My Characters Live in My Head

New writers are frequently told that they should create brief biographies of their characters. Name, age, gender, nationality or ethnic origin if it matters. What they look like, what they wear, where they work, their immediate and (sometimes) extended family. How they get along with people, their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, the secrets in their past … and on, and on. 

You can spend a lot of time doing that. I’ve done it, and it’s a powerful distraction from the story itself. But as soon as I start writing, if I’m paying attention to my characters, they come alive, and surprise me in many ways, and the biography proves useless. I learned this, after wasting hundreds of thousands of words, by making my characters comply with the biography, instead of letting them behave according to what I have learned about real people. It is that which enables my characters to come to life, and to feel real, because somewhere, somewhen, I have seen that behavior in real people.

When you go to any kind of gathering, for business or pleasure, you may meet new people. You know nothing about some of them. What they look like may suggest something about what they are like but, too often, those suggestions can be misleading. You may strike up a conversation, which may last more than a few minutes. You may enjoy talking with these people, and look forward to your next meeting, when you can have other conversations with them.

I attend science fiction conventions, and meet and talk with a lot of people, and everyone I talk with adds something to my understanding of human nature. I get to know some people quite well, but only as what they are like are at the conventions. I know almost nothing about their background, occupation, influence on the world, even their families. Sometimes, when I ask, I learn that he’s a heavy mechanic in a ship yard. She’s a physicist involved in deep space exploration. He’s a truck driver who’s daughter was born on the same day and year that my daughter was. She’s a small press publisher, displaying her authors’ books as well as her own. That is all interesting to me, I talk with them about it, and I want to know more.

But if my characters have backgrounds like these, how will that help them to deal with typical fantasy enemies, situations, obstacles. Can the physicist handle a sword? Can the truck driver deal with a dark magician? Can the mechanic make a choice about who to kill and who to save? The publisher, maybe, as she has read a lot of that kind of fiction, can draw upon that knowledge. But how about a successful advertising agent? 

My characters must all act and behave as they really are when they are just people. And like the people I meet at conventions, I will only learn who they really are by spending time with them, watching them deal with the story’s situations, putting them to the test, so that they can discover their unknown strengths, weaknesses, and deeper nature. What my heroes, male or female, become in the course of the story, may be a complete contradiction to who they thought they were before the story began.

My characters do not live in static biographies. They live and grow in the story in my head.