Let’s talk about character bibles. When I took a screenwriting class years ago at NYU, creating a character bible, lowercase on that “b,” became an ingrained habit for me that I use in my novels. (Learning screenplay format is also excellent for dialogue, where every word counts!)
But I digress. When I’m working on a character who will be an important one in a new mystery, I start with this bible, which goes beyond their physical appearance. I’ve done this in more depth for the main and recurring characters, sometimes embellishing and embroidering this bible as the book progresses and I get to know them better.
So what’s in my character bibles? First I usually decide where this person came from, and from what kind of family. Is she an only child who yearned for a sibling? Was he one of six kids in a boisterous family?
Answering this question, really an assignment, leads to more roads to go down: what were this family’s dynamics? What kind of baggage did that family leave my character carrying? How do they react to stress as an adult, learned behavior as a child?
How has this developed their personality? Is this person an extrovert or an introvert or somewhere in-between? Maybe this character is artistic or loves literature, while another may love to cook and yearns to study at Le Cordon Bleu and be the next Julia Child. Maybe this gal has a talent for turning textiles into art (Nora’s best friend, Val, in the Nora Tierney English Mysteries) and has started an artisans cooperative to showcase the talents of other crafters.
Or maybe this guy can’t get over his mother’s suicide and has become a raging psychopath intent on taking out as many British people as he can (the villain in The Golden Hour).
Whatever backstory I create for any important character, their family life will be key to many decisions about their personality. We all carry baggage from our childhoods. I’m convinced there are no carefree families without issues; it’s a matter of degree that lends stability.
Then I move on to education. Is this person someone who has had college or technical training, or learned on the job, or dropped out of school? How has that affected them and their job prospects and future? Are they someone who always has a book in their hand, or are they glued to their video games?
I think about social issues, too, and whether this person is liberal or conservative, to what degree, or a mash of both. Is this person someone who will open a window to let a bee out or one who will smash it to smithereens? Do they compost and like to garden, or do they deliberately refuse to recycle as an act of defiance? Would they stop to help an aging stranger put her groceries in her car, or ignore that same situation, or maybe even cut in front of an elderly person on the checkout line simply because they can.
All along this process, I’m aware that the majority of what I’m designing may not ever appear in the book. But this information infuses my knowledge of my character and helps me decide how they would act and react in situations. I’m also careful to only parse out bits of their backstory that is pertinent to this story.
Whatever attributes I assign as I go along, there are always two things I definitively decide: What does this person fear the most and what does this person desire the most?
Sometimes, those are the key questions that lead me to all the other answers.
Writers: How do you create the backstory for your characters?
Readers: How much backstory do you like to learn about main characters?