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Why Creating a Character Bio Isn't a Great Starting Point

And What to Do Instead If You Want to Create Screenplay Characters That Feel Like Real People

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write a Screenplay
March 2, 2015 37 comments
CHARACTER BIO

Why Creating a Character Bio Isn’t a Great Starting Point (And What to Do Instead)

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/internal goal, a want/need, a fear, a fatal flaw, a skill, etc.

The problem for aspiring screenwriters 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, more streamlined, two-step process you can go through when initially coming up with and creating realistic characters.

Instead of Creating a Character Bio, Find Their 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, stakes character 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 and 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, the basic personality of each character is not that surprising at all.

The real estate broker is perky. The teenage daughter is sarcastic. The cheerleader is vain. The ex-military man is macho, and so on.

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

Next, Add a Surprising Contradiction

Now, here’s where things get even more interesting than merely creating a boring old character bio.

Take each of your characters’ obvious personality traits and add a surprising contradiction to them. 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 character descriptions 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

Further Examples of More Interesting Mini Character Bios

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.

♦  Ripley is a regular, female, crew member, but also a kick-ass fighter. (Alien)

♦  Grandpa is in his 80s but also snorts heroin. (Little Miss Sunshine)

♦  Jules and Vincent are two violent gangsters, but also a comedy double-act. (Pulp Fiction)

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

♦  Hannibal Lecter is a sadistic serial killer, but also extremely intelligent. (Silence Of The Lambs)

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.

You Don’t Have to Listen to All the Old Advice on Creating a Character Bio…

Instead of listening to the same old boring advice to create a character bio that lists things like your protagonist’s favorite brand of cereals, use this technique on your screenplay characters instead and watch how they come alive.

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 we recommend not doing 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.

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What do you think of this alternative to writing a character bio? Have you used this method yourself on your characters? Let us know in the comments section below.

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37 Comments
  1. leitskev says:

    Again, excellent.

  2. Esi says:

    Amazing!

  3. 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.

  4. Zoe says:

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

  5. Hope says:

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

  6. Desmond says:

    Love this! So refreshing to hear I don’t need to write about what color socks my protagonist wears. Why has this been normal advice for years?

  7. 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!

  8. Nagarajan says:

    The only exception is if you plan to create an advanced character, and need every spare piece of information stacked in a particular way in order to advance a specific piece of information or turn in the plot.

  9. Ben says:

    The Grandpa snorts heroin not cocaine!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the heads up.

  10. Denz Lowhot says:

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

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Denz!

  11. Vincent says:

    Wonderful approach. I’ll now look back at scripts I’ve written, or am writing, and detect what obvious trait (and contradiction) my primary characters possess.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you found it useful, thanks Vincent!

  12. Lily Valentine says:

    Great

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Lily.

  13. Bella says:

    Thanks, this helped a lot!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Bella.

  14. Alice Lowe says:

    I fail whenever I try to write character bios so going to try this method instead. Thanks!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out, Alice!

  15. Keith Hedge says:

    There’s not many screenwriting blogs that buck the trend like you do, Script Reader. Good work.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We like to stand out from the rest 😉

  16. Mustapha says:

    How do I create a character bio please?

  17. Karen Crider says:

    I consider character traits, age, gender, goals, motives, but not so much appearance. I also consider whether this character is the protagonist/antagonist. I recently finished a buddy play. But I had a terrible time figuring out who the hero was. I checked several resources. They mostly stated the hero is the one most actively involved in plot. The one who happened to life, not the one life happened to. I’m always looking for good advice. I appreciate your input. Thanks.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out, Karen – that’s a good definition of the hero.

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  19. Kelley Brown says:

    Fantastic! I don’t feel as guilty now for not writing character bio like Im always told by my tutor.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s good to hear 🙂

  20. Mark says:

    I have thought this myself for a long time. It’s so boring writing stuff you know won’t even be in the script. So why bother?

  21. Rebecca Newton says:

    I always write a 1000 word character bio for each main character in my script. It works for me so I wont be listening to this post. Sorry.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      And that’s totally fine, Rebecca! Not all writers work the same way so if it works for you, go for it!

  22. George Gier says:

    Great article. I would also add that every major character represents something. They are the active voice to the themes in your story. And many times they play off each other of form two halves of a whole.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, George, and you make a great point. The three major characters should have different answers to the writer’s question posed in the theme.

  23. Ken Lovan says:

    Thanks for the valuable insight. I was just thinking about adjusting the character’s traits in my Ebook, Love Goes To Nam, editing rewrite. This is a prelude to continuing the adaptation to Screenplay.
    Ken Lovan

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Ken – best of luck with the book!

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