Character Biographies? - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Q. I've been writing for 20 years in the documentary / corporate world, and have just finished my first screenplay. I'm having a number of people give it a friendly feedback read, and one said that I was missing the 'character biographies'. Is there such a thing? My understanding was that the characters need to come alive in the screenplay so if it isn't on the page, it either isn't needed (a minor character) or it needs to be added (better dialogue or action).
Who would use a character biography?
Beats me. No one's ever asked me for one in the feature world.

There are two things wrong with the notion of a "character biography." First, as you say, if it's not in the screenplay, it won't help that somewhere in a computer is an explanation of the character.

Second, biography is overrated. When you write up characters for a TV series, you write up who they are, now, and how they behave, and what their relationships are with the other characters. You might mention if a character went to Harvard, but only in the context of him thinking the whole world revolves around him. You might mention if a character never finished high school, but only in the context of her having a chip on her shoulder and always having to prove she's smart.

I never write character biographies. I don't even write character descriptions if I'm writing a feature. I consider them dangerous: you might think you've created a character but you've only done it offscreen.

In TV, of course, you write character descriptions, because the characters come first, and they're expected to outlast any stories you may have thought up. But biographies? The only place a biography belongs is in a TV show bible, to keep track of what canon you have established for the characters -- you don't want to mention a sister if a previous episode established an only child.

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2 Comments:

I hope they said more than just 'it's missing biographies'. They're either not up to speed or trying to be non-confrontational!

By Blogger blogward, at 2:25 PM  

Last year, I tried writing extensive biographies for a pilot, and found them pretty much useless when it came down to writing it. With the pilot I finished a few weeks ago, I only wrote paragraph-long character descriptions as preparation, and I found the whole thing a much smoother process. I'm starting to realise it's a lot more about a character's voice than their background.

By Blogger Will, at 2:41 PM  

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