Creating a Character Bible

Lea Wait, here,. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about what I needed to do after I’d finished a book. One task I mentioned was updating my Character Bible. E.J. Runyon contacted me and asked that I explain what that was. So today I’m sharing how to create a writing tool I develop for each book I write. I find it important for stand-alone books — and indispensable for writing a series.

A character Bible.

No; I’m not referring to THE Bible.

I’m referring to a place — a notebook, an electronic file, a folder …. whatever you choose … that contains the important facts about the people and places in your book. Who wants a character to change eye colors between chapters two and twenty?

Everyone has to find their own “best way” to create a useful Bible. I’ve found a hand-written loose leaf notebook is easiest for me. I can update it by hand either while I’m writing or after … I can refer to it easily … and I can add (or sometimes subtract) pages when necessary. Some years ago I treated myself to a really nice leather “circa” notebook from Levenger, because it’s a comfortable size to take with me if I’m writing on the road, 6.5 x 8.5 inches, and I love the way it looks and feels. Since I use it all the time,I think of it as an investment. At the moment it contains information about the people and DSC02174places in both my Shadows Antique Print Mystery series and my Mainely Needlepoint Series.

OK — what’s in there? Maps of the major towns where the books are set — in these cases, Haven Harbor and Weymouth, Maine, and the campus where Maggie Summer teaches in New Jersey. If another town appears in a book I also draw maps … but usually I leave them in the folder of back-up information (research, ideas, outline, etc) I keep for each book.

Most of my Bible is made up of alphabetical listings of information about each character. A character who only appears in one book may have a short listing — how old he or she is, what they look like, and specific quirks they have, what their secret is, what they want, and what they’re willing to do to get it, and perhaps their relation to my series protagonist and to the specific plot line.

DSC02176In a mystery, if they’re either murdered or the murderer, that may be all I need — they’ll only appear in one, or maybe two, books.

For my major, repeating, characters, I include not only that basic information but other details.

For instance, my Bible tells me Maggie Summer (in the Shadows series) has never smoked, drinks Diet Pepsi, and loves chocolate covered cherries. She pays high taxes on her house in NJ. She drinks Dry Sack sherry out of Edinburgh Crystal. She likes to treat herself to baths with lavender-scented soap. Her father took her deer hunting when she was 13 but she refused to shoot, even though he’d taught her how to use a gun. She cried when he killed a doe. (He never took her hunting again.) And so forth

Angie Curtis, the protagonist of the Mainely Needlepint series? Her Gram calls her “Angel.” She has a birthmark on her shoulder that matches one her mother had. She has scars on her toes from walking on barnacle-covered rocks as a child. She drives a small red Honda, likes her coffee black, and is pretty flexible about her choice of beers – but prefers those made in Maine.

Gussie White reads late at night, so it’s OK to call her then. Aunt Nettie has a Thursday morning appointment every week at Cut ‘n’ Curl. Angie Curtis’ fashion-plate friend Clem Walker was fat as a teenager and now works for Channel 7 in Portland.

Not all those details appear in all my books — but they have been mentioned in at least one. The real purpose of the Bible is to ensure that my words don’t contradict themselves. I don’t want Maggie eating chocolate covered cherries in one book and being allergic to cherries in another. (If I don’t notice, one of my readers definitely will!)

The character Bible is also the place to include backstories, phobias, hair styles, fears and goals.

In addition to characters, I have pages for specific places — Harbor Haunts, a restaurant in Haven Harbor, has red Formica counters. Maggie Summer’s kitchen table is pine. What kind of trees are on the main street of town? What do characters’ houses look like? How far away are local hospitals, and how long does it take to drive there? All details that may be important in more than one book.

When do I put information in my Bible? I used to create or add information when I was planning my book. But although I do a general outline of each book before I start writing, I tend to change details as I write. So, for me, the time to create my Bible is when I’ve finished a strong draft, or when I send the manuscript to my editor.

Having the Bible helps avoid changing a character’s hair color, or height, or the name of his or her ex-spouse. It’s also a convenient place to check that I haven’t created two characters with the same first name (ouch! yes, that’s happened) or even two characters with similar last names. I try, in fact, to have all character names in one book start with different letters. That makes it easier for readers to keep them straight. (Me, too.)

Reading through the Bible not only makes sure I don’t make continuity mistakes; it also gives me ideas for future plots, and doesn’t let me forget minor characters who might have key roles to play in future books.

It is right next to my thesaurus and dictionary on my desk.

It is essential.

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6 Responses to Creating a Character Bible

  1. I do something very similar, making notes by hand in a standard size loose leaf binder for each series. It contains alphabetized character sheets together with sections on setting (maps and floorplans included), dates (a timeline for the series and for each book), and miscellaneous–specific research for the current book. For the WIP, that includes John’s recent blog on fundraising ideas for libraries and notes on requirements for a PI license in Maine and in Virginia, along with a few other odds and ends. The theory is that I add info as I go along, but in practice I got sloppy after the first few books. The last few weeks I’ve been rereading my own series to fill in things I made up about characters and forgot to write down. So far, other than giving Liss an extra grandparent, I haven’t messed up too badly, but I did almost get two or three things wrong in the current book and wouldn’t have realized it if I hadn’t gone back. I’ll guarantee that readers would have caught the errors though.


  2. Thanks, Lea! this is an incredibly useful post. Will try to emulate your organization. My bible is more scattered, leading to some difficulties. Love your notebook too. I seem to collect things like that. And don’t all writers love any store that sells paper things?

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Scrivener has templates and folders for this. I keep two folders for the Maine Clambake series, Continuing characters and Characters for (Book title). When I start a new book, I move the Continuing Characters folder to the new document, so I always have it in my left sidebar. Occasionally characters get promoted from single book to series, or they loop back in again.

    I try to keep it up-to-date as I write, but like you Lea, I have to go back and do some clean up at the end.

  4. Tony Bulmer says:

    When I work on a project, I always keep a word file of characters live on my desktop next to the open manuscript. In this way I can easily cut and paste new details about my characters as I write them.

  5. Judith Mehl says:

    Well, I knew leaving scraps of paper with crucial information all over my computer table wasn’t such a good idea. Now, thanks to Lea Wait, I know it’s worse than wrong. Her post was the boot I needed. Great organization and extremely helpful post.

  6. Wendy says:

    I do this for my novels too. In fact, my last one was an ARC from Staples, similar to what you used. I find that writing the information on paper helps me retain it better.

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