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The magic of character bibles

You must learn to be three people at once: writer, character, and reader. Nancy Kress

Stories need captivating and complex characters with flaws to engage your reader. The aim is to encourage them to become emotionally invested in your character's journey.

I discovered this the hard way.

I thought I could pants my way through my character development as I wrote my first draft. I had even completed two courses with the Australian Writer’s Centre during the writing of, what I am going to call, draft zero; a phrase I got from young adult author Astrid Scholte. After completing the two courses with the Australian Writer’s Centre and even after their strong advice to build three-dimensional complex characters, I still skimped.

Both the Creative Writing 1 and Novel Essentials courses had stressed that characters needed to be well rounded and three-dimensional. Both courses provided a character-building template to help create interesting and in-depth book people. I sat down and answered the questions for my protagonist. It took me a couple of hours. This left me bewildered. No, no, no, I thought, I can't spend all my time doing this, I have to write. And that's what I did. I passed on the majority of the questions for the other secondary characters and I put on my bum glue (a wonderful term shared by Stephen King) and began to write. I believed that my character's development would come to life as I penned my story. And so I wrote and I didn’t stop until I had written just over 110,000 words.

Boy, was I wrong!

We all know that first drafts are messy. The reality was, mine was a disaster. It had plot holes, superficial characters and the goal for my protagonist was weak. There were no high stakes and the scenes resembled an easy, uneventful stroll through Kew Gardens. Pretty, but boring and uneventful. I tried to fix it by throwing in more narrative which only clogged it more. It sagged under the multiple narratives and disjointed character events.

I stopped. I cried. Then I assessed.

Finally, I went back to the drawing board. I decided to plan and plot. Kate Forsyth’s course on plotting and planning was instrumental in helping me realise that I needed to take the time to plan, plot and think about my characters and the story. I am a planner in other aspects of my life, writing was no different. There were bells clanging when I realised this.

For all my characters, I discovered that it is essential that they come alive; that they hold three-dimensional characteristics. They need to be real; physically, psychologically and emotionally; with distinct personalities and authentic backstories. I needed to become intimate with them. To know everything about them: mind, body and soul. As I had always done as an actor, I knew this preparation would assist me to ‘stay in character’ as I wrote.

As I am building and discovering my characters, my narrative is coming to life. An interesting and exciting story is starting to emerge. It truly is magic.

How am I achieving this? Character Bibles. I am creating character reference guides that have everything I need to know about my characters. For all of them. Their physical traits, personality, back story, family background, goals and motivations, their flaws and insecurities, the stakes, images, their role in the story and their relationships. Each character has notes based on their star sign. I have carefully chosen their birthdates using numerology and their names have symbolic meaning. The bible is assisting me in avoiding similar names, names starting with a different letter and that they sound different when they are pronounced.

I draw my character details from lists I have collected. These lists contain a vast array of questions I draw from to build my understanding of each of the characters. There are loads of character questions online that you can access. I choose the questions that I feel are relevant for the particular character and their role in the story. You cannot possibly, and you do not have to, answer every single question for each character. I also use the Proust Questionnaire to interview my characters. This is helping me to understand them. Doing this activity has developed their complexity and uniqueness as characters. It is a very beneficial exercise and I recommend it profusely.

It sounds like a lot of work because it is. But the process is making my story richer as new ideas and possibilities come to light as I work on each character. Strong connections are being made between the characters, secrets are being revealed and new plot possibilities are coming to light. Events and ideas on actions I hadn't imagine are being woven into their stories and conflict is bubbling to the surface. I am gaining a clearer understanding of character motivation and goals. This will help me to throw a barrage of problems their way. Like I've said, it truly is a magical experience.

So I don't get caught down rabbit holes, I have allocated a specific amount of time to spend on each of my character's bibles. The time allocated is generous, no more skimping allowed, but it also stops me from overdoing it. It is trial and error. So far, for my protagonist, I allocated the most time building her character bible. It did take a few hours. A bit less time for my main characters. While my other secondary and tertiary characters even less again.

I know that once I start drafting, other elements will be added to their bibles. I am keeping it flexible and open. I am also planning to have an idiom dictionary. However, I feel this will come as I write and once I start revising subsequent drafts. To be honest, I have no idea how I am going to attack this idiom dictionary but I will work on it; as I do with all elements of my writing craft. I know that an idiom dictionary will be important for voice. I am reading a novel that has two alternating first-person points of views, and I feel that the voices are all too similar. I am getting lost on who is actually speaking.

They say writing is a lonely pursuit, one undertaken in complete solitude. I don’t feel this as much as my characters are very present as I work. As their writer, I am giving them the greatest gift of literary life and I bestowing this gift upon my reader.

An author should know their character intimately, they should know their history, how they would react in a situation, they should know their look and mannerisms down to the smallest facial tick. Yet all of this need not be revealed to the reader. Aaron Miles

Next, I am plotting my narrative arc ...

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