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!
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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.