The other day–last week, actually–I was at a Starbucks in a suburb of PDX, working on stuff for my novel while I waited for an appointment.
Specifically, I was working on character bios. I'd printed out the character dossiers I always fill in (which have spaces for things like height, weight, hair color, etc.) and I was filling them out for each of my characters. Somebody sitting near me glanced over and I found myself covering up the form.
Why? Because I felt dumb.
Which was an interesting reaction to ponder. It was so interesting I actually ended up pondering it rather than working on the character bio. Why something that is so important to a novel should feel dumb fascinated me. Because as far as I'm concerned, character is fiction. Well, there's that little matter of conflict, too, but conflict generally comes from two characters with opposing wants or needs.
For me, character begins with a fuzzy idea of someone doing something. Like a dark-haired woman driving through a rain storm, tired of trying to be brave, or a curly-haired blonde annoyed with a baby at a book signing. But in order for those characters to come to life, I need to learn about them, the details of what they look like, a little about their background, what their internal and external conflicts are, and so on. One can get incredibly involved in learning about one's characters, though it generally is a better idea to get to it and start writing after you've dealt with the basics.
So because of how vitally important it is to figure out the parameters of every character in a story, it seemed improbably that I would feel dumb at Starbucks. But I did. In pondering this,I've come up with several potential reasons why filling out a character bio might make a person feel dumb.
First, it can feel a bit mechanical to be writing down height, weight, eye color and so forth. But, trust me, you'll be glad you did. Because, sure as shooting, you'll be on page 150 and for some odd reason you'll need to note the color of your character's eyes and believe me, you will forget this. But if you've done your character bios, then you'll have a record of it that is easy to check.
Second, it can feel a bit presumptuous, sort of like playing God. Who am I to create a character who lives and breathes–if only in the imagination?
And, finally, all this stuff takes time. That is one thing we often don't take into account–writing takes time. Preparing to write takes time. We all have this idea that we should be able to sit down and write and have brilliance appear on the page. But brilliance comes from preparation and discipline. I am a proponent of writing regularly, three pages a day if possible. But in doing all this writing, there may come a time when once again you don't know what to write. And this is when knowing your characters comes in handy. You should know them well enough that you'll be able to figure out what they will do next.
I know, I know, it isn't always that easy. Oh, do I know that. But preparation and creating character bios will make it a little easier. And I, for one, will take any ease I can get.