There are so many myths and rules that fly around about writing and the writing process that we decided to tackle some of them head on. Bust them, actually. Because the truth is, if something works–or doesn’t work–for you, then you have to honor that. We’re all different people and we all approach the craft of writing differently. It’s a learning process, for sure. And the way to jump in isn’t with other people’s rules front and center, halting your creative process.
This week, we’re sticking with the character theme and talking about character bibles. Many people say you must have one, and it has to have specific elements to be effective. So Wickeds, what do you think? Do you use character bibles? Does having or not having one make or break your books?
Edith: I have one for each series. I need a list of all the characters and what I know about them. While writing book three in a series, for example, I can’t remember what kind of car a secondary character drove in book one, what color that guy’s eyes are, or what year my protag was born. If I couldn’t go back and check my Series Characters folder, I would waste a lot of time searching through the manuscripts of prior books. I’d also start repeating names or using names like James and Jamie in the same book, which is too confusing. I don’t always know all the information in the bible at first, though. When I discover something new about a character, I go and add it, so the file grows bigger all the time. And of course the entry for my protagonist (see the red circle) is by far the longest, because I know the most about her.
Liz: This is one area where I wish I was more organized! I don’t subscribe to rules in general, but this is common sense – and I wish I had started a character bible at the beginning of this series. Now every time I finish a book and have wasted time combing through prior manuscripts for details, I declare that I’ll start one. And then I start it and don’t finish. For my new series, I swear I’ll do it differently!
Barb: I don’t keep character bibles in any prospective way. I don’t do bios or interview my characters in advance. But I do keep character bibles retrospectively. A part of cleaning up and shutting down every manuscript includes going through the text and copying and pasting character details I don’t want to forget into the character pages in Scrivener. I won’t say I’ve succeeded 100%. I’ve still had to scramble back through manuscripts for details I neglected to record. (Last one, did I ever tell you the first name of Julia’s father?) But it works pretty well.
Sherry: I don’t keep a character bible either. I do have lists of characters that my Kensington copy editor has sent. And I do end up using the search function on word to search for character descriptions and traits that I’ve used before. I should probably start copying those tidbits into a file one of these days!
Julie: I use Scrivener’s character pages, and setting pages. For each new book, copy all those files over to the new document. When I add details, I add them there. I have found that my characters and settings get more details as the series progresses, and that is alright. As the writer, I just need to stay a couple of steps ahead of the reader, and remember what the details I’ve added are. I would LOVE to find a mapping software so I could create a 3D Orchard. That’s the hardest part for me.
Readers: Writers, crafters, project folks – how do you keep track of the details in your work or hobby? Have you ever caught discontinuities in a series, where a character’s traits or appearance in a later book don’t match the earlier books?
Short answer: no. If I’d had a clue about what the future held, I would have started from the beginning, or at least jotted down some notes about the recurring characters. Well, I missed that boat. But I “see” my characters as friends and/or real people, so I tend to remember the important things. (But sometimes I do have to go back and check the details!)
I use the friend analogy, too. Just like friends, you get to know your characters better and better overtime. And, even after you are good friends, they sometimes says something, or reference an event or person in their past, that surprises you.
I not only keep a character bible, I have a place bible as well, so I remember what each shop/place I’ve described previously doesn’t change. I even had to draw a little map to remember which shop was where. I also refer to the style sheet from the copy editor.
I agree about setting, Joyce! I’ve also had to name a lot of boats that I have to keep track of.
I have a very disorganized file with some back story and basic details about each of my characters. Right now, the cast of characters in my Novel in Progress isn’t that big, and they all feel very vivid and alive in my head. However, if the book ever gets published and the publisher wants me to continue the series as I plan to, then at that point, I might consider something mroe organized. For now, the only organized thing about my writing is the file that keeps track of my short story submissions…
I once saw Dennis Lehane on a panel where he described Ben Affleck coming to him all excited about an actor he’d cast for a part in Gone Baby Gone, and then realizing as he talked to Lehane, “You don’t remember that character at all, do you?”
All I could think at the time was, “What a name-dropping jerk.”
But now, six books in, I can totally understand how this happens. Apologies, Dennis Lehane!
Great story, Barb!
Reblogged this on Brand Fearless ~ Kim Fleck and commented:
Rules or No Rules ~ that is the question
I don’t have a character bible for the Witch City mysteries but I can see where there are times it would be handy to have. I’ve occasionally had to consult previous books to check on eye color, etc. but for the most part the major characters are so real to me that I can “see” them. While reading recently to a critique group I said that the house on Winter Street was brick. One of the group members said that she’d always visualized it as wood and I realized that in the four previous stories I’d never said that it was brick. So now I won’t mention that because others may see it as wood too!
That is always the dilemma, isn’t it? You see a scene clearly in your head, but you have to decide how much to tell the reader, and how much to let them fill in with their own imagination.
I have a few character physical pictures and name pronunciations in my head that will never change, no matter how many times the writer corrects them in her books!
I don’t have one for either of my series, other than the style sheets the copyeditors provide with each book. But creating a bible for each series and each book is on my to-do list for the summer. What I’d really like is to find a nice high school or college student intern who could do this for me, then all I’d have to do is maintain it. Know anybody???
Charlaine Harris had a fan do this for the Sooky Stackhouse books. I always thought it would be the height of luxury–one reason to hope for major success.
I don’t use character bibles either, but I do have a strong sense of who the main players are and how they appear to others. I can picture my protagonist in my mind as if she were standing right beside me. For the most part, my characters tell me about themselves as I proceed through the story, and they often reveal some surprising tidbits! I love Susannah’s idea of having a student intern help out with creating character charts.
Yes, whether you use a character bible or not, it’s the surprising tidbits that make writing so satisfying (at least for me).
For me, it’s usually a year between books, or at least a couple of months. So if there is a discrepancy, I usually don’t catch it. I know other readers do, so I guess I’m the exception in that.
However, if you mess up something in the same book, I will definitely notice.
A character Bible makes sense to me as a reader. But I’m so lazy I would probably start off with good intentions and then not update it and wind up having to search through manuscripts to find the information.
Since you read most books near their release for Carstairs Considers, it doesn’t surprise me you don’t notice. But many of the “binge readers” who find a series they love and read all the books in a row do.
I’ve always hated books that tell me I MUST have a character bible. When I first started, I tried that. And none of the details in my incredibly detailed bio ever made it to the actual character! My character bios are now a few words, and figuring out how each character talks, which helps me define them. But like Sherry, I should keep better track of current characters than I do, just to make it easier on myself as I continue to write my series.
That’s exactly what the “Mythbusting” series of posts will be about–things people tell you you “must” do to be a writer that are absolutely not true. Every writer finds success his or her own way.
I keep mine short as well. For my protagonist, all I have is “Max O’Hara—protagonist. 5’2” tall, short black hair (pixie), blue eyes.”
I just started reading an older manuscript from an unpublished series that I’m going to revise and I really wish I would have made a bible for it. I have no idea who some of these people are!
Chiming in late on this. As a technophobe of long standing, I use a three-ring binder for each series. One section has a page for each character, mostly physical description unless it is someone who appears in every book. For those I add likes and dislikes and any little quirks. The biggest problem with this is remembering to update the page when something significant happens to the character in the book I’m working on. The other section of the looseleaf is for settings I use over and over. I have to do a lot of maps and floorplans to keep things straight.
Maps and floor plans – equally important, Kathy.
It’s very interesting to see everyone’s process. I haven’t started a bible yet for my series but I need one! I’m finding that since I started book 2, I’m scrolling through book 1 for details. Now that I have book 1 back from my agent, as I’m going through her comments I’m making notes for the series bible.
That’s really when it comes into play, Debra – with second and subsequent books.
i’m with Barb and Julie. It’s all in Scrivener for me and I copy it from book to book. Since I’ll soon be starting book 3 in a series that saw its last book published in 2012–I’m about to find out how effective my bible is.
Kait–Let us know how it goes!
My setting is a fictional town so I use a Google spreadsheet. I have one page for people, one for places, and one for things – like the dog or, almost as importantly as the dog, the iconic murder weapon. I learned my lessons with a book of short stories, when halfway through it became almost impossible to keep the names straight without repeating them, which made it easier starting out with this new series.
Coming late to this. I have had a busy week! don’t keep bibles and I am not absolutely sure that level of detail helps story telling. I know who my important characters are, what they look like, where they live. I lean with the commenters who say the rest s getting to know them, as we do our friends. (I had one who told me everything. No boundaries at all. And one who didn’t tell me until decades after her divorce that is was her idea) What I do have to track, though, is everyone’s age. I haven’t seen anyone mention that. It’s critical because I started this series a long time ago in my own real life. Erica, my main character, was always a lot younger than I am, but her daughter was only a little younger than mine. Then. Now she is almost a generation than mine. Since Erica narrates, I have to remind myself she is not me, and her frames of reference are not mine. (As if.I can remember when tv’s were new!) Erica, not her daughter, is now the age of my own daughters. Her father has to bm my age, not my parents. Her older Mother-in-law cannot be the age of mine (93!) Sometimes I have to work out on paper when each person was born.
Looking forward to the next posts in this series!
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