The other week, I filled out some character bios for a short story I wanted to write. It was a weird experience, because it was easy. And better yet, it was actually helpful.
I used to find character bios completely useless. I’d keep notes on characters as I wrote, so that if I decided someone had a little brother in chapter three the brother wouldn’t have vanished into the ether in chapter eight.
But filing out lists of questions before I wrote didn’t work for me. If you asked me what my character’s bedroom was like, or what they had for breakfast, I’d find the question completely irrelevant, or come up with a zany answer that didn’t help me with the story at all. (“What did they have for breakfast? Ostrich eggs! Why? Because they felt like it!”)
So what made this time different? It wasn’t the specific bio I was filling out (which happened to be from Nancy Kress’s Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint). I think it’s mostly that I’ve written enough that I’ve started to internalize what makes a good story. Eating ostrich eggs for breakfast for no reason? No. Eating one slice of dry toast and slipping his younger brother an extra slice of cheese because he cares about his family and doesn’t want to be a burden? Yes. (In the right story, ostrich eggs could be an important element. But not this one.)
The more I write, the more I find that going back and re-reading advice and trying things I’ve tried before helps more than it used to. (Like, say, outlining, to use a less recent discovery.) The real answer is simply practice.