Fiction Writing: The High’s (and Higher’s) of Creating Character Bios

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Fiction Writing: The High’s (and Higher’s) of Creating Character Bios

I admit it—I was thrillingly engrossed in the process. I spent hours revising them and countless more hours researching and ruminating on each one. In the end, I knew each one as well as I knew myself, perhaps even better. Creating characters was a high that had no lows. When I developed character bios for my unfinished novel, Lies of Omission, it was indeed a task of utter delight. Not all writers feel that way about bios, I know—but the exercise is an absolutely essential element of writing your novel, and it must be done before you actually begin the writing.

I started by using James Scott Bell’s LOCK plotting exercise as taught in his outstanding book Plot & Structure. LOCK stands for Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout. Here’s how it played out for my lead, protagonist Liam Patrick Lenihan, a U.S. operative.

His objective is two-fold: 1) to get to antagonist, Hashim Al-Tariq, before he kills more people in his major terrorist act; 2) to get away from the bondage of the sexual addiction that is destroying him and his marriage to wife Rachel, a born-again Christian.

He is confronted by: 1) Yuusuf (Hashim’s right hand man) and Saskia (Hashim’s mother) who oppose him because they want to protect Hashim and his evil plans; 2) his wife Rachel because of her hurt and feelings of betrayal as his addiction is exposed.

The ending will be a knockout when: 1) through exciting action and plot twists, Liam kills Yuusuf and Saskia in the process of reaching Hashim in time to kill him before the major terrorist act takes place; 2) Liam recognizes he has a sexual addiction and begins the process of recovery and discovery of his own Christian faith, which brings restoration and the beginning of healing to his relationship with Rachel.

This basic plot grid allowed me to see what was going to happen to the character. I then used Bell’s methodology to pinpoint key events of no return (first about one-fifth of the way into the book, and then again three-fourths of the way into the book) to inform the progression of the plot. Once that was completed, I needed to introduce myself to Liam—or, more accurately put, allow Liam to introduce himself to me as he came to life in my mind. I created his character biography by detailing the following:

  • Physical description and abilities
  • Family detail / upbringing
  • Education, career, and relationships detail

I can’t show you these notes because each one is quite lengthy. By word count, Liam’s alone is 2,600+ words in length, and the ones I later created for Hashim and Rachel were longer. I let my mind run free and let each character reveal himself or herself to me in stages. I felt as though I was a child, lying in the desert dirt in my backyard with my toy dinosaurs; it was pretend land all over again, and the character details and back story for each one just happened. I experienced this process for all twelve characters in the novel (and, as needed, for their extended families). Because I was working on this novel while working a full-time job, the character bio development process took three months to complete. But it was so much fun!

In the end, I summed up each character using two questions. For Liam:

Who is this person? He’s a special operative working directly for the U.S. President. He has specialized in bringing down drug dealers along U.S. / Mexico border. Now he will be reassigned to the President’s elite secret anti-terrorism team because he has unique abilities and a mindset to kill ruthlessly as needed.

What happens to this person? He brings down a destructive madman obsessed with Heinrich Himmler and the Holy Grail. In the process, he will also confront his pornography addiction and its impact on his marriage, and is forced to deal with his perception of God and consider a relationship with Him.

Next week, I’ll end this series on fiction writing with a deeper look at how I developed my plot.

I want to hear from you!
Share how you have developed bios for your novel or short story characters.


suzette howe

June 20, 2016at 3:06 pm

good stuff Adam! excited to hear/read how it goes!

    Adam Colwell

    June 21, 2016at 7:41 am

    Thank you, Suzette! Yes, it’s a wonderful process; so creative…and its also fun to apply the same principles when you are interviewing and writing about real people – as you are planning to in your future work. The more you know about someone, the more you are then able to communicate their story in a way that’ll capture your reader’s imagination.

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