Conversations With Your Characters: On Building The Character Bible
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?
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
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
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
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
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.