I Don’t Always Write Character Bios… #amwriting

characterbios…but when I do, I usually do it during the rough draft or after the book is finished.

I usually don’t use character bios as part of the pre-writing process, but as part of the writing or re-writing process. My story lines are generally pretty floppy and loose when I start out. Then, as the characters face choices, I need to understand why they choose the way they do or behave the way they behave. I need to decide if I need to underpin what they’ve said and done, rewrite it, give it to somebody else, or what.

I was talking about Matt Walton yesterday, so I dug out his character bio. I’m not sure how much of this I wrote when, since I’ve rewritten A DEAD GUY AT THE SUMMERHOUSE several times, but I know some of it was written before the last rewrite.

I won’t post the whole thing, because it’s pages long. Here’s how I start it out:

Matthew Walton

Dramatic Need: To find out if his son, Andrew, is a Satanic nutcase.

Point of View: Practicality before all. This leads to a certain amount of “situation ethics” and impatience with “vaporings” and imagination.

Change: Softens up some. Learns that the impractical is sometimes more valuable and the improbable sometimes more likely than otherwise.

Attitude: Gruff, though not cruel. Brusque, businesslike. Showing vulnerability and uncertainty are hard on him. Thinks he’s showing affection, but others don’t see it.

Born: 1911 (The book is set in 1968)

How old when story begins: 57

Then I do these, which I won’t bog you down with:

About father:
About mother:
Siblings/relations and relationships:
Personal aspects: (what he looks like)
Professional aspects:
Private aspects:
Life to start of story:

Then my favorite thing: Ten questions I’d like to ask my character. Sometimes I do ten things I KNOW about my character and then ten things I don’t know and would like to ask. I try to answer the questions by crawling into the character’s POV; that most often results in developing a distinct (to me) voice for the character. It’s so exciting when that happens!

Here are a few of Matthew’s:

1. Why are you so crabby with Amelia?
I have no patience with her, if that’s what you mean. She’s never cared about anything but having fun. She brought that good-for-nothing Albert Alaister here and now she stays and snipes at me. Oh, I have a certain amount of compassion for her, at her time of life. She’s the last of her brothers and sisters, her parents are gone, of course, and she has no children of her own. She feels guilty about Alaister, and she’s taking that out on me; I understand that. The point is, I don’t like it.

2. What do you think about having your son at home?
I don’t know what to think about it. He was doing excellent work in the labs, I was told; then he got this bee in his bonnet about chaos or turbulence or whatever it is. Lot of nonsense, it seems to me, and what good is it anyway? What’s the practical use of it? Sounded to me like he took a snit with the other fellows and ran home–that isn’t like Andrew, though, so there must be more to it than that. I like having him around, though. We’re very close, you know.

3. Oh, yeah? Then how can you suspect him of Satanism?
Well… You can be close to someone and still not understand everything about him. He has something on his mind lately, not just work, I mean. I found those notebooks. This chaos business is so bizarre.

4. What do you eat for breakfast?
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
Every morning?
Every morning.

5. When do you plan to retire?
When I drop dead in the harness or when I’m forced out by hungrier lions.

appallingA DEAD GUY AT THE SUMMERHOUSE or, as I call it for short, Dead Guy, is available in print from independent bookstores through IndieBound and from Amazon in print and for Kindle. The audiobook will be out Real Soon Now. You can also read the first chapter on my Dead Guy page.

Indiebound http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781942166085

Amazon http://bookshow.me/1942166087

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Ask your main character ten questions you don’t know the answer to, deep or trivial. If you don’t have a main character yet, pick a name out of the phone book and build a character using those headings I used.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “I Don’t Always Write Character Bios… #amwriting

  1. Dan

    January 11, 2016 at 8:53am

    That’s actually pretty amazing. I am impressed. I don’t write fiction, but I do work with a “character” of sorts in my “If we were having a beer” posts. I have had to go back and check previous posts, so I don’t have my buddy say something that is out of character. Periodically, I check with my bartender before committing her to something she wouldn’t support. I might give this a shot.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 11, 2016 at 10:48am

      Those … those aren’t real conversations? :*( But Cheryl is real, right?

      Character sheets are just like any other writing tool: useful when they’re useful, but not imperative.

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  2. Jane

    January 11, 2016 at 9:08am

    I like.

    One of the best writing tips I ever found was dredged out of a huge treatise on the subject, but I can only recall one pearl: What does this character WANT?

    Since that can change from time to time, I have to keep on asking myself the same question, just in case the answer varies. It’s kind of important, because writing needs to have Something propelling it forward. It can’t all be about stuff that happens TO a character; that sucker has got to get in there and ACT!

    Anyway, I like this post. It shows real clarity.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 11, 2016 at 11:22am

      When you come right down to it, there are any number of answers to “What does this character want?” There’s usually a few existential wants that underpin everything, like Respect, Survival, Belonging. Then there’s the character’s goal in the story, which may or may not change as the plot advances. AND, the character wants something in each scene or conversation or exchange. Sometimes you’re better off just letting those play out subconsciously but, if you’re stuck, sometimes it helps to chart some of those out. That’s how it works with me, anyway.

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  3. Patricia Stoltey

    January 11, 2016 at 2:32pm

    I did something like this for my Sylvia and Willie characters because I intended to write a series. I think that would be the only way I could keep track of returning characters.

    For the standalones, though, I haven’t put anything this detailed on paper. If a piece of the character’s background or motivation is that important, then I include it in the novel.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 11, 2016 at 3:01pm

      The more different a character is from me, the more I feel the need to explore his/her interior in order to be true to it. It sometimes points me in a more interesting direction than I had thought of before, too. But, as always, I do what works, and try to avoid what gets in the way. Thanks for stopping in, Patricia!

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  4. A.C. Flory

    January 12, 2016 at 2:33am

    Gah…you make me feel so inadequate. 🙁 I may do a quick and dirty bio half way through, just so I don’t forget important ‘facts’ – like height, birthday, age etc – but other than that my poor characters get zip. :/

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 12, 2016 at 8:45am

      Well, The Most Interesting Man In The World says, I don’t always do them, and I might not do them until the rough draft is finished, and then only if I feel like the motivation is shaky or the characterization is thin. Or I might do one before I write much, just because my feeling about the character is vague and I need to firm it up for myself. It’s a big ol’ heavy tool, and I only use it if I need it. Because I’m lazy efficient.

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