What is a character bio?
A character bio, sometimes called a character profile, is information about your characters that will directly or indirectly inform the story you’re writing.
A character bio can be pages long or can be short and sweet—I.e., Tara, age 15, lives with her father and stepmother, is self-conscious about her height, and has the power of time travel.
Why write a character bio?
Writing a thorough character bio can help you create dynamic, believable characters with depth.
Knowing about who your character is, both on and off the page, can make writing your story easier. Let’s say your protagonist gets on an elevator with a rival colleague, but you’re not sure how to write the rest of the scene. Your protagonist’s character bio—which might include things like how they feel about their career, their insecurities, and how they’ve learned to handle conflict—can help you write a realistic response to that situation.
While you’re writing a character bio, you could uncover ideas for new plotlines or scenes. For example, you decide that the character has a terrible fear of heights. If so, you might consider putting them on the observation deck at the top of the Willis Tower on a first date.
Do you need a bio for every character?
Not necessarily. Character bios are most valuable for primary and secondary characters, or those who feature prominently in the story and undergo some sort of change.
If you’re writing about conflict between parents and their three children, you might need bios for all five characters. Let’s say a family argument erupts while at a fancy restaurant; you don’t likely need to develop a full bio for the waiter who’s left to clean up the food they’ve thrown at each other (though it might be worth it to consider what that waiter’s day has been like).
Plenty of writers work without writing backgrounds for their characters, though you would be hard pressed to find one who doesn’t have some information on a character that doesn’t make the published page.
What does a character bio include?
Your character bios can be as cursory or detailed as you like. Here are points and questions to consider as you write.
Start with biographical basics:
- Age or date of birth
- Race and ethnicity
- Sexual orientation
- Where they’re from
- Where they live
- What they do for a living
- Socioeconomic status
- Physical description: Are they tall, average, or short? Do they have dreadlocks down to their waist or a shaved head? What kind of clothes do they wear? Etc.
- Do they have a family?
As well as information directly related to the story you’re writing:
- What’s the character’s goal? What’s the motivation?
- What are they most afraid of?
- What are their flaws?
- What are their strengths?
- How will they change by the end of the story?
- What is their role in the story?
Questions to get a clearer picture of what they look or sound like:
- What kind of clothes do they wear?
- What’s their hair color and hair style?
- How do they dress?
- Do they have any distinguishing physical characteristics? For example, perfectly straight teeth, a giant scar across their chest, or blue hair? If so, why is this the case and how does it affect their daily life?
- What are their mannerisms like?
- Do they have an accent? How do they feel about their accent?
- Do they have distinguishing speech habits? I.e., do they stop and think before answering a question or do they blurt out their feelings? Does their voice crack when they’re nervous?
Questions to uncover emotional and mental characteristics:
- What does your character want out of life?
- What was their childhood like?
- What are your character’s relationships like? With their parents? With siblings? With extended family? With their spouse or significant other? With friends?
- What are their romantic relationships like?
- Are they good at making friends? Why or why not?
- What kinds of people do they gravitate toward?
- What kinds of people do they avoid?
- Do they have any pet peeves?
- Has your character experienced a monumental or traumatic event? For example, abandonment in childhood or the sudden death of a friend?
- How does your character feel about the way they look?
- Do they have any insecurities?
- How do they feel about their job or career? If they weren’t doing that, what would they be doing?
- What’s their political affiliation?
- What’s their relationship to authority like?
- How do they deal with conflict? With confrontation? With pain? With happiness?
- Do they have any vices?
- What disappointments have they experienced? Successes?
Questions to explore their tastes:
- What kind of music do they listen to? What kind of books do they read? What kind of movies do they watch? Etc.
- What kinds of music, books, and movies do they not like?
- What kind of food do they like?
- How do they spend their free time?
- What kinds of things have they tried and not liked?
How to write a character bio
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of creating a character bio, consider that it doesn’t have to read like a traditional narrative. It can take any form: a list of bullet points, a question-and-answer format, or roughly scribbled notes. Whatever helps you get to know your character and keep track of the details.
Begin building your character bio with the basics: basic biographical information and their role in the story. You can then write an entire bio from start to finish, considering all the questions above, or you can fill it in as you write your story. For example, let’s say your character is having a particularly good day and her father calls—no, her stepfather—and he has bad news. As you write this scene, you should make some notes on her family history (you didn’t know until now that she had a stepfather) and how she deals with stress or conflict.
Some writers will “interview” their character and write the answers in the character’s voice. This can be helpful when trying to identify a character’s voice and speech patterns or when writing dialogue.
Feel free to tinker with a character’s biography as you write and edit your story. If a trait no longer fits with the arc, you don’t have to be married to it. Let your writing process be fluid and organic.
How to use a character bio
There’s no limit to what you can mine from a character profile, but in general, bios can:
- Create depth in your characters and storyline: Simply understanding who your characters are and what they’ve experienced off the page will help you introduce believable reactions and scenarios.
- Maintain consistency: You can use your bios to track information as you introduce it into the story and reconcile inconsistencies. For example, if you write that your protagonist is shorter than average on page five, but on page ten they reach the top of a library shelf with no problem, you can flag the inconsistency and track the accurate description in your character bio.
- Spark new plotlines: When exploring your character’s background, you discover that, as a child, they wanted to be a musician, so in your story you decide to introduce a plotline in which they secretly moonlight as a jazz singer under a mysterious stage name.
- Fight writer’s block and solve problems: If you’re unsure where to take your story, working on a character’s bio can help you get out of a writing rut.
Other ways to explore your characters
- Take a personality test, like this one from 16 Personalities, answering the questions as your character
- Write a scene from their perspective
- Draw or describe their house in detail
- “Interview” your character, answering questions in their voice
- Write their resume
- Write a few journal entries in their voice
- Ask to shadow someone who has the same job or hobbies your character has
- Go interview someone with similar experiences
- Go explore their hometown