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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

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!)

Physical
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?

6 Comments

  • Adam Heine

    I do sometimes (though rarely as detailed as this). Mostly I keep track of vital stats and backstory for continuity’s sake. And when I get stuck, I try to think of what that character really wants. I know I should think of that long beforehand, but every once in a while a character falls through the cracks of drafting.

  • Clark Crawford

    I’m really enjoying these Ricardo. Even though I don’t write, I find a lot of this applicable to music composition or any other form of artistic expression. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ricardo Bare

    Adam–yeah, I hear you. I’m too lazy to do this for everyone. A few characters have crystallized for me as I’m writing and I haven’t gone back to write or expand on their bio. (Jacosta, for instance, is just a list of five bullet points I jotted quickly).

  • Ricardo Bare

    Clark: thanks man. Glad you’re digging it. Hey, didn’t you say at one point your SO was taking up writing? Hope that’s going well!

  • Bill Money

    I’m learning tons from your blog, keep in going! :) I’m in the process of writing a mini-RPG full of dialog, so I need all the help I can get ;)

  • Ricardo Bare

    Nice! That’s cool Bill. Thanks man.Sounds like you’re into all kinds of interesting things at the moment :)

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About Me

Ricardo Bare
Austin, Tx
USA







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.

JACK OF HEARTS

Amazon [paperback & kindle]
Barnes & Noble [paperback & nook]
iBooks [ebook]

FOOL OF FATE

Amazon [paperback & kindle]
Barnes & Noble [paperback & nook]

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