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Why Creating A Character Bio Isn’t A Good Starting Point

And What To Do Instead

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by Script Reader Pro in How To Write A Screenplay
March 2, 2015 11 comments
CHARACTER BIO

You’ve probably heard that in order to create a great character, you should start with a character bio.

Maybe you’ve been told to ask questions about your character like: “What do they feel about their body?” “Who was their best friend in high-school?” “What do they sing in the shower?” and so on.

You’ve probably also heard that your characters should have an external goal, an internal goal, a want, a need, a fear, a fatal flaw, a skill, a misbehavior, etc.

The problem for the aspiring screenwriter is that, while much of this makes sense in theory, it can quickly get abstract and confusing. Not only that, but it often means the writer gets sucked down a wormhole of backstory and forgets to nail the basics of what makes a character interesting and believable.

Rather than concentrate on how to write a character bio, let’s take a look at an easier, streamlined, two-step process you can go through when initially coming up with and creating realistic characters.

Step 1: Find Obvious Personality Trait

The first step is to list your core cast of characters and give each a thumbnail description of their obvious personality trait.

Go through your protagonist, antagonist, and minor characters and write a sentence for each describing what they do, and what overriding character trait they show to the world.

For example, you could write:

Suburban father: early 40s, advertizing exec, depressed.

Wife: late 30s, real estate broker, domineering.

Daughter: 16, high-school student, sarcastic.

Daughter’s best friend: 16, cheerleader, vain.

New neighbor: 40s, ex-marine corps colonel, macho.

Wife: 40s, mentally ill, vacant.

Son: 17, high-school student, wise beyond his years.

Obviously a character has more personality traits than just one — they can be macho, aloof, homophobic, violent, all at the same time — but for the purpose of this exercise it’s best to stick with one obvious trait that best sums up how they present themselves to their friends, family or strangers.

A good way to approach this is to ask yourself, “What impression would you have of this character if you met them for the first time?”

You don’t have to get too creative with these traits. As you can see from the examples from American Beauty above, the basic personality of each character is not that surprising at all. i.e. the real estate broker is perky. The teenage daughter is sarcastic. The cheerleader is vain. The ex-military man is macho.

The point at this stage is not to worry about making them unique or super interesting, it’s to hone in on their obvious trait.

Character Bio

Step 2: Add Surprising Contradiction

Now, here’s where we get to shake things up a bit. Take each of your character’s obvious personality traits and add a surprising contradiction to it. This will usually be the exact opposite of the character’s obvious personality trait, and often, but not always, something they keep hidden from others.

In American Beauty the characters now break down like this:

Suburban father: early 40s, advertizing exec, depressed, but also has a suppressed wild side.

Wife: late 30s, real estate broker, domineering, but also deeply insecure.

Daughter: 16, high-school student, sarcastic, but also sensitive.

Daughter’s best friend: 16, cheerleader, vain, but also an insecure virgin.

New neighbor: 40s, ex-marine corps colonel, macho, but also with homosexual yearnings.

Wife: 40s, mentally ill, vacant, but also understands her son more than his father.

Son: 17, high-school student, wise beyond his years, but also deals drugs.

More Examples… 

Let’s take a look at a few more examples from different movies in which the writer takes a stereotypical character, and then flips our expectations of that character by adding a surprising contradiction.

Pulp FictionJules and Vincent are two violent gangsters, but also a comedy double-act.

AlienRipley is a regular, female, crew member, but also a kick-ass fighter.

Little Miss SunshineGrandpa is in his 80s, but also snorts heroin.

Raiders Of The Lost ArkIndiana Jones is a daring adventurer, but also afraid of snakes. (and a respectable university lecturer.)

Silence Of The LambsHannibal Lecter is a sadistic serial killer, but also extremely intelligent.

These contradictions between what we initially think about a character and what we later find out are what gives them depth and makes them interesting. Just like real people.

Best Screenplays To Read

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By all means feel free to delve into a character’s backstory and start writing up pages of notes on their lives before the story started, but don’t do this until you’ve nailed who they appear to be, and what their major contradiction is.

Rather than coming up with character sheets for writers, this is far more helpful practice to establishing well-rounded and believable screenplay characters.

For more hacks on screenwriting concept, dialogue, structure and much more, check out our practical, hands-on online screenwriting course, ScriptHackr.

11 Comments
  1. leitskev says:

    Again, excellent.

  2. C. Petersen says:

    I find that when I do it your way, my characters often reveal traits about themselves I am delighted to discover and use in the story. Thanks for letting me know, SRP, I am not alone in the way I write.

  3. Zoe says:

    Not come across this approach to characters before. Really helped me! Thx

  4. Hope says:

    This is ѵery interesting, I’ve always been one to write big character bios but now I’m reconsidering.

  5. Tatiana says:

    This tips are very beneficial. Every time I`m reading something new here, I feel like it`s never ending learning process.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback!

  6. Ben says:

    The Grandpa snorts heroin not cocaine!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the heads up.

  7. Denz Lowhot says:

    You will always remain in my my mind’s rolling credits!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Denz!

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