In my last blog post when I was talking about preparing for NaNoWriMo I mentioned character bios. This week I’m going to go into character bios in-depth. I find writing outlines or bios for my main characters helps me get a good feel for my character before I start writing and I find I can slip into their voices much easier. These are some of the ways I prepare my characters:
1. Character Biography/Outline Sheet
This is a page (or pages) of information/facts about my character. This is where I take a vague idea in my head and start nutting out the details of who my character is. I’m going to use the character of Harry Potter as an example to show you how I set out my character bio sheet.
Name: Harry James Potter (if my character goes by a nickname I include it here too)
Age: 11 years, born 30th July
Physical features: Dark, messy hair that always sticks up at the back; green eyes; wears cousin’s oversized hand-me-down clothes; wears glasses; skinny and scrawny.
Personality: brave, curious, loyal, kind, quick-tempered, fair-minded
Family: Lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin because his parents died when he was a baby (killed by dark wizard, but he believes they were killed in car crash). They are a middle class family and live in a three bedroom home. Uncle works for a drilling company. Harry is treated badly by all members of the household and his bedroom is the cupboard under the stairs.
Strengths: humble, kind to others, willing to fight for what’s right
Weaknesses: quick temper, disregard for rules, curiosity that leads him into trouble
Power: Wizard (I include this one for my fantasy novels)
I may add more bits and pieces to this as I write, for example I may come back and include his address 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging. Character sheets are a good way to keep track of details as you write so you don’t end up with character inconsistencies (eg: he has green eyes in chapter one, but blue eyes in chapter twelve).
2. Character Interview
While the character sheet gives a basic overview of the character, and interview goes more in-depth. During the interview have your character answer in their own voice. This is a good way to develop your character’s voice. These are some of the interview questions I use (and I’ll use Harry Potter as an example again).
Describe your family. Parents, siblings, pets, alive, dead…
My mum and dad died when I was a baby, so I live with my mother’s sister, my aunt Petunia, and her husband, my uncle Vernon. I’m basically fungus between their toes. They dote on my cousin Dudley. He’s a spoilt brat and about as wide as two houses. Bullying me is his favourite sport. I don’t have any pets, aunt Petunia thinks animals are too dirty to be allowed.
If your house was on fire and you only had time to grab three things, what would they be?
I don’t really have anything worth grabbing, all my stuff is hand-me-downs from my cousin Dudley and it’s all rubbish.
Are you religious at all, and if so, in what way?
No. Although aunt Petunia makes us all go to church on Sunday at the local Anglican.
What is your race/social status?
I’m caucasian. I suppose you could say we’re middle class, although aunt Petunia likes to think we’re upper class.
If you are at school, do you think you fit in? If not, why? (For an adult character you can exchange school for work)
No I don’t. Dudley always made sure of that. He bullies me daily with his group of thugs. No one dares make friends with me because they’re too scared of Dudley and his gang.
What is the one thing you care about most in the world?
I don’t really have anything or anyone. I know I should say my aunt Petunia, but I doubt she cares about me. I wish I had a photograph of my parents.
If you had to spend the rest of your life doing one thing only, what would it be?
Living as far away from the Dursleys as possible.
What’s the last thing you’d be caught doing?
What was the best experience of your life, and why?
Probably when my parents were still alive, but I can’t really remember. I have this vague memory of this woman smiling at me, but I don’t know if it’s real or not.
What was the worst day of your life?
The day Dudley and his gang chased me into a stinging nettle bush. Uncle Vernon wouldn’t even let me put cream on the stings because he said it served me right not looking where I was going.
Describe the sort of person you’d want to marry, if you married at all.
Someone kind and who loves me for me.
What do you look for in a friend?
Someone who actually wants to hang around with me and who is a decent person (I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who is mean to others).
If you go to school, what are your favourite and least favourite school subjects, and why? (For an adult character you can change this to work duties)
My favourite subject is sport, mostly because I know I can always outrun Dudley. My least favourite is art, because Dudley and his mates flick paint and bits of dried clay at me when the teacher’s back is turned.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Anywhere that isn’t Little Whinging. I’d like to find out where my parents lived and go there.
Sum yourself up in five words. (You can also ask how they would sum up other main characters in the story)
skinny, orphan, friendless, independent, smart
You might have noticed I answered the questions from the perspective of Harry as he would answer prior to the events of the books. You could also do an interview of how your character would answer during the events of the story, obviously Harry would answer differently once he’d started at Hogwarts, had made some friends and was away from the Dursleys. Here’s an exercise to try: Answer these questions from Harry’s perspective after he starts Hogwarts (or if you haven’t read Harry Potter chose a character from another book).
3. Character Picture.
A character picture helps give you a solid image of what your character looks like. Here are some of the methods I use:
Sketch – I’m not a great artist, but sometimes I like to grab a pencil and sketch out what my character looks like. What would he/she wear? What hair colour/length does he/she have? What colour eyes?
Sims – This is one of my favourite methods, especially with the more recent versions of Sims, because there are a lot of options for creating your character’s physical appearance. You can adjust skin tone, eye colour, hair style, build, clothes style, even nose and mouth shape. You can also choose your character’s personality (and in Sims 3 you can also choose life goals). When I’m done creating my character I print screen and save the picture. If you don’t have Sims, there are various sites around with ‘dolls’ you can design to look like your characters (although the problem with many of these is they don’t often have male dolls).
Character Collage – For this one I grab a stack of old magazines and search for pictures relating to my character. I’ll look for people sporting the same style of clothes or hairstyle or I’ll look for objects relating to my character. For example, when doing a collage for my character Ava I’d look for pictures of people with short red hair or black clothes and pictures of ipods and phones. It’s a good way to show physical appearance and personality.
With only a week to go until NaNoWriMo begins, this week I will be focusing on my characters and getting to know them better. I’d be interested to know what other methods you use when getting to know your characters.