Characters are what they do.
That’s the first essential rule. When you read about a character that rejected his social security number in the hopes he would not pay his taxes, it tells you a lot about that character. When you read he deliberately drove a Chevy Corvair despite Ralph Nader, it tells you more things about him. You now know he doesn’t toe the line – as a matter of fact, he considers himself separate from society.
I read about a lot of writers who construct deliberately long bios about their character. They often write for a few days on what they did in third grade, etc. I’ve never done that. I’ve written some small things. But I find that as I’m writing, I quickly grasp every last thing my character does defines them.
Aaron Sorkin says, “You know you fill up a legal pad with things like, your character eats creamy peanut butter. And you write a scene where they’re saying, Mom Dad, we need money for this, and now you’re staring at your legal pad trying to figure how to work creamy peanut butter into the dialogue.”
Although I don’t quite agree with Sorkin’s contention that, “your character was never 8 years old – they were always the age they were when you write ‘fade in’, I do see his point.
There is two magic ages that determine who and what your character is – eight and twelve. It’s been said that what you want to be when you’re twelve is who you are. I dunno, at twelve I was struggling with the fact I had a really nice collection of GI Joes and I knew deep down inside I was too old to play with them, so I gave all my toys to my nephew. So now both of us, fully grown, are kicking ourselves over getting rid of the Space Capsule toy, which is worth $600!
Some would say the primary ages are 8,12,16 – these ages (all multiples of 4 – what’s up?) seem to be the defining ages. Now if you’re one of the people who write that your character likes creamy peanut butter, you now have the crucial ages you MUST think about.
I liken it rather to someone who buys a violin, practices five minutes, and then daydreams about playing Paganini’s 24th Caprice Op. 1 Variation #5. You’re NEVER going to play it if you don’t play the violin!
I personally think if you’re a writer, and you spend an inordinate amount of time on character sheets… you’re not writing.
Now, Scrivener has built-in character bio’s you can fill out. I’ve even made a three act template that I made all colorful and everything! I’ve filled in, for example, that Yossi was born in the city my novels start out in, but spent most of his life in New York. Brooklyn, as a matter of fact.
It popped out in one bit of dialogue that probably nobody will read and say, “AHA! He’s spent most of his life in Brooklyn!” My beta reader actually never said anything about it.
So, this is a long way of just saying – I don’t sit and write for days on who my characters are.