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Writing Level-Up: Character Bios

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May 28th, 2010
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When working fiction for a video game we have to do character bios. It’s a fun job in the early stages of a product’s life cycle–describing a how a character looks, talks, moves and thinks or finding actors or characters in other media who this new character might resemble. Now, for the kinds of games I work on, writing a bio isn’t just important for the game’s designers and writers. The final product has other “customers” that need the information a character bio might contain–the concept artist who’s going to do some sketches, the sound guy who wants to start looking for voice actors, the animator who wants to know if we’re talking about a biped or quadruped, and so on.

But when writing my own fiction the only customer is me.

So far, when dealing with characters in a novel, I’ve found the exercise to be helpful in several ways. First off, even if the final character ends up different, the exercise  serves as a launching pad to work out some of the character’s key traits. I might put down a paragraph about someone and realize that, no, that’s not at all who this is, what they would say, wear, think, etc. Alternatively, I can see the value of figuring this stuff out on the fly as you’re writing, but if you’re stuck wondering what a character would do, it might be because you don’t know who that character is yet.

Next, the exercise of writing the bio often generates material that ends up going directly into the manuscript. It could be a phrase that captures the spirit of the character, or an anecdote about their past. I’ve written a physical description of a character for a bio that I later pasted right into the actual story (probably because I was imagining it from a PoV in the story, instead of some omniscient, dry PoV).

Last, sometimes I find myself coming back to a bio and refining it to match adjustments or decisions I’ve made while writing the actual manuscript. The result of that is that later, at the end, I can distill the longer bio down to a few bullet points and use that as a filter to analyze and edit the manuscript.

So, what do I put into a character bio? I don’t have a strict template, because I don’t really believe in that (or maybe I’m lazy). For me it’s more about “what sticks out about this dude” that ends up in there. Generally though, I tend to include things like physical descriptions, key personal traits, quirks, goals, background info … again, whatever floats to the top.

With that in mind, here’s an excerpt of a bio for one of the main characters from Jack of Hearts that I wrote before starting the novel. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Moribrand:


Moribrand is a weasel.

His mind is never at ease–it’s always scheming, always ruminating over some plan of revenge against an imagined or real slight, always lost in a fantasy of retribution wherein his foes are humiliated (realizing only in their last moments how they underestimated his genius as  they beg for mercy). His unease is manifested outwardly in several nervous physical habits: his slender fingers are always drumming, pleating, smoothing. When he can be, Moribrand is a glutton for fine drink and food, which he consumes greedily to cope with his tension, hence his pudgy corpulence.

Moribrand is self-centered. He is a slave to the tyranny of the judgment of others. Always he’s imagining what others might be thinking of him–that he’s inferior or a fool in some way. Therefore he is ever suspicious and critical. (It would never cross his mind that most people aren’t thinking about him at all!)

Moribrand is in his early 40’s and of  average height, flabby in his middle and slender shouldered. His face is double-chinned and his eyes gleam like black buttons punched into an over-stuffed pillow. Thinning dark curls cover his head, often damp from a nervous sweat. Moribrand’s hands are slender and soft, like one might imagine a skilled pianist would posses, except they move and dart quickly, like spider’s legs.

Moribrand detests nothing more than seeming lowly, therefore he will, when able, dress in the best finery. He will select robes and jewelry befitting his station (as he sees it, anyway).

Sounds like a real winner, right? Moribrand turned out to be a little different in the story. As I wrote (and got feedback) Moribrand’s bio altered in some ways and expanded in others (like, why is Moribrand this way). But this was the snapshot I started with.

What about you? Do you write bio or sketches for your characters?

“Dear Lucky Agent” Contest

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May 27th, 2010
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I decided to submit the first 200 words of my novel, Jack of Hearts, to the “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest over at the Guide to Literary Agents site. Today is the last day. Almost forgot about it until a calendar reminder popped up in my face while checking my email. We’ll see how it goes.

Anyone else out there that’s interested: the theme is Fantasy/Sci-Fi. YA fantasy and Sci-fi is OK too. You’ve got about 4 hours left. Go!

Writing Level-Up: Near Successes

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May 21st, 2010
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Yesterday, Raphael Colantonio (founder and CEO of Arkane Studios) delivered a five-minute micro-talk at the Austin IGDA. Before giving his speech, he rehearsed it in front of some of us at the office. It was a great talk. Over the years, Arkane has had its share of successes. But they’ve also experienced some gut-wrenching setbacks and have had their hearts broken over a few titles. Depending on where you’re standing and what you value, it might be easy to look at their history and call all of those negative experiences failures. But Raf doesn’t. Looking back from where Arkane is now, he believes they matter. They are part of a larger, unfolding drama that has given Arkane valuable developer  experience, strengthened their resolve, and facilitated meeting some amazing people. So he calls them “Near-Successes”.

I think that’s a really healthy attitude and I think the same can hold true for writing. Went to a critique group and got your precious prose smacked around? Necessary Near Success. Had an agent tell you there’s no merit whatsoever in the genre you happen to be writing in? Necessary Near Success. Have a stack of rejection slips thick enough to stop bullets? All near successes.

From now on, every time I get a rejection in the mail I’m going to call it a “Near Success.” After all, if you look at it from a certain point of view, it’s true. You  may have seen the great A Million Bad Words post before, or heard about Malcom Gladwells 10,000 hours rule. Both great ideas that say you can’t skip. You’ve got to put in the hours.

For some reason I’ve always pictured a magician pulling an infinite stream of scarves out of his mouth, pulling and pulling past all the janky, ratty rags, until he gets to the bright silk. Weird right?

Whatever you’re writing, no matter how much you beat yourself up or think it’s a total crap-a-lanche, you can’t stop. Ride it out and write it out so you can get to the good stuff.

Writing Level-Up: Point of View

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May 15th, 2010
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[Occasionally I'll post about my experiences trying to improve as a writer. If you’re a writer you might find something useful. Sometimes the topic will converge on game design, my other vocational passion.]

This was an eye-opening lesson for me. I had a sort of general, fuzzy awareness of point of view. I knew the difference between third person and first person. However, I wasn’t even conscious of some of the subtle ways I was violating perspective conventions that seem to be the norm in modern speculative writing. I won’t go into defining what all the possible POV approaches to writing in general are. You can read about them here.

But, if you’re writing fantasy (especially young adult fantasy) the advice from editors tends to be pretty strict these days: every sentence should be written from the perspective of one of the characters, even if it’s 3rd person POV. The reader can only know what the POV character knows and see what they see, and if the POV changes to another character, this should be the beginning of a new scene.

Here are several POV mistakes I made from time to time, until someone brought them to my attention. Avoiding this stuff is second nature now, but occasionally a POV wobble creeps in. Here’s what to watch out for:

Don’t head-hop in the middle of a scene.
If John is our POV, if we get to read John’s thoughts, then don’t give us the direct thoughts of people around John. Don’t do this:

John scowled at the cat and stuck his tongue out. Cats were crap. He didn’t understand why Jane wanted one so badly, of all creatures. Ever since one had gouged his cheeks as a child he’d rather see them kicked across the room than cuddled.

“Gah, what’s your problem, John?” Jane asked, turning away to shield the poor kitten from his withering look. She glared at him. What a jerk. Why did he hate cats so much?

An editor once gave me a good piece of advice. Every time you sit down to write ask yourself this: whose eyes and thoughts am I seeing this through? Make sure you stay in that person’s POV throughout the scene. The POV character must intuit other characters’ thoughts and emotions from their words, their tone of voice, their expressions and body language, etc.

Don’t use character labels that distance.
For instance, if Joe the angsty teen is our main character, don’t do this:

Joe shuffled into the grocery store and paused, eyes skimming over the crumpled list in his hand. Milk, eggs, bread … tampons. Tampons? Oh Jesus. The teenager couldn’t believe his mom had put tampons on the list. There was no way. He’d rather shoplift before plunking a pink box of feminine hygiene product onto the conveyor belt. Of course, the thought of getting busted with a box of tampons in his trousers made his cheeks burn. Today was going to suck.

Calling him ‘the teenager’ when he’s our POV character bumps the reader back to a more omniscient point of view. It’s probably not ‘wrong’ but I think it has the effect of detaching the audience.

Don’t tell outside the character’s POV.
Every once and a while, “narrator voice” can slip in and describe things in a way that is beyond the scope of your POV character’s perceptions (or concerns), or even worse, may sound like the author commenting:

Maggie wiped a drop of sweat trickling down her forehead with the back of her wrist before it ran into her eye. She cursed under her breath and sat back. The lock’s mechanism was impossible.  Four wire-thin picks already lay broken on the ground in front of the door. Only one left. On the other side of the door her so-called friends made faces at her. Maggie’s fingers were too thick and clumsy, which is why she rarely succeeded at anything requiring manual dexterity.

Maggie can’t see her friends on the other side of the door. She could possibly hear them, and even imagine that they might be making faces, but she doesn’t know that they are. And the last sentence sounds like the author passing judgment on Maggie. Bad author!

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning that not everyone follows these rules precisely. Some people bend them. Some people break them into a million pieces and still write stuff that kicks ass. You’ll have decide for yourself how strictly to follow these conventions, taking into account the genre you’re writing it, your own goals as a writer, and the advice of your editor.

What do you guys think?


As a game designer, I think it’s interesting that the current “3rd person limited” approach popular in modern fantasy writing has parallels in the world of game design. Like writers, game developers consider the player’s perspective in a game (e.g. first person, or third person). In recent years there has been a swell of games that retain a third person POV camera, but push in closer to the player’s character, to an ‘over the shoulder’ style viewpoint, but the controls feel more like a first person perspective game. I worked on one myself for a year. This has the effect of giving a visceral, immediate, feel to the game, but still letting player’s see their character from the outside. Gears of War is probably the most popular example of this. It’s a peculiar hybrid of objectivity and subjectivity, in the same way that “3rd person limited” is in writing.

Sneak Preview: Shock Totem

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May 12th, 2010
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Late last year I sold my short story, The Rat Burner to Shock Totem magazine. Just a while ago Ken Wood, editor of the magazine, sent me a preview of the cover. Check it out:

Shock Totem #2

The font/color might change slightly between now and print, but that’s the art. Pretty cool. I’ll update again once the magazine is available. Very soon!

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About Me

Ricardo Bare
Austin, Tx

Ricardo Bare is a writer and game designer living near Austin, Texas. Currently he works as a game designer for Arkane Studios, which in 2012 released Dishonored. Ricardo started his career in the games industry working on the Deus Ex series, winner of the BAFTA and numerous other Game of the Year awards.

Ricardo is the author of Jack of Hearts and Fool of Fate, the first two books in a young adult fantasy series.


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