Some characters are so dynamic, we feel immediately close to them. Everything they say, do, and think is consistent with who they are, they have a past and present, and as we share their experiences, we never have to guess at what they feel, want, or need.
This authenticity happens when the author does the deep work to understand the character inside and out. And, I’m betting they did something else, too: created a reference file about the character, a.k.a., a Character Bible. This is a great way to avoid unintentional inconsistencies and mistakes.
And mistakes do happen, because we forget things —Does Emma fear lizards or birds?—or we change our mind mid-book, and the love interest, Liam, goes from being a skateboarder to the king of parkour. Oh, and name changes? Don’t even get me started!
The point is that nothing pulls readers out of the story faster than when details shift, so implementing a way to keep each character straight in our minds is key.
The Character Bible: A Writer’s Best Friend
A character bible document will contain important details about a character, everything from their appearance, personality, and preferences to their backstory wounds, goals, needs, and secrets. It has a trio of benefits:
- It pushes you to explore a character’s inner layers to figure out who they really are and what’s driving them in the story
- Once complete, the bible serves as a reference tool for you to ensure everything about the character is consistent
- Writing is easier because how the character thinks, acts, and behaves will be second nature to you.
How detailed your bible is depends on how important the character is. Some things you may wish to capture:
What does your character look like? Do they have any interesting features that act as clues to readers as to the type of person they are? For example, hair: is their go-to a messy bun, is it chronically unwashed, or is every curl carefully tamed? Or do their clothes suggest a style preference or level of wealth? Do they have scars, marks, or defects that hint at an experience or trauma? Chosen well, specific details do a lot more than just help readers imagine what they look like.
Your character’s past affects the present, in good ways and bad. So, who has influenced them to date, either supporting them or limiting them? What personal challenges have they worked through? What negative experiences (emotional wounds) are unresolved, leaving behind fear, biases, and false beliefs about themselves and the world?
Answering these questions will give you a good sense of what their past was like, and the most likely things they will carry forward, like emotional baggage, a sense of duty, a compulsion to fix people, etc.
Every character will have a unique personality made of positive traits (strengths & identity markers) and negative traits (flaws that keep people and situations at a distance so the character can avoid being hurt by them). Think about both halves – this character’s defining positive qualities, and those that create friction with others.
Moral & Spiritual Beliefs
All characters, even the baddies, will have a moral code. Do you know what beliefs your character hold to so strongly they make decisions and are willing to sacrifice other things to stay true to them? Where is their line in the sand, and what ideas are important enough to them to protect?
Emotional Range & Behaviors
Each person expresses themselves in their own way, and characters will too. Think about your character’s individuality – are they open and communicative about feelings, or keep them inside? Are they demonstrative, or more reserved, extroverted or introverted, or somewhere in the middle? What are their quirks and comfort zones? Understanding a character’s typical emotional range helps you choose emotional responses that feel authentic.
Fears and Misbeliefs
Every character has fears that result from negative experiences, because that dark seed is planted that the same sort of hurt could happen again. So, what fear is making your character a prisioner in some way, shaping their view of the world, themselves, and holding them back from being truly happy? Do they believe they are unworthy or incapable because of this fear, and this destructive lie is one they must cast aside to achieve their story goal?
Talents, Skills, and Abilities
A character should have a few things they are good at, or an ability that make them unique. Giving your character a talent or skill that aids them when it comes to their goal (even in an unexpected way!) will create a sense of synchronicity for readers.
Likes and Dislikes
What are some of your character’s preferences…and why? Will these preferences steer their behavior in the story in good ways and bad? (Yes, the answer is yes.)
Hobbies, Interests, and Passions
What does your character enjoy doing? For a character to be realistic, they should have a few personal interests that make life more enjoyable. These may not even tie into the bigger story, but they do humanize your character to readers.
Just like a character has a past, they have a present, too. Note a few details about where they live, what their family situation is like, what job they do, the vehicle they use to get around, and any routines or habits that might show up in the story. Knowing your character’s life better will give you ideas on how you can poke their soft spots (people and places they are attached to) and choose conflict that will come with personal stakes attached.
What They Want Most
This goal should be something tangible or quantifiable, so readers know the character has done what they set out to do.
What They Need
Sometimes what your character wants and what they need are a bit different. Maybe your character wants a new girlfriend to get past the pain of their latest breakup, but what they need is time to love themselves better and understand why they keep choosing toxic partners. Thinking about what makes them feel incomplete and why can set them on the path of a goal that will help them grow and make them feel more complete.
Every character has a secret (maybe more than a few!) so think about what they hide from others. Is there something that could create big problems for them if it was revealed, or does it tie into their unresolved emotional wound? (Readers love secrets, and a hint of one will keep them flipping pages.)
How do they view the world – do they believe most people are good, or untrustworthy? Do they put others first, or look out for number one? Do they have biases, avoid certain places and experiences because they have preconceived ideas about what will happen, or refuse to listen to certain opinions that go against their own? If so, try to understand how this might tie to their backstory experiences.
Insecurities & Sensitivities
Life is not always gentle, and experiences where your character’s ego was bruised, or their emotions upended may have left them feeling insecure or easily triggered. If there are emotions your character tries to avoid feeling, or situations they stay away from because they make them feel weak, inept, or emotionally volatile, make a note. These are pointing to past pain, and you might wish to use them in the story to push them to become more self-aware so they can start a journey to healing.
This may seem like a lot to know about someone, but think of how easy it will be to write this character’s thoughts, decisions, and actions. And by writing when you down these details, you’ll have a character bible to reference when you need it!
A Tool that Creates a Character Bible for You
It takes time to uncover a character’s inner layers, we know, so we built a tool to help with that: the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers. Using psychology, it asks you the question you need to know about a character and collects the details into a profile that can be saved to your computer or transferred into certain software programs like Scrivener.
The Character Builder makes brainstorming characters faster and easier because it pulls characterization options from a giant database and shows you how choosing one detail about a character (like their job, or a personality trait) can help you brainstorm other details that naturally connect to that first detail. For example, if you decide your character is a teacher, the Character builder will show you a list of positive traits and skills that a teacher will likely have. With a click, you can add these traits or skills to the profile.
One Stop for Writers’ Character Builder will help you plan your character’s backstory, behavior, skills, goals, personality, fears, and everything else you need to know about them.
This profile is easy to update if you want to tweak something about them, and you can even clone the character profile and adapt a second one if you are thinking about this character and how they change in a series, keeping core details in place like their backstory and personality, but changing their goal, motivation, and perhaps an unresolved wound of set of fears that will play a big part in this new book.
Here’s a Character Bible I created so you can get a feel for what all the Character Builder can help you brainstorm. If you’d like to try the tool for yourself, just start a free trial. Happy creating!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.