The Correct Way to Use Character Biographies

In many screenwriting books, they tell you to write a brief character biography of your hero, villain, and supporting characters. The idea is that this information can help you see your character as a fully fleshed out human being. The drawback is that it can distract you from the structure of your story.

If you follow the advice of many screenwriting books, you may write out a short biography of all your main characters. This can help you better understand your character, but it’s not always helpful. Here’s why.

Imagine if the screenwriter for “Die Hard” came up with the basic plot and then wrote a character biography of the Bruce Willis character by focusing on a meek librarian who wears thick glasses, spends all his time reading because he was picked on in high school, and likes yogurt. Such details help flesh out the character, but if you flesh out a character without considering the plot, you wind up telling a completely different type of story.

A meek librarian as your hero of “Die Hard” would solve problems differently than a cop from New York. The problem isn’t the character biography but creating a character biography in isolation from your story.

To simplify your task, think of your hero and villain as identical. Then flesh out the biography of each one, keeping in mind that they need to be nearly identical characters. The greatest conflict comes not from a battle between two different characters but between two nearly identical characters.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” both Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Potter are frustrated men. In “The Terminator,” both the human freedom fighter and the Terminator are stubbornly determined to achieve their goals and are both highly skilled warriors. In “Up,” the hero and the villain are both old men who want to achieve a dream.

The lesson is that if you’re going to create a character biography, don’t create a biography of a random character, but of a character who will create the best story for your plot. A meek librarian might be a fully fleshed out character, but he would create an entirely different story than Bruce Willis did in “Die Hard.”

Know the type of character you need, then create a biography about that character. If you create a biography too soon, your story may go off in a different direction than you originally planned.

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