Thursday, April 15, 2010

Writing a character bio

In developing my new feature, my manager (more on that later) suggested I write some character biographies. I went back to an exercise I did in film school, and added a few categories of my own. Here's the list I now fill in for all of my characters:

Name:

Age:
Height/Body type/Prototype:
Favorite color:
Job:
Hometown:
Personality:
Style:
Likes:
Pet Peeves:
Worst Fear: 
Weakness:
Bad Habits:
Religion:
Sexual Habits:
Friends:
Family:

Wants:

Needs: 

Generally, "wants" refers to what the character is trying to achieve on the surface, in the short term, while "needs" refers to the bigger life lesson that the character needs to learn to be happy - or sometimes it's the character flaw he or she needs to work on. (In movies especially, this is often referred to as the arc.) For example, in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, Peter WANTS to get Sarah back but NEEDS to move on and focus on getting his life and career together. In VERONICA MARS, Veronica WANTS to solve the case of the week (or season), but she NEEDS to learn to trust and forgive people. (Apparently I've got Kristen Bell on the brain.)

Ideally, the more stuff like this you figure out before you start writing, the fewer soul-crushing rewrites you'll have to do later! 


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13 comments:

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Way to bury the lead about getting a manager. Congrats on that!

Good list of catagories too. I always like to figure out random details like: "What would they order in a bar?" "Favorite movie" and "Karaoke song."

lietje said...

Wow, a manager - looking forward to hearing more about that :)

And as always, good advice... I've thought for a while I should probably know more about my characters. Off to try your worksheet now!

Sarah said...

This is a great checklist. However, when I'm writing a character note, I like to form the salient points into a story, much like a bio.

Not only do you focus on the key points that drive the character and their decisions, but you also get the chance to inject a little personality in there. You get in touch with a character's energy or mood. And the points you end up focusing on are strong on cause and effect - that she's uptight because she wants to be perfect and please her mother is a bit more useful than cool and quirky trivia like 'she only drinks Manhattans' and 'collects buttons'.

A shoddy example, for illustrative purposes only:

"Marie cares with a capital C. In a crisis, she’s be the first person you’d turn to – always ready with some kind words, a patient ear and a hearty casserole. However, she needs to be needed and can’t bear to receive the same care and consideration she lavishes on others, something her new friends soon realise. They soon drift into new, more equitable friendships, leaving Marie feeling both abandoned and used."

Anyway, my 2 cents worth.
Sarah

Dan Williams said...

As Fran Dresher would say:

"A manager! Fancy!"

Good stuff!

Marquis de Gstaad said...

I like to use Enneagrams to create characters. I've collected about two pages of info on each of the 9 Enneagrams, so I have a very thorough composite of each personality type with very specific descriptions of their behaviors and motivations, both when they're being good and when they're misbehaving.

When I create my characters, I look over the Enneagram types and pick which one best describes my character. It's a great starting point.

I don't know if I can post a web link here, but look up The Enneagram Institute for some very complete descriptions of the Enneagrams.

http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/typeone.asp

Mikaela said...

Thanks for sharing the list. Great idea. I think I have to get to know my characters better as well. And congrats on the manager!
Best wishes.

Quinton said...

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Starling said...

Amanda, how do you determine which characteristics go together, i.e. that complement and reinforce each other? If there ten options for each characteristic, not all combinations would be equally compelling.

Amanda said...

@Starling - there's no right or wrong answer...just see what YOU find interesting or compelling. I once went to a workshop in which an author told us that memoirs are about examining the parts of us that don't make sense. Do you love quiet mornings but always drink too much to get up early? I would play with how characters are consistent but also surprising. Maybe fill in a bio for a person you know and see how their qualities break down.

Eve Montana said...

Hey Amanda, it's Elizabeth Ozemebhoya. Long time reader, first time poster. Congrats on your success!

Amanda said...

@Eve - Hey Liz! Good to hear from you! Thanks for the kind words. :)

TV Writer Jay said...

What exactly do you mean by style? Like dress style? Casual, formal, sporty, fashionista?

Also, if you study astrology and go deeper than just general sun signs and incorporate moon and rising signs it's a good way to get character ideas.

Amanda said...

@Jay - Yeah, I mostly mean fashion.. but style can permeate more than just clothes: your car, the way you decorate you house, what kind of music you listen to, etc. Thinking about all these lifestyle choices can get help you get into the heads of your characters, I think.

And the astrology stuff sounds like a good place to start if it interests you!