I can have the best plot in the world, but without believable, interesting, three dimensional characters, I’m going nowhere. I must populate my saga with people who move, respond to events, struggle, fail, and hopefully succeed, to keep your nose in my book. While I wish you the best, I want to keep you reading until the wee hours of the night.
The Character Bible
I learned that the term, “Character Bible,” is what the film industry refers to what I call my character biographies. No matter the name, every character that plays a role in my story has a life, a history going all the way back to his/her birth—just as you do. Your childhood experiences lay the foundation for the person you are today, and it’s the same with my characters. I wanted Lou Skalney, my protagonist, to be a kind of “everyman,” to be accomplished in a blue collar job that required strength and intelligence. In other words, relatable to male as well as female readers.
For example, here are a few highlights from Lou Skalney’s life.
His father, Hank, was a functioning alcoholic until he died from a workplace injury. They were never close, but Hank instilled in Lou that “a man takes care of business.” This mantra drives most of Lou’s actions throughout the story. His mother was a quiet, church-going Catholic, so he went to parochial school, which plays a part in his life. Not everything in his background is mentioned because that would add unnecessary elements, such as his mother’s name, Appolonia. I picked Lou’s name from a list of first and last names for writers (Yes, there is such a thing, and it also groups them according to when they were popular.) A fellow writer told me Skalney was a Polish name, hence the Polish influence. From there, I develop his history, work background, friendships, point of view, etc.
As I do this with each character, I begin to see connections that will play a role in events, alliances, and reactions between my characters. For example, Lou beat the stuffing out of the bully that constantly teased Rudy Kowalski about his stuttering at St. Stanislaus School. Consequently, they became best friends for life, and Rudy became a strong secondary character.
After a while, I developed an intuitive sense of what each character would or would not say or do. However, it is not sufficient to proceed with merely an intuitive sense of things. I must base everything on my character’s background. For example, there is a scene where one of my fellow writers thought he should be drinking a six pack of beer to work up courage. Instead, he drinks a mug of coffee because, as a child of an alcoholic, he would not resort to alcohol unless he also drank (which he doesn’t). Intuition says one thing, but background decides.
Also no character is all good or all bad. They, like us, are flawed, and a main character you hate and can’t root for, kills the desire to read the book. A Hitler type who likes dogs, a sweet older man who secretly gambles, or a gang leader who dotes on his grandmother, are flawed, but have some traits that make them relatable on some level. (Speaking of dogs…NEVER kill off a dog. People, yes. Dogs, no. Any writer will tell you it’s not a good idea to put down the pooch.)
While I’m blessed with the best group of writer friends anyone could hope for, and who critiqued each chapter as I wrote them, I still needed beta readers. They read the entire manuscript cold, just as they would read any novel, but with critical eyes. They will point out weaknesses, inconsistencies, tell if they like the ending, the beginning, and where is sagged in the middle. Was any part confusing? Were the characters realistic?
I asked three people to be my beta readers.
The first was my wonderful pastor at Hope Church. Mine is what I would call a “crossover” book, in that it will fall into the Christian category as well as the literary novel category. While I asked for any advice, I especially asked that he review the theology in the narrative for accuracy. I also asked him if he could relate to Lou Skalney and see beyond his flaws. He said he could. Yay! If he passed muster with Pastor, he’s good to go.
The second beta reader was a friend and ministry partner at my church who is also a chaplain in the New York State prison system. I’m a law-abiding (if you ignore my lead foot) female citizen. What do I know about male felons and killers? Of course I developed their bios as well, but were the characters realistic?
The third reader was a fellow author and friend whose books I enjoy and consider very well written. I wanted a reader/writer’s opinion from him.
Can’t wait for you to meet my peeps!