Characters aren’t bios

There is a lot of advice about writing out here on the internet and in books and magazines, or even passed about by word of mouth on the rare occaisions writers leave the house. And some of that advice is excellent. Some is, well…

One popular piece of advice is that you have to “know your characters inside out”. This is true. And also not true.  “Really?” I hear you ask, oh eager and largely imaginary reader. “I hope you are going to explain.” Yes. Yes I am.

Yes, you do need to know your characters. How else can you write about them? People love stories, books, films, sketch, whatever because of characters. Characters that become more real to us than our real friends.

And that means you have to know everything about your character from their shoe size to what school grades they got through to the number of black t-shirts they have in their drawer, doesn’t it. Except, no. It doesn’t.

Knowing your character means knowing what they will do. Character is action. Stories are characters doing things. Knowing the character means knowing what they will do in a situation. Not knowing all the facts in their life. If facts are relevant, great, include them. But don’t make up facts for the sake of facts that will never affect anything and will only waste your writing time.

Take the cast of Red Dwarf for example. We know some back story, but we don’t need much to know what each character would do when faced with something new: Lister would eat it (if it’s curry), drink it (if it’s lager), try and impress it (if it’s female) or nut it (none of the above). Rimmer would try and take charge (if it’s safe) or run away (if it isn’t). The Cat wouldn’t care so long as it didn’t crease his shirt sleeves. We know what the characters would do, but I can’t tell you where Lister lived on Earth, or Rimmer’s school grades.

If listing all of that helps you, fair enough. Do what works. But don’t kid yourself: it’s prep, it’s not writing.

If you want to read more about different writer’s approaches to character bios look at this thread on comedy.co.uk. The conclusion among writers more experienced and succesful than I was: character outlines, yes; character bios, no.

Think about it, they made three films about the “The Man with No Name”.  Technically he has a name, but it doesn’t matter. Because, as a character, he is defined by what he does. They didn’t have to know his name. They just had to know what he would do.