August 28th, 2020

Creating a Bible for Characters and Screenwriting

By Ellen Buikema

A character bible is a document filled with all you need to know about your characters’ motivations, personalities, physical characteristics, and background story, including family.  Not everything in the character bible will find its way into your manuscript, but the information will be easily available for your reference when needed.

Several chapters into writing The Hobo Code, I found myself in “Look, there’s a squirrel” mode. This is never pretty. When I was able to regain focus, I realized I’d written the wrong physical description for one of my main characters. In order to fix this, I reviewed several chapters to find the information I needed to continue the story. At this point, I had not begun a character bible. That incident pushed me to get on that!

How To Make a Character Bible

There is no wrong way to make a character bible.

It can be composed using a notebook, yellow sticky notes on butcher paper, or as a three-ring binder full of loose-leaf paper separated by tabbed dividers in multiple colors. Whatever works best for the writer. This YouTube video shows how to put together a story bible in a binder and includes free templates.

Not everyone likes to use paper methods. Some prefer to use software. Thankfully there are many to choose from for organizing and storing character information.

  • One Stop for Writers has a great Character building tool.
  • This YouTube video gives a good overview.
  • Other possibilities are Scrivener, Plot Factory, OneNote, EverNote, and Microsoft Excel.
  • Some writers like to use a combination of software, using Scrivener for writing and OneNote or EverNote for the character bible.

However you put it together, the benefit is to have quick access to the details for all your characters, no matter how minor. In The Hobo Code, hobo Spooky Steve is in far fewer scenes than Jack Schmidt, the main protagonist, but I still need to know enough about Spooky to have a well-rounded, relatable character.

Tips for getting the most from your character bible:

Knowing the characters' quirks, fears, likes and dislikes will help deepen dialogue and conflict.

  • List all of your characters:  More time will be spent on the main characters, but details for the minor ones will help you remember little things like exactly what kind of tattoo he has and where it’s located.
  • Background information:  Details infuse your characters with life. Focus on the characters’ personalities. Do they play well with others? How do they act under pressure? What are their emotional triggers?
  • Physical Details: Keep a list of each character’s physical traits. This will help as you sprinkle these details throughout the story. No data dumps! You don’t want to change eye color mid-story unless we’re using contact lenses or magical glamor.

Weird fun fact: People with multiple personality disorder may have differing visual acuities. One may need glasses, another not. People with light-colored eyes sometimes appear to have eye color changes depending upon mood and what they are wearing. This can be used in emotion-filled scenes.

  • Mannerisms:  Specific habits and mannerisms make characters realistic and relatable. Walk in your characters’ shoes for a day. Do they have speech patterns or use special phrases? How do they act at the dining room table during a meal? Do they eat standing up? Belch with great gusto to approve of a good meal? Dab with a napkin? Use this role-playing activity for everyday activities of all kinds.
  • Interpersonal Communication:  List the characters’ friends, family members, colleagues, and enemies. Do your characters like to gossip? Are they friendly in person but spiteful in reality? Trusting? Naive?
  • Stress Response:  You will be hurling conflicts at your characters to create tension and interest. How do your characters respond to stress? Include responses to normal situations and put the characters in positions where their normal response won’t work.
  • Backstory:  No one lives in a vacuum, neither do fictional characters. Incidences in their past will determine how and why characters do what they do, and say what they say.  Maybe  characters freak out or crumbles at the sound of enraged voices due to childhood trauma. Perhaps they have specific olfactic memories and the smell of gasoline reminds them of long car rides for summer family vacations. A character’s backstory defines their present behavior and guides their future.

What about a screenwriting bible?

This bible (often called the show bible or series bible) is a reference document used by screenwriters containing all the information on characters including backstories, settings, and various minutiae, such as a character’s food allergies, for the big and small screen.

Movie and television series use bibles. These bibles are continuously updated with anything that airs. This document helps keep the writing consistent within the series.

When a new writer joins a show she is given a copy of the series bible to best understand all aspects of the program.

To pitch a TV series you must have your series bible ready to go along with the plot. Producers want to know where the story is going and if it’s binge-worthy.

The tone of the series should be reflected in the bible.

Here is a portion of the bible for the BBC’s comedy series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, based on the work of Douglas Adams.

“Hi, hello. Welcome. Bonvendu. I believe that’s how they say ‘enter peacefully’ in French,” the introduction starts. “Don’t check that. Don’t fact check that. You’re distracted, stop it, concentrate. My name is Dirk Gently. And you are reading the Series Bible for my television show, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. This show, of course, is the long-awaited follow-up series to HBO’s critically acclaimed No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which — Oh, it isn’t? I’ve been informed that it isn’t. I should have googled this. I thought we were doing an Avengers thing.”

Quirky series, quirky bible.

Do you use a character bible? Which works better for you, writing software or a paper method for notes? We'd love to hear, down in the comments, how you chose this method!

* * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

20 responses to “Creating a Bible for Characters and Screenwriting”

  1. A character bible is a necessity, especially if you have a lot of characters. My mainstream trilogy has, as of last count, 64 named characters.

    Fortunately, my plotting software, Dramatica Story Expert, has all kinds of places to store information, including a 'page' per character with specific labeled boxes, and lots of other storage for character relationships.

    It is also handy for not giving two characters similar names, and not confusing the reader with several characters with the same or similar initials, roles, hair colors... whatever you use for characters.

    I prefer software storage because it is searchable; some of my bible is supplemented in Scrivener files. I used to have it in paper notebooks - but Scrivener lets you search in so many ways, it is almost always possible to find what your mind tells you 'is in there somewhere.'

    • Ellen Buikema says:

      Thank you for mentioning Dramatica Story Expert. it's always good to know of more tools. Seems like it has many beneficial options.

      The "is in there somewhere" reminds me of finding a car, "out there in the lot somewhere." I've had that happen while writing and it felt like it took forever to find the information. Hence the story-bible.

      • Dramatica is not for everyone. And it is primarily a screenwriting tool, though some day I hope to write the Dramatica for Novelists guitde. And, or course, if I ever do a screenplay of my novels, half the work is already done.

        But DSE has worked unbelievably well for me, and allows me to keep track of and interconnect so many complex story threads, after a steep learning curve. As an extreme plotter, I find its logic unassailable.

  2. barbaralinnprobst says:

    I really like the inclusion of "mannerisms" and "stress responses" to the list of things you need to know about your characters! They are specific, observable, and reveal what's below the surface, including the past. Too often, character sketches focus on demographic traits, appearance, and backstory—important to know, but not the things that make each character feel individual and alive. The other thing that, to me, that is super important, is: Why is this character in the story? Unless I know that, and remember it, I can create a fascinating group of people who are waiting for a bus together, but not much beyond that. So that's at the top of my list for each character when I write!

  3. I really like your inclusion of "mannerisms" and "stress response" in the list of things we need to know about our characters! They are specific, observable, and reveal what's below the surface, including the past. Too often, character sketches focus on appearance and backstory—which are important—but they aren't the things that make the characters live and move on the page in a way that makes them believable to the reader. For me, at the top of the list for every character is this: Why is this character in the story? Unless I am really clear about that (and remember it), then I risk having a group of people waiting for a bus together. They might be interesting, but that's not enough. Like most of us, I've had to let go of characters that I really liked but who were not needed 🙂

  4. carolynmcb says:

    I'm one of those writers who has a large 3-ring binder and keeps handwritten notes on setting, characters, flora and fauna, book notes, series notes, research and where I got my information, as well as names of professionals who helped with facts or fact-checking, like the coroner, a couple of detectives and an air crash investigator. Among all my notes is information on the layout of the town and even oft-visited room layouts. I also keep track of my research, and who I went to for expert and professional knowledge like the coroner, a couple of detectives and the air crash investigator. Everything in my story bible is organized and separated by color-coded tabs. My "Body In The Bush" story-bible has been a God-send. (Sorry, I just had to)

  5. Ellen Buikema says:

    What a powerful point! Characters need a reason for being.

  6. Ellen Buikema says:

    I would love to see your story-bible. It sounds fascinating.

  7. barbdelong says:

    Argh! Coming late to the story bible party. I'm editing my WIP and creating a bible as I go. Should have done this before I wrote or at least while I was writing it. Better late than never as this is book one of three. Thanks for this post. Lots of good programs to help me with this task.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Barb, I'm going through this as well. It's just not natural for me to make one in advance, so it's probably worth it to do it at the end of the book. This is the time I usually wish for *someone else* to do this for me, and let me edit it. 🙂

      One way to make it a bit easier if you use Scrivener is to write down some notes on an index card in the corkboard view. That way, you can gather all these later.

    • ecellenb says:

      I hear you! I am also late to the party and felt a real need for the story-bible. I am glad to see a variety of software choices.

  8. dholcomb1 says:

    I have a bunch of journal-style notebooks, one for each story, and I write everything in those books--characters w/traits, notes, details I want to add later, whole scenes, etc...

    I received a really cool one from a publisher which had a template of sorts with it all formatted for a writer. It wasn't overly structured, so it fit my style.

    There are some pre-made planners specifically for writers, but I have found they're too structured for me, so I've created what works best for me. Plus, making my own is less costly and has less waste.

    denise

  9. jamesr403 says:

    Perfect, Perfect! I just started working on a bible for my novellas and this is great advice. Minor character details like the tattoo can drive you nuts. I try to capture them as I write but end up going back through the finished work making notes.
    Thanks, Ellen.

    • Ellen says:

      James, I am so pleased! I mention the tattoo because that was a physical description I had to look up. Didn't want to go through that again, hence the story-bible. Have fun with the novellas.

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