Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Character biographies

by Rob - June 29th, 2015.
Filed under: Writing.

Over on my Facebook wall, Matthew B. Tepper of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society asked me, “Do you also create life histories for your characters (at least the principal ones) that contain details that might not make it into the final text of the novel?” My reply:

I do not. I know others do, but I build the details of my characters’ lives brick by brick as needed to support the narrative I want to tell. For instance, a turning point in my forthcoming novel (minor, but mentioned) is that in a schoolyard fight, when he was eight, the protagonist almost killed a bully. That feeds into his future actions and is referenced a couple of times in the text. But the fact that — arbitrarily — his family went to Disneyland when he was 12, and he got lost, and blah blah blah? Nah; I construct stuff like that when I need it, and when it helps. Sure, characters have a few arbitrary traits that don’t pay off — in my new novel, the protagonists loves bananas — but that’s mentioned. Whether he loves, or hates, peaches, I have no idea; it was never relevant to decide that.

Another example: in an early draft of the novel, a character had a tattoo covering a scar; in a later draft, I changed what the tattoo was of to something that made way more symbolic sense — but if I’d written a “bible” for that character, would I have been nimble enough to realize that something more appropriate for the actual story could be used instead?

For more on this, see my column on constructing characters.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Leave a Reply