Avoiding Boring Character Biographies

Photo by fiddle oak

Today’s guest is David Corbett. David is the author of four novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime (a New York Times Notable Book), Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar), and Do They Know I’m Running? David’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Mission and Tenth, The Smoking Poet, San Francisco Noir and Best American Mystery Stories (2009 and 2011). He has taught both online and in classroom settings through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the U.S. He lives in Vallejo, CA.

His text on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, was published by Penguin in January 2013.

David says,

“Without deep and meaningful characters, a story is just a shell and series of events. I want to help authors create characters that come vividly to life on the page and linger in memory. It is helpful to beginning and advanced writers to learn to plumb the rich source materials of their own lives and the world around them to fashion credible, compelling characters.”

Check out David’s website, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter (@DavidCorbett_CA).

Avoiding Boring Biographies: Character profiles premised on description and information are a fool’s errand. Chuck them. Write scenes.

In The Art of Dramatic Writing Lajos Egri urges writers to construct detailed character biographies focusing on three principal areas:

Physical

Psychological

Sociological

I’ve embraced this approach, with an important caveat: I don’t compile details such as a character’s height, complexion, marital status, religion, occupation, favorite dessert, and most cherished pet. Instead I envision things scenically, focusing on the question: How does my character’s physical, psychological, and sociological makeup affect her interactions with others?

A static laundry list of information about a character may aid a description but it offers little guidance in dramatizing how she behaves.

The screenwriter Frank Pierson (Cool Hand Luke, Dog Day Afternoon, Presumed Innocent) recommended writing scenes outside the script to see how the characters act in moments of embarrassment and conflict not tied to the story. He argued that picturing when your character “puked on her shoes” was more valuable than knowing her hair color or whether she graduated from high school.

The approach I’ve ultimately taken in my own work (after considerable trial and error) expands on this, though to the greatest extent possible I try to focus on envisioning scenes that I’ll potentially use, or that reflect meaningfully on the story I intend to tell.

There’s a lot of ground to cover when exploring a character’s physical nature (appearance, sex, race, age, health, sexual appeal), psychological nature (love, hate, fear, pride, shame, guilt, success, failure), and sociological nature (class, education, work, family, friends, religion, politics). I try not to go overboard. What I’m after is a deep, vivid, living impression of the person I’m trying to depict—no more, no less. The rest lies in my story.

That said, imagining emotionally textured and revealing scenes that I ultimately discard is no waste of time; it’s an inevitable part of the writing process.

I don’t craft these scenes into final form. A mere sketch will do, enough to give me a vivid impression of the character engaged in some meaningful act.

I delve into key moments of real emotional impact—scenes of helplessness that in some way changed the character’s life, her understanding of herself, her standing among others.

ArtOfCharacter_DavidCorbettTo discover the character’s physical nature, I may envision scenes that explore:

  • When was she most ill, or most near death? Who cared for her, if anyone, and what bond was formed or undermined through that ordeal?
  • When has she felt most attractive, least attractive, with particular attention to who else was present at both times? How did she respond to the sexual desire that resulted—or didn’t? Who does she consider “in her league” and “out of her league” with respect to physical attraction?
  • How carelessly does she laugh? Has anyone mocked her laughter?
  • When has a lover praised—or denigrated—her body, her kiss, her lovemaking?
  • When has she been physically tested, either in sports or a moment of danger? How did she do—and how did that change how others judged her?
  • How carefully does she pick out her clothes, put on her makeup? Most importantly, who is she trying to please?

Looking into the character’s psychological nature—the most important area to explore:

  • When was my character most ashamed? (Shame is an invaluable tool in exploring character, for it involves other people.)
  • What was her proudest success, her most devastating failure—and how long has it been since each event? How did these moments define her subsequent sense of pride or insecurity?
  • Who does she love most, and is that person still in her life—if not, why not?
  • Who has she disappointed—or betrayed? Who has disappointed or betrayed her?
  • What’s the worst crime she’s ever committed? What crime might she commit if the circumstances were favorable? What crime would she never commit?
  • What is her most profound loss in love? How has that loss shaped her current relationship with openness and emotional risk?
  • What were her first, most shattering, and most recent encounters with death? How did these deaths shape her view of her own mortality?
  • And how do all of these facets combine to form the big question: What does she want from her life? What was the last major effort she made to pursue it—what happened?

Last, exploring the character’s sociological nature:

  • What were the best and worst moments at school? Which teachers and fellow students encouraged her, inspired her, belittled her, hated her?
  • How does she interact with people better educated than her, less educated? Does she have to hide how smart she is, or how dull? Who appreciates her jokes?
  • Where does she work, how does she feel about the job? Picture her arguing with or mollifying a superior, a co-worker, a client, a competitor.
  • How does she interact with people of different class or social standing? What’s her relationship with money?
  • If she goes to church, where and how often, how willingly? Who considers her admirable—or foolish—because of her faith?
  • Who does she consider “her tribe”? What would she have to do to get kicked out?

Again, I’m not looking for “answers”—I’m seeking out dramatic scenes where something is at risk.

Envisioning my characters in scenes like this opens them up in a way that descriptive biographies can’t. Why? Characters reveal themselves more convincingly in what they do and say than in what they think and feel.

Introspection and feeling are hardly irrelevant but our actions define us, specifically the way we behave toward others. Thought and feeling can be revoked, superseded, or countered by other thoughts and feelings; action commits us—it has consequences.

And how we act, especially in conflict, reveals what we want, how far we will go to obtain it, how willing we are to take responsibility, and what we think of ourselves and others.

A scene presents a kind of test, and we reveal ourselves most unequivocally when we’re tested. Why put off exploring such moments with your characters? Start there. You may surprise yourself at how much more quickly—and deeply—the rest of the writing goes.

How do you craft your characters? Has a particular technique worked especially well–or poorly–for you?

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About David Corbett

David Corbett is the author of five novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running? and The Mercy of the Night. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and numerous other venues. He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, Delve Writers, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, and in January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character

Comments

  1. says

    Hello David,
    What a great post! Thank you for sharing so much important information in such a clear and concise manner. It has given me a new way to look at character creation.

    In answer to your question, my characters reveal themselves much as a new friend does. The more time I spend with them, the better I know them. As the story evolves, so do the characters who people it. I totally agree with your point about envisioning one’s character and her reactions/actions/words in a variety of potential scenes and situations. I differ in that I don’t write them out. I carry those scenes, etc. in my head and mull them over until the right moment presents itself to include them or discard them based on where the story is going. I may try your more defined method in the future!

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    • says

      Hi, Linda:

      I once commented that characterization is a lot like the adult version of having an invisible friend, so your comment about thinking of your characters as your friends resonated.

      I think the most important thing any writer learns is how he or she works best. If carrying the scenes in your head works, go with it. I know that writing these scenes out — like any other action — commits me. I may go back and change what I’ve written as I get to know the character better, but the writing engages me in a way that merely thinking about it doesn’t. But that’s me.

      Thanks for the kind words and for jumping in here.

      David

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  2. says

    Hi David, nice to catch up with you here. To your fine considerations I’d add that when I can see and hear the character, that’s when life starts to happen. I look for a head shot first, then do a “voice journal” until the character starts talking to me in a unique way. After that I fill in details as needed.

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    • says

      James:

      Backatcha! I continue referring my students to your Plot & Structure. Excellent book.

      I know of several writers who keep a kind of character journal, written in the character’s voice. I’ve used this technique myself when a character isn’t clicking, and I need to ground myself in their thoughts and attitude and longing and emotions — their voice.

      And I also agree that once you believe you see the character clearly, it’s time to write. Don’t wallow in backstory.

      But a little pre-thinking can save you from filling in background that doesn’t quite click as you’re rolling along.

      Nice to hear from you. All the best.

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  3. says

    I use a modified version of Marshal Evans character profile list. I would say it’s a combo of Static Laundry and what you are speaking of.

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    • says

      Brian:

      I’m a firm believer in: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I don’t know Marshall Evans’s profile list, but if it works for you, by all means stick with it.

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  4. says

    David-

    Reading this post I’m jumping-up-and-down excited. Your approach to discovering characters is a road map to their hearts.

    Check out my book Writing 21st Century Fiction: Your questions under the heading of “psychological nature” are very close to some prompts I have in my chapter on the inner journey. You get it! Dude, we should have a beer and talk.

    Having done the work you lay out here, the author’s next task is to turn this knowledge it into story, observable events. I love your advice about testing characters in some way in each scene. I also believe that past shame, secrets, hurts and hopes can be themselves propulsive narrative engines. One can see this often in women’s fiction but in many other types of story too.

    Going to order your book now, David. The WU community today gets a big piece of story mastery to take home. Thanks for an unusually generous and useful post.

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    • says

      Donald:

      Well, thanks. Make me blush.

      Yes, one of the pitfalls of teaching character is it sometimes suggests an under-emphasis on story. This is cancer.

      The reason I suggest moments of pain, vulnerability, or helplessness is precisely because they point the way toward something else — a need to heal the pain, overcome the vulnerability, conquer the helplessness. And the brighter moments suggest a path to get there.

      I didn’t get to it in the post, but I often urge students to link scenes of emotional polarity — sadness and joy, shame and pride, success and failure — and think of them as two points on an arc. What scenes would you need to get from one to the other?

      Thanks for checking in, and I’ll definitely check out your book.

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  5. says

    I agree that characters who result from a checklist do not turn out feeling real and compelling. I love the idea of looking at these questions and practicing putting the character into scenes where something deeper about them is evoked. Awesome post!

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  6. says

    David, so many of your suggestions pull from a character’s core—I was struck by how considering some of them even made me squirm, which is telling.

    I’ve built some character maps before that were from the “she’s five-seven, two years junior college, dental hygienist” list, but these suggestions sweat—they have blood in their veins. Thanks!

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    • says

      Thanks for the kind words, Tom. I did the laundry-list approach for my first two novels and found I either forgot or dismissed or just plain didn’t use most of the “information” I gathered. It was always in scenes that I discovered the truth to the character. The rest, as they say…

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  7. says

    Thanks! This is helpful to me today, right now. I can’t really add much…I have been working along these lines creating my characters, but each time I hear these ideas voiced by someone new, it adds to my understanding. I’m working to move from knowing intellectually to actually doing. Moving from thought to action. Sometimes that happens immediately, sometimes the journey from mind to body/heart is long.

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    • says

      Mary:

      Don’t be discouraged by how long the road is.

      “There is no great writing, just great rewriting.” Ernest Hemingway.

      “Writing is rewriting.” — Eudora Welty.

      Keep at it. Sometimes it just takes time to sink into the emotional truth of your characters. I’m glad what I’ve said feels useful.

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  8. says

    Very helpful post! I get so bored trying to come up with the hair color, high school they attend and other boring facts like that but writing scenes sounds much more beneficial! Thank you!

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  9. says

    Thanks David for a great post! I am just starting out on my debut novel and I am working on character arcs now, so this helps a lot. I have two characters that come clearly to me, and they are the two main characters, but they aren’t all the way fleshed out, and this does help a lot. I’ve sent you a friendship request on Facebook. Your books sound great! I have a review blog for debut authors too if you would like to check it out I would be grateful for any comments. Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more of your helpful tips (I’m also following you on Twitter).

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  10. says

    I tend towards a combination approach. I have both Donald Maas’ and Evan Marshall’s books (as well as a couple of bookshelves of other authors). I like Donald Maas’ journal-like (as opposed to checklist) approach to characterization and Evan Marshall’s streamlined scene breakdowns that focus on character goals and conflict.

    I liked the post and I think I’ll expand the categories of questions a little more – in the manner of many self-help books (7 Habits comes to mind): Physical, Mental/Psychological, Social, Spiritual/Self-actualization. In addition to coming up with my own set of questions under each category, when a character reaches a point of decision, I’ll put the question and the decision they reached under that heading as well.

    Thanks for the great post. :)

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  11. says

    Brilliant post.
    The timing of this couldn’t be better because I’d recently turned a corner in character development.
    Someone posted worksheets on their page on how to map out personalities using the Myers-Brigg method. Interesting stuff. Not only have I found some new adjectives to describe my characters, but it gives me a little more to go on as to what sets them apart.
    Your post gives me even more to think about and that’s a good thing. My goal is to know my characters backwards and forwards before beginning the actual writing of the story. Aside from my ever-growing playlist, the characters will be what drives it.

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