Friday, August 10, 2012

Should You Write a Character Sketch or a Character Biography?

In a past blog post, I extolled the virtues of writing character biographies—a form of prewriting which helps you get to know your main characters before writing the actual story.   

Character bios, I asserted, save you time and frustration by revealing the details which shaped each character’s life. 

Recently, two members of my writing group—both talented writers whose views I respect and have learned from—offered a different view. They prefer to write short character sketches instead of full-length biographies. Sketches, they assert, work best for characters the writer already knows well, whereas bios can become bogged down in extraneous detail.

They make a valid point. And this is a good excuse as any to point out that most writing advice—even tips from this blog—should be viewed as flexible guidelines, not hard and fast rules. What works for one writer may not work at all for the next.

But let's not dismiss the value of writing full-length character biographies. Bios go further than sketches and can help erase blind spots that inevitably come up in your novel. Bios can make your characters round instead of flat by revealing their hidden desires, needs or goals. Bios can even influence the direction of your story in positive ways.

What’s the difference between a character sketch and a character bio?  How do you know which will work for your story?  Let’s define our terms:
  • A character sketch is a short description that tries “to capture a character at his or her typical.”  Sketches “only give a snap shot” of the character—an encounter, perhaps, along with a desciption of her mental and physical states, important relationships, and so forth.
  • A character bio, which can be several pages long, takes the form of a narrative which describes every important event in the character’s life up to the time we encounter her in the story. Bios include physical and mental details, relationships (past and present), what she got for birthday presents, who she wanted to date in high school, what her first job was like, what she wore to the prom (or what it felt like not go to the prom), as well as her goals, dreams, and desires.
As Scribendi suggests, there can be some overlap in character sketches and character bios, depending on how detailed you want the former to be.

But if we stick to a hard and fast (and admittedly vague) definition that sketches are short and bios are long, we can discuss the pros and cons of each.

Character Sketches—Pros and Cons

At first glance, character sketches seem like useful shorthand if your novel has many characters or if you don’t want to get too deeply into a character’s back story or inner world. Character sketches are particularly useful for fleshing out secondary characters—those peripheral to the main action or who do not carry the story themselves, such as most of Harry Potter’s classmates and professors in the Harry Potter novels.

Why write sketches for secondary characters? Because you want even them to come across as authentic, believable, “real”. 

(There is, of course, a difference between secondary characters and minor characters ("extras"), who merely serve the needs of the plot. You probably don’t need a character sketch for the waitress who takes your main character’s order in the café, or the policeman who chases him down the alley after mistaking him for a lookalike con artist.)

Sketches for secondary characters are useful because each character in your story thinks of himself or herself as the main character in his or her own story. They are not aware that someone (you) is writing a story about a different character entirely—a person they consider secondary to their fictional lives! Therefore, sketches help your secondary characters become "real".

Because character sketches are brief, however, they cannot convey much information. They are like having a conversation with someone you just met over tea: You get some details, but not a complete understanding of the person. As a result, it's easy to jump to conclusions or come to a one-dimensional understanding about what drives the character.
Character Bios—Pros

Few people (bless them for their powers of concentration) focus exclusively on their present circumstances or problem at any given moment. Most of us are also dealing with our jobs, relatives, loved ones, hobbies, random ideas, illnesses, conflicts with others, neighbors, how we feel about ourselves, how we come across to others, etc. These thoughts go through our heads constantly, whether we want them to or not.

Isn’t it worth knowing what else is going through your character’s head in addition to the story problem he or she is trying to solve? 

An incident which happened to your character years ago may have some bearing on his present situation—but you’ll never know unless you create such an incident.

For example, it’s through character bio that we come to know Hermione Granger is Muggle-born and that Ron Weasley has a large, extended family—details which at first seem minor but which ultimately influence their personalities and play crucial roles in the Harry Potter story.

(And, for the record, no, I don’t know if J.K. Rowling wrote character sketches, bios, both, or neither. But her characters are so fully realized, I find it hard to believe she did not know every detail of their fictional lives early on in the writing process.)

Character Bios—Cons

Character bios have limitations, as well. As a writer, you can get so bogged down in the details of your character’s life that you forget to tell the present story. You can also become so enamored with the juicy back story you’ve created that you want to include all of it in your novel, resulting in a bloated whale of a narrative.

Character bios can also create the unfortunate impression of setting details in stone. Suppose you decide up front that your character’s birthday is in March, but, during the course of the story, you want him to celebrate his birthday in August. Just because you wrote March in his bio doesn’t mean you can’t change it.  That’s why the gods of word processing gave us a delete key.

Likewise, writing your character's biography doesn't mean you can't add to, change, or delete material as your novel progresses.  Think of all the biographies that are written about famous and historical people, how they uncover new details or present established information in a new light. Your character's bio can be living, breathing document, as well.

Writers have to make choices—sometimes painful ones—about what to include in the story. If writing is thinking, as most writing professors claim, character bios force us to think. They give us a pool of information to choose from—and it’s always better to cut things out of your story than to go back and have to invent details later on.

Best of all, character bios make such choices fun.  They enable you to discover your character and how fascinating he or she truly is.

Tell me your opinion.  Do you prefer writing character sketches or bios?

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