How to Create and Use a Character Bible for your Novel

Zara Altair
Author and Professional Semantic Writer
Published Aug 20, 2018

ProWritingAid

A character bible is the place you collect information about all the characters in your novel. From your heroine to the car wash attendant who says "Yeah!" once, keep track of all your characters.

The concept of the character bible is to gather all character details in one reference tool so you can access information as you write. You can then use this detailed background to add dimension to conflict and dialogue by knowing your characters’ quirks, likes, dislikes, and fears.

Contents:

  1. Choose a Character Building Tool
  2. Who’s In the Character Bible?
  3. Character Background Information
  4. Your Novel Writing Database

Choose a Character Building Tool

Character bibles are as diverse as the writers who create them. So find a tool to keep track of your characters that is easy for you to use.

Some authors use a traditional 3-ring binder, loose-leaf paper, and dividers with tabs. If you use this method, allocate one divider to each character, write their name on the tab and add a single leaf or several sheets of paper depending on whether it is a central character. Create each character background in handwritten notes, adding details later as needed, and keep the binder on your desk for quick reference as you are writing.

Another option is to create a similar file in writing software, like MS Word or Google Docs. Quickly access your characters by creating an index in Word or a Table of Contents in Docs.

Writing software like Scrivener, Ulysses, StoryShop and many others also have ways to create and store your list of characters.

Who’s In the Character Bible?

Once you choose your method of keeping track of your characters, you’ll want a separate character background for each character. Rounding out character background adds dimension to your characters and to the story itself. So, you want details on all your characters. Every one.

  • Protagonist
  • Antagonist
  • Love Interest
  • Opposition
  • Sidekick
  • Each supporting character
  • Characters in subplots

Start by listing all your characters. You will spend most of your time working on the main characters, but make sure you include every character. This is helpful for minor characters who appear briefly several chapters apart. You’ll be able to reference their details as you write without trying to remember whether the scar was on the left or right temple.

Character Background Information

The time you spend creating details and background for your characters helps you know and understand how they work, how they interact with other characters, how their flaws hold them back, and how they create conflict for the protagonist. Details bring characters to life.

To make your characters realistic and keep them from being stereotypes, you need to spend time working on their background. The more important your character’s role in your novel, the more attention and detail you should add to the character bible.

The problem with many pre-formatted character studies is that they focus on too little detail or go into a long list of details without getting to the heart of understanding your character.

Your focus should be on understanding your character’s personality rather than height, weight, eye color, hair color, distinguishing marks, etc. You could change those physical details and still have the same personality that drives your character into conflict and helps them find resolution.

You may not use all the information you record but the more you know the easier you’ll find writing about your character in a variety of situations.

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Habits and Mannerisms

Details like mannerisms and habits help readers connect with your character. Vivid and realistic behavior pulls your reader into the story. A shy character may look down at the ground or turn their head away when speaking. A good method for getting in touch with your character is to walk them through a typical day—work habits, meals, recreation, friends.

Also, list speech patterns, favorite sayings, or repeated phrases that reveal how they respond to events.

Interpersonal Relationships and Connections

How a character reacts to other characters reveals their personality. When they pat someone on the back or avoid them on the street, you give your reader clues about the relationship. For example, if your main character speaks kindly to their neighbor in person and then gossips viciously behind their back, it tells readers something about their trustworthiness.

List any relationships like: familial (uncle, parent, child, etc.), work connections, friends, and enemies. Know who supports them and who doesn’t. Use these details in dialogue and action to reveal your characters to your reader.

Conflict Responses

Know how your character normally responds to conflict. Your novel is built on conflict and you’ll be throwing many plot elements to thwart your characters’ plans. Introduce your reader to the normal responses early on, then put your character in a situation where his normal response doesn’t work.

This works for antagonists, opponents, and even love interests as well as the protagonist. Spend time with this. Conflict keeps your readers reading.

Backstory

Characters don’t enter your story as a blank slate. They filled their life with incidents large and small that impact how they behave and react in the story. Create vivid and impactful backstories for your characters. Hint at previous events early in the story then expand on the impact later. Write more in your character bible than will be used in your novel. Knowing your character’s backstory gives you the rich details you can add to deepen readers’ interest and understanding.

Writer Tom Farr suggests in The Art of Revealing Backstory in Your Writing:

...to do characterization well, you should know exactly what brought your character to the point where you started writing their story.

Physical Details

Yes, each character has physical details. Although you want to skip the scene where the character looks in the mirror, you can reveal your protagonist’s physical details through responses to and with other characters. She may tower over another character or the love interest may place his hand over her tiny brown hand.

In your character bible, list the physical details for every character so you keep them straight as you write. In your novel, know the details and sprinkle them in rather than giving a long list.

Your Novel Writing Database

Your character bible works as a reference book—created by you—as a rich source of data, yes, data! Use that data to enrich your story.

Having your information collected in one place eases reference when you are writing. You can review characters in a specific scene before you write to pull out unique character qualities. Your in-depth character backgrounds allow you to reveal new character facets as your novel continues. You’ll find the depth and complexity you want within each character’s background.

As you look for challenges to your main characters, pit one character’s weakness against another’s strength. Challenge habitual coping behaviors with situations that keep them out of normal circumstances.

Details make your characters real in your reader’s eyes. Writer and editor Roz Morris puts it:

When we feel a character is real, the plot events matter more.

When you highlight character details in your novel, especially details with emotional overtones, your reader wants to read more. Building a thorough, detailed character bible is the path to keep those details at hand.

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Zara Altair
Author and Professional Semantic Writer

Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in ancient Italy under Ostrogoths rule in The Argolicus Mysteries. She coaches mystery screenwriters and novelists with story creation. She creates semantic web content for a select clientele.

Thank you for this article! I've always had an inkling of how to make a character profile, but you included things I completely forgot about when it comes to characterization. They're in the back of the mind, but easily forgotten if not written down. I can make the most out of my characters bibles now more than ever. Again, thank you very much!

By dinoxkyoya on 28 August 2018, 06:34 PM

I'm a pantser when it comes to characters, and it's impossible to figure them out ahead of time. So this is what I do- I write my first draft, and then as I go through it, I copy and paste everything each character did or said onto their own Word document. I can then go through each character's doc separately and check for discrepancies, and fill in missing information. For example, do they have their own little quirks-body language etc. Are they consistent? Do they sometimes have blue eyes and sometimes brown? Whatever it is, I can check that my character is fully rounded out.

By loubau671 on 28 August 2018, 09:22 PM

This is the best direvtion Ive had to build characters. This is such great help. OM goodness. I am being a gluton fir all this great writing advise & tips. My :drafts" have got to fill my writing bucket with something intelligent. Thank you Melissa Bailey

By lifeathisfeetmelissa1 on 29 August 2018, 12:29 AM