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 Characters
March 2, 2015 76 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.


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.

character bio

Enjoyed this post? Read more on characters and how to write a script… 

Why Your Script Characters Feel “Flat” and How to Fix It

How to Write a Screenplay: The Secret to Elevating It Above the Ordinary

Protagonist and Antagonist Conflict: Why It’s Between 3 Characters Not 2

Character Description Examples: How to Hook the Reader

[© Photo credits: Unsplash]

  1. Barry Smith says:

    This is great, and much easier to convey on the screen than a bio, though I don’t write bios either.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped, thanks Barry!

  2. Jen Brown says:

    Thank you for this! I sort of do this already, but more in my mind than on paper. It’s nice to have it confirmed that I’m on the right track.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good to hear, thanks Jen!

  3. Aisha Namawejje says:

    This information is so helpful. I has been so difficult to choose what to add in the bible and what to leave out. This advice is a life saver. Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped, thanks for reading Aisha 🙂

  4. Eduardo says:

    I used to do it in the old days, I started to write a biographys, somehow takes the pleasure out of writing and discover the character as you write.
    I will return to the old method. Thanks.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Agreed – thanks for reading, Eduardo!

  5. star says:

    This helps out a lot. I have character bios sheets filled out. I was thinking of everything that made them tick, this distracted me big time.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, it can turn into a substitute for sorting out the important stuff!

  6. Kola Cooper says:

    Very helpful.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good to hear – thanks, Kola!

  7. Alice says:

    I live this idea. I hate those stupid questionnaires. I’m writing a novel and love your blog.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We know what you mean 🙂 Thanks for the shoutout!

  8. Tanya says:

    Great article, thank you! I’ll practice this method on my characters right tomorrow!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Awesome – thanks, Tanya!

  9. Tatapong Beyala says:

    Somewhere in Africa , there is an All Female Film Crew ( Gurl Boss Productions) aimed at bringing more women in the domain of film productions not as models but as the technicians themselves .Difficult initiative for a male dominated domain in a third world Country.We need you !

  10. Tatapong Beyala says:

    Thank you for this . I have been using it for character development and to create suspense and suprise but somehow the wrong way , this article has been useful , thank you

  11. William Whiteford says:

    “ADD A SURPRISING CONTRADICTION” is a great advice!
    Usually, we are told to select 3-4 character’s traits, distinctly pronounce them through action or dialogue, and that sort of things.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, all that old advice doesn’t help that much.

    2. Ralini says:

      Such a great post! Thank you for taking your time to write this. You guys have the best advice! I’m so glad I found this.

    3. Beverley says:

      I just bought a book about the psychology of character development and sat down with a heavy heart as I started chomping through it. All respect to the book, but this advice re-ignited my enthusiasm for writing my screenplay rather than putting it on ice while I finished my first draft. I’ll be using both in my re-writes – especially when I put my first draft away for a few weeks and let ideas stew further. Thank you.

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        Thank you for sharing. All the best with your writing.

  12. Alphonsus's says:

    Wow I learn a lot from all this , now you makes it easy for me,I will start writing my characters but am not a professional I still need a lot training but I don’t have anyone to help me please can any one help me I have two great movies story I have written am still writing more I love being a scriptwriter , an actor please , this has always been my dream creating and writing ,always trying to do some thing new. Thanks.

  13. John says:

    This is basically what TV writer Steve Canally would do. He would only write one paragraph for each character. I learned this when I began writing.I always hated doing bio’s.
    Anyway, you gave excellent advice

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out, John! And you’re not alone in hating writing bios 🙂

  14. DL Stickler says:

    Brilliant. And thanks for sharing this idea. It makes perfect sense to me.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s great to hear – cheers!

  15. Luke says:

    So true. I’ve never bothered with writing character bios. Waste of time imho.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out, Luke!

    2. Carol Frome says:

      Good, honest article. Does anyone really care that the dog at the birthday cake when the character turned 8? I’ve always shunned the “write a bio” advice. It’s easy blanket advice to give permission to people who aren’t yet writers to call themselves writers. They can end up “researching” their novel or screenplay for as long as it takes for them to burn out.

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        Good points, Carol – thanks for reading!

  16. Seth Lowell says:

    Cool post, I will definitely put this into practice instead of writing character bio.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Sounds good, thanks Seth!

  17. Patricia Faithfull says:

    Angela Ackerman has written reference materials called THE POSITIVE TRAIT THESAURUS and THE NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS which goes in depth into identifying these traits and how the characters would behaviorally manifest them.

  18. Josef Harpst says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. I have to start rewriting my main characters again soon ugh.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good luck with it, Josef.

  19. Anita Orsi says:

    I always right a 5 page bio on each of my characters backgrounds so this post doesn’t know what its talking about.

  20. 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!

  21. 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.

  22. 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!

  23. 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?

  24. 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 🙂

  25. Pingback: Ed
  26. 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.

  27. Mustapha says:

    How do I create a character bio please?

  28. 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 😉

  29. 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!

      1. Script Reader Pro says:

        If writing a character bio works for you that’s great.

  30. Bella says:

    Thanks, this helped a lot!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Bella.

  31. Lily Valentine says:


    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Lily.

  32. 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!

  33. Denz Lowhot says:

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

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Denz!

  34. Ben says:

    The Grandpa snorts heroin not cocaine!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the heads up.

  35. 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.

  36. 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!

  37. 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?

  38. Hope says:

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

  39. Zoe says:

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

  40. 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.

  41. Esi says:


  42. leitskev says:

    Again, excellent.

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