How to Write a Character Biography

Think of your character biographies as entries in a dictionary. Credit Liz West, reused under Creative Commons

In one of my previous posts I talked about how I use character biographies for my book. I skimmed over the details what a character biography is, how to put one together and why they are so useful. Let’s backtrack a bit and discuss this.

What is a character biography?

A character biography is the sum total of everything you can think of about one of your characters. It all goes in a separate document to which you can refer when this person is involved in your story. If your character is a language, the biography is your dictionary.

Who deserves a character biography?

Your characters will likely interact with many different people over the course of your story. You don’t need to write a profile for every single person, but a general rule is: if you find yourself describing a character in any serious detail, then he or she probably deserves one.

Why have character biographies?

The same reason you have a dictionary: for reference! Dictionaries stand unused most of the time, but they are always there for when you reach for (or click to) them.

You will always have information about someone that is not directly relevant at that point in the story, but certainly will be elsewhere. Perhaps it’s a relationship with another character that’s yet to be introduced, or part of their backstory yet to be revealed. Trying to keep all this information in your head is a bad idea. If you don’t note it down, it gets lost or confused.

The other main reason for writing a biography is that sketching out a character’s entire profile from their beginning to their ‘present’ (i.e. the beginning of the events of your story) will give you the fullest possible understanding of them.

How to write a character biography

Now that we’ve established that profiles are a good idea, how do you go about putting one together?

  • Get into the right mindset beforehand

No information is too trivial. Put anything down that you think of. Remember that this is a work in progress. It doesn’t stop: whenever you think of new, relevant information, jot it down.

  • Start with the essential details

As I mentioned above, these will be traits like hair colour, birthdays, height, weight, typical dress. Get these down first.

  • Move on to their back story

How did your character get to where they are when they are first introduced in your story? Describe their ‘journey’ to the events of your novel. Start with their childhood, assuming they are an adult. Someone’s childhood will be pivotal to shaping who they are. Did they grow up rich, poor or somewhere in the middle? How many were their family, and how complete was it? Who did they get on with, and who did they not? What events shaped their childhood? These events can be ‘macro’ such as war, revolution or natural disasters, or ‘micro’ such as family tragedy, divorce of moving to a foreign country.

Here is a screenshot of part of the biography of Melissa Thomas, one of the characters in my book

A screenshot of part of the biography of Melissa Thomas

Here is a screenshot from Melissa’s character biography, one of the characters in my upcoming book. You can see from this what she looks like and a bit about her upbringing in Seattle. The events of the book don’t take place in Seattle though…

  • Describe their fears and desires

What keeps them awake at night? What do they want out of life; at the moment and in the future? What do they dream of?

  • Describe their relationships with other characters

This is one of the most important functions of your biographies. These relationships will likely be complicated, fluctuating and tense, with much history behind some of them. Use this section to chronicle them.

Understand that there will be a fair amount of repetition as you write each biography and how they relate to each other. This is no problem because it reinforces your understanding of your characters. Besides, no two people will have precisely the same feelings about each other. How Miranda thinks about Terry will not be the same as how Terry thinks about Miranda.

  • Miscellaneous

Anything else that doesn’t quite fit goes in here. Do they prefer cats or dogs? Tea or coffee? Their birthmark on their right knee, the fact he bites his nails, favourite colour, the car they drive, what their favourite toy was as a child – that all belongs in the miscellaneous section.

Wrap-up

Hopefully this piece shed some light on how to go about writing character biographies. Adopt an ‘anything-goes’ mentality to writing one, structure it along these lines and you’ll have a valuable resource.

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