To bio, or not to bio?  That is the question.  While you don’t have to write a 1000-page biographical sketch of your story’s protagonist, it’s a good rule of thumb to have some specifics about your main character nailed down and established before you begin writing.  Since “we do not bring characters out of a void,” your hero should feel like they existed before the story began and will go on to other adventures when it ends (McKee 183).

Biography vs Backstory

While they might seem synonymous at first glance, a character biography and character backstory differ, but should be used together during the writing process.  

Character Biography

“A character biography is a description of the salient information of the character that covers both sociological and psychological background” (Cowgill 32).  Author Lagos Egri also includes physiological in his breakdown of the character bio as well.  These are specific aspects of the main character’s current life and world that will be used to make them a strong, compelling, and empathetic character.

Biographical elements include (Cowgill 32-33):

Physical Appearance/Physiological

  • Sex
  • Age
  • Race
  • Physical Attributes
  • Physical Defects
  • Heredity
  • Bodily Care

Sociological

  • Class
  • Education
  • Occupation
  • Home Life
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Political Affiliations

Psychological

  • Sex Life
  • Morality
  • Personal Ambitions/frustrations
  • Temperament
  • Complexes
  • Introvert/Extrovert
  • Talents
  • Qualities
  • Unique traits

Taking the time to examine and decide on these specific areas of your protagonist will help you better understand and plan out how they respond to events that take place as your story unfolds.  

Establishing your protagonist’s values, personality, traits, and points of view will help mold and shape their overall characterization, which “is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being, everything knowable through careful scrutiny” (McKee 100).  Then, once the tests, conflicts, and surprises arise, you’ll better grasp how your hero will handle themselves. 

As an example, suppose they suffer from agoraphobia and are suddenly forced to leave their home because of a natural disaster or zombie apocalypse. In that case, that character will react much differently to those circumstances than a protagonist, a military veteran, and a former black ops team leader.  


Character Backstory

Taking a step back from biographical info, “[b]ackstory is the set of significant events in the characters’ past that the writer can use to build his story’s progressions” (McKee 183).  All the important events that have happened to the protagonist up to the point where your story begins would be backstory that informs who the hero is and why they are the way they are. 

In essence, the main character’s backstory feeds directly into their biography.

With the backstory, you can let your imagination run wild, but you should keep elements of your main character’s backstory relevant to the story you’re placing them in.  If you gave them any quirks, traits, or talents in the biographical sketch, you might want to expand upon those and create an interesting story about how those elements came to be.  You never know when that piece of backstory might come in handy.

I recommend doing bullet points through their life, highlighting the key events and connections your protagonist has had that might factor into what they’re experiencing in the present within the confines of your story.  These can include: 

Defining moments

“From the day they were born to the opening scene, how has life shaped them?” (McKee 183).  What big events from their childhood made them who they are today?  Did they experience any traumas?  Were they overprotected and kept isolated from danger?  Did anyone close to them die or abandon them?  These events can shape a character’s outlook and influence their current mindset.

Influences & Role Models

Do they love music?  Books?  Poetry?  Art?  Film?  History?  All of these can affect how your character sees the world, their place in it, and the places of those around them.

Who was a major influence in their life? Did they have any personal role models? Did they admire sports heroes? Political leaders? These are people who would significantly affect the hero’s future values.

Flaws & Weaknesses

These are important since “[i]nteresting flaws humanize a character.  We can recognize bits of ourselves in a Hero who is challenged to overcome inner doubts, errors in thinking, guilt or trauma from the past, or fear of the future” (Vogler 39).  Your protagonist should be allowed to make mistakes, have a lapse in judgment, or hesitate too long and mess things up.  

Relevant Elements to the Story

“We landscape character biographies, planting them with events that we’ll harvest again and again” (McKee 183).  As I stated before, for your audience to understand where your main character is now, you must know what events led them to the point where we meet them in the story.  By doing this, you go beyond just creating an avatar on the page; you craft and cultivate a dimensional protagonist that feels like a real human being.


There’s so much to explore on this topic, we’re just scratching the surface! I encourage everyone to seek out the reference books I’ve used for these articles to deepen their study of everything we’ve covered over the past three weeks.

See you next time!

Sources:

Cowgill, Linda J.  Writing Short Films: Structure and Content for Screenwriters. Lone Eagle Publishing, 1997.

Egri, Lajos. The Art of Dramatic Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

McKee, Robert. Story. Harper Collins, 1997.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.

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