Writing About Writing: A Case Against Character Bios (ft. Star Wars!!)

Potentially the most overrated exercise in creative writing is the character bio. It’s not that they’re COMPLETELY useless because I’m sure they’re at least somewhat helpful to at least some people. However, I think it’s also possible to trick yourself into thinking that you’re making a ton of progress by writing character bios when you’re not. You could write a bio for everyone from your main hero to Doorman Number 3 and still have no clue about what scenes should happen or how you’re going to build tension or many other necessary steps on that journey from “idea” to “script.”

The problem is that stories are not about characters. They’re about relationships. They’re about the push-and-pull between different characters and the situations they encounter.  That’s why I don’t think it does a ton of good to write a character as if that character exists in a vacuum. How might characters behave differently around each other? How are the challenges your character faces going to change them? If you ARE going to insist on writing character bios, you at least need enough wiggle room to change them as you look at some of these other questions.

The best stories have characters that are different enough to learn from each other and inspire each other to take on different challenges. One of the best examples of this that I can think of would be these three:

Image result for luke leia and han

Luke, Leia, and Han are all “the good guys” but still have dramatically different personalities. Each of them is unique, and each helps illustrate what makes the other two members unique. They inspire each other’s development over the course of the trilogy. Because these three are written the way they are, there’s room for layers upon layers of tension beyond a simple good vs. evil conflict. I really don’t see how you could create any one of them independent of the other two. Or at the very least, I don’t see how you could create the end result we see on the screen without being cognizant of how all three will function as a unit.

“So if I’m not going to start with character bios, where should I start?” You might ask. I think it’s easier to start with conflict. What is going to cause certain characters to clash with one another? What is going to cause tension? Ideally the answer to this question should be something universal that your audience faces in their lives as well. Some timeless classics include:

  • One character that loves to do things by-the-book while another character “goes rogue”
  • One character that only thinks of themselves while the other is constantly sacrificing themselves for others
  • One character who’s book smart while the other character is street smart
  • One character who uses logic to make decisions while the other uses emotions

In some ways, all four of these are in play in the Luke/Leia/Solo dynamic. Note how if you go with any one of these four, the characters have a lot of potential to fight with each other, but also learn from each other. When you come up with a conflict first, now you can figure out what sorts of characters you need. And then, if it really means that much to you, I GUESS you can write a character bio.

 

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