I’m not sure where I picked up the term bible. It’s not that I’m overly religious. Somehow I stumbled across it and the term stuck. Yes, my character bibles have a basic description, the back story and family history. But most of this falls into list territory. A true character bible goes beyond the sorts of details you could glean from Ancestry.com.
Before I embark on a novel, I need to know where my characters come from and where they plan to go. I spend a lot of time thinking about how the character will change over the course of the novel. What problems will she overcome?
I often consider what the character will be like at the end of the novel. Then I reverse and have her start completely opposite at the start. If she ends up being secure in herself, then she should start the story in a highly insecure state.
I like create my protagonist and antagonist with parallel desires. I feel they should both want the same thing, but for different reasons. This creates tension, because both characters strive for the same goal. Then they’re then destined to come into conflict.
The bible is where I work these out. In fact, the antagonist often has an incomplete character arc. He never learns from his mistakes the way that the protagonist does. That’s the difference between the two.
In one novel, both the protagonist and the antagonist want to bring a loved one back from the dead. The difference comes in how much each is willing to sacrifice to achieve the goal. The antagonist will go to any length to reunite with his lost love. Although the protagonist has that same desire, she finally balks at endangering her living friends and family. Thus, the two come to loggerheads over the tool needed to achieve their common goal.
The more I outline in the bible, the easier the writing becomes down the road. Often, there are pages of information that never appear in the final manuscript—detailed back stories to fuel the character arc. Yet that is the purpose of the character bible. I use it to plunk down all the information about the characters, so it’s easy to find it when I need it.
Now, you might be focused purely on the physical traits and family dynamics. However, I urge you to consider how your character fits into the novel as a whole. Despite what people tell you, you’re not really creating a real person here. You’re working with an idealized persona, a bag of bones—part person and part literary figure. Real people don’t have the sorts of interesting adventures your characters will. Heck, real people often don’t have any sort of character arc. Thus the market for so many self-help seminars.
Yes, you want your character to live and breathe on the page, but he or she must also dovetail with the plot. The conflict of the story must arise organically from your main character’s own weaknesses and desires. This sort of long distance planning is next to impossible to do if you start writing at page one and just see where it goes. A good character bible, one that delves into how your character will change throughout the story, will make writing the actual scenes so much easier. The work has been done. Just remember, unlike the real Bible, yours can be changed any time.