You’ve determined who your main characters will be as well as their relationships to one another. Now is the time to go deeper into these characters. You’ll do this by creating a biography of each one of them. By “biography” I simply mean their life story. You may not know their whole life story at first, so, in the beginning, write down what you do know about them right now. Then, keep adding to the biography as you know more and more about the character. Why is this important? It’s important because, in order to understand what a character wants and why he does what he does, you have to know the past that shaped him.
Here I have to add that you will not be revealing this whole biography in your novel. In fact, much of it will never appear there. What it will do is help you to create a well-rounded character that your reader can believe in. And, when you do reveal parts of the character’s biography, sprinkle it sparingly throughout the novel rather than devoting a whole page his past.
Now, these biographies are for you, the writer, so they don’t have to be written perfectly. It’s more important to just get this background information out onto the page.
What Should You Include?
1. What does she look like? (I often cut pictures out of magazines that resemble my characters and attach these to the biographies).
2. Does she have a distinguishing mark or a unique way of walking or talking? Is there some gesture that she always makes, like twirling her hair around her finger?
3. Briefly, tell yourself the character’s life story, up to this point. Where was she born? What were her parents like? Her siblings? Did she get along with them or is there something in this relationship that still upsets her today? What traumas did she face in her life? Did she go to college? Does she have a love interest? Does she have enemies?
4. What would she like to change about her life? What has she learned?
5. What does she value most in life? — Friendship, Love, Security? Adventure? Truth? How will you, the writer, make these values come alive on the page? I must add here that for good internal conflict within a character, she should have several competing values that are constantly battling each other within her. For instance, it could be very important to her to keep advancing in her job and yet she could desperately want to have a child, knowing that doing so would cause a big setback to her career advancement.
6. What is her goal in life and how does she intend to achieve it?
Remember — You’ll need to compile a biography for all of your major characters. And it’s important that the values of these characters conflict with the values of other characters, since without conflict, there is no story!
Presenting Your Characters
Now you know who your characters are. How do you make them real for the reader? How do you reveal who they are? There are five major writing devices you will employ for this purpose.
Action: What a character does tells you a lot about them. And when his actions don’t jibe with his words, that tells you even more. His actions can also tell you what he thinks of the other characters. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck decides to stay with Jim, even though he believes he’ll go to hell for doing so,his actions tell you how much he cares about his friend.
Dialogue: What a character says and how he says it tells you a lot what kind of a person he is and how he feels about the other characters. Does he talk harshly to one person and kindly to another? Does he try to impress one girl with his knowledge, yet speak to another girl in short, clipped phrases? Dialogue can also reveal a character’s level of education and intelligence, as well as where he’s from. So, use your dialogue as a tool to reveal your character to the reader.
Flashback: Flashbacks are an excellent way to bring in some of the information from the biography of a character. Be sure not to overuse this technique, though. Save it for the most important things that you want to reveal about your character’s past, events that shaped who he is today. This will help your reader to empathize with him.
Description: The way a person dresses can also tell you a lot about him and how he feels about himself. Does he dress like a slob, not caring how he looks or does he dress impeccably, wearing only the latest styles, and what does his devotion to fashion tell you about him? How does he wear his hair? How does he walk — in a shambling gait or in precise, clipped steps? Just make sure that your descriptions stay true to your vision of the character throughout the novel.
Internal Monologue: What does a character think about what is going on in the novel? One of the best ways to reveal how he feels is through internal monologue, that is, what he says to himself. He may treat another character kindly, but the reader finds out through an internal monologue that he really despises this person and is being kind to him only because he needs something from him. Also, by being privy to his thinking, the reader can discover what the character doesn’t understand about what is going on in his life.
So, writing biographies will breathe life into your characters, allowing you to make them real for your readers.