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You’re soaring right along in your novel or short story when suddenly you’re stuck. Your character reaches the crisis point or has to make a decision. What does he do? Does he go left or right?
All writers face this dilemma at one point or another. The great idea you had in the back of your mind now seems unworkable. Your character could make either choice and it doesn’t matter. Or, worse, you’ve been “winging” it all along and now there’s no wind to keep your story aloft.
But much uncertainty can be avoided if you take one simple precaution: Before you write the story itself, write your main character's biography.
A character biography is not the same thing as your story. Whereas your story will probably center on one crucial event or series of related events in your character’s life (“How Luke defeated Darth Vader”, “How Dorothy traveled to Oz and got back home”), the biography is an account of everything that’s happened in the character's life up until the moment we encounter her in the story.
A biography includes date and place of birth, parents’ names, siblings (if any), friends, the character’s physical attributes (height, weight, hair color, eye color, and so on), occupation, education, and even seemingly minor aspects such as her favorite color, favorite music, and sense of humor.
Furthermore, a biography does not merely list these aspects. A biography should incorporate them into a mini-narrative – four or five pages, max— to show you how the details weave together and form the sum total of your character's fictional life.
The most important thing about your character biography is that the vast majority of these details will never be mentioned in your story.
So why write a character biography?
Because the more you know about your character, the more you know whether he will turn left or right, how he will behave in the crisis, and the probable outcomes from his choices.
Think about the choices you’ve made as a living, breathing human being. Whether it’s who to marry, where to live, what job to take, or even what to order for lunch, weren't those choices based on some combination of your previous experiences, fears, or preferences?
If you know you like chocolate cake because you’ve always liked chocolate cake, you’re more apt to order it for dessert than the peach meringue rhubarb pie, which you’ve never had before and which doesn’t sound appealing because you don’t like peaches or rhubarb. On the other hand, if you’re sick of chocolate because you had a mocha almond shake yesterday, you might take a chance on something new.
So it is with your character. If a group of older boys taunted her on the playground when she was 11, she might be wary of men as she grows older. In The Da Vinci Code, we learn that Robert Langdon nearly drowned as a child, an experience which left him claustrophobic; not only does this detail reveal more about his character, it plays a key role in the story.
While writing my own novel, I’ve learned that because my young character likes root beer, he is favorably disposed toward a character who gives him root beer candy; this leads him to make a crucial decision later in the book. Also, his devotion to a particular TV series influences how he interacts with certain other characters.
Know your character as well as (or even better than) you know yourself, and you’ll know exactly how he’ll respond in any given situation. You may even find yourself saying the story is writing itself.
What has your character biography taught you about your character?