doing this because he’s got a wicked heroin addiction he needs to feed.”

    I want to know more about him. I like him. He’s the Johnson.

    My process for character invention is very similar, and the years I’ve spent gaming has really helped me get inside the role of another person. Granted, it isn’t direct experience – I have tenancies that remain from character to character that I play – but it has really helped me shape different personalities, all with the end goal of saving the princess… and fucking her.

    One of the things that’s really helped me getting the character fleshed out is answering an interview as them. If I write “Thurston P. Piggybladder is a millionaire homeboy extraordinaire” it doesn’t connect as well as “I am the best thing since P Diddy, bizznatch”. I don’t know if this works well for anyone else, or if it just a symptom of my imminent schizophrenia diagnosis, but it really helps me make it more real. Again, that is probably thanks to all the gaming I’ve done.

    Great article Magic Talking Beardhead, a lot of great ways to spin what I already do.

  • Great post. I started to do something similar a few years back, without any real idea of how to make it all gel. My method was a spreadsheet with basics (name, age, relation to protag.) and a few extras: sample dialog, summed up personality.

    I like the idea of having the novel start like the reader just walked into a 5 year-old relationship between the characters and the writer. But that’s mostly because I like busting in on people’s conversations in real life.

    • That’s the funny part, and I think where some authors get mixed up. The beginnings of things is interesting when we’re the ones experiencing it. For instance, meeting a girl, falling in love, getting a new job, taking a trip for the first time, that’s all interesting for us. It’s interesting because we’re the protagonists in our own lives.

      But it’s not interesting to other people. “How’d you meet?” is a question that rarely provides a satisfactory answer — no, what’s interesting from an outsider’s perspective is the conflict in the relationship, the deeper complexities that keep the push-and-pull of those two people alive and well.

      That’s why we want to come in late on a story. We don’t want to start the trip before the train starts rumbling down the tracks — otherwise, it has to gain steam and build momentum. We want to jump onto the moving train. Way more exciting.

      Hence: “Start the story as late as you can.”

      — c.

    • That’s interesting. I like that, though I don’t know that it’s a blanket solution. Our film has an ensemble cast, and we can’t begin that way because that’s a different moment for each of them.

      — c.

  • Hauntingly timely, as I am working on a character bible at this very moment.

    Well, not THIS very moment, as I’m writing a comment on your blog.

    Not this one either because I’m thinking about tacos.

    Anyway, my character bible is becoming something of a list of bullet points, breaking out the character profiles into Origin, Personality, Goals, Fears & Growth. I want to get some of the preliminary stuff out of the way and set everything up for the Main Event – actually writing the damn thing.

    I agree, the story should begin as late as possible.

    • Taaaaacos.

      The “bible page” I just wrote for one character is actually presented in the form of questions. (“What’s this character about?” “What’s his story?” “Who’s his family?” “What’s his greatest guilt at the start of the story?” etc.)

      — c.

  • Blanket solution, definitely not: but if you are working with a single protagonist it really helps kick that first scene into high gear. You don’t worry about telling the characters background, his/her reaction to the strange crap will show how they normally react.

    Ensembles – yeah, that doesn’t work as well. I would say is does work for picking up the story from the first PoV character, though. You can then introduce the rest of the cast past that point.

    And as always, it isn’t always the best course… its one of many ways to open and just the advice I’ve gotten several times over. Once upon a time we could talk about characters from birth to the inciting incident; people today want shit happening now. It is hard to catch their attention without having something to hook them with early in the story, and the best thing to grab them with is the conflict that makes the character no longer be some fuckwit in the background. YMMV

    • I can see that being something that punts the character — and thus, the reader’s attention — into high-gear. Good stuff.

      In terms of a film script, you could argue that such a moment is the turning point from the first act to the second. That first act then is there to give us a taste of context before you start pulling the protag’s world down around his pretty little ears.

      — c.

  • My question is how do you know if you’re going to use the small details you jot down? As in, “This character has an absolute hatred of dolls because his sister used to torment him with them when they grew up.” If it is only mentioned in passing in the story, would it need to be elaborated in the character bible?

  • You probably aren’t, to be perfectly honest. The idea is to make the character more real to you, so that when you right about them, you have all those past experiences and all their likes/dislikes and what not firmly in mind when you try to portray them through your work.

    Also, as your writing this stuff out, more often than not your characters will talk you into new plots that you didn’t even see yet.

    • What Rick said — the shotgun spray of details in the bible isn’t necessarily meant to comprise 100% directly useful information. It’s meant instead to allow you to get inside the character’s skin so when the time comes in the story to have that character say or do something, that choice will feel natural to you — you’re simply having a conversation with an old friend rather than try to predict what an unknown person might say.

      — c.

  • I got this sociopath character who won’t let me kill her. I mean I’ve draft-offed her three times. Everytime, I go to sleep, she visits me in my dreams, and negotiates some new, irresistable plot angle that keeps her alive — usually via the death of some other character. She’s scaring me a little. Got some kind of character bible exorcisim thing maybe?

  • I think Dan’s mind has been taken over by this character. The only way to escape is to transfer her over to Chuck so she can torment him!

    As for the advice: Thanks guys. For my current novel I have every character with their own 1-2 page drafts that read like dating profiles because somehow it helps bring the characters to life. I have their likes, dislikes, and what they want to do (as well as personnel files and psych evaluations.)

  • Great post!

    And agree with other sentiments. You can get as detailed as you want with the bible, but most of that should never end up in the story. It’s to biuld our building. Most of the info won’t have a place in the story itself.

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