Wallace Griffin
The Story Iceberg
Wallace Griffin
The Story Iceberg

Who are You?

Hello friends,

It’s been awhile since I’ve discussed parts of my writing process, so I thought I’d share my latest slice ‘o’ writing life.

After putting down nearly 10,000 new words on the second (or so) incarnation of Wolf’s Tail, I began to feel a nagging sense of dissatisfaction. While there were improvements over the last iteration, I just didn’t feel the story was all it could be. Looking over what I’d written and analyzing my process revealed something:

I’m still uncertain about the people I’m writing about.

My output has been a lot like describing visuals seen through a fogged window:

I think her sweater is blue. No, wait; she’s a Smurf. Never mind, it’s just the ocean.

Actually, the problem was never so obvious.

It was more like being asked to illustrate the guy working a few cubicles down from me. I could spit out his physical description with ease and even name his favorite soda (Mountain Dew). But I couldn’t tell you what his dreams are, what motivates him to get up in the morning, what he fears, or what lengths he would go to keep some of those fears from becoming reality.

As a reader, I don’t give two rabbit pellets about a character whose most intimate secret is his sugary beverage of choice. Sure, it may add color and tell me a little about him, but if you want me to get through a whole novel, I need something more to sustain interest and feel for the guy.

Without a doubt, writing through Wolf’s Tail has helped me divine a few of those “something more”s, but overall, I was still writing about “people doing things while feeling emotions.” Vapid words, not specific enough to evoke emotions in a reader when we all know it’s the specific that breathes life into fiction.

How to remedy? my brain asked.

Make friends with your characters! my brain replied. Sit down, buy them a drink, learn their stories.

And so I’ve spent the past few nights fleshing out my characters and putting together bios. Nancy Kress’ Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint has excellent starter templates and I highly recommend her book. Her bios are normally broken up into two parts–one for basic facts and another which delves further into the character’s mindset–but I’ve combined them in my example below.

Already, I’ve gained much more insight and a renewed confidence in what I need to write. I’m doing as much of this as possible for my major and supporting characters, because as author Karen Lord handily shows:

The Story Iceberg

It’s also good to remember that these bios are neither static nor carved in stone. Think of them as a feedback loop. They get you writing what you need to write which helps you discover more along the way.

Without further ado, here’s the bio for Wolf Tail’s primary antagonist:

MINI-BIO

Wallace Griffin

Name: Wallace Griffin

Age: 34

Birthplace: Louisville, Kentucky

Marital Status: None

Children and their ages: None

General appearance (whatever seems useful):

6’4” and broad shouldered. Slightly balding in the front. Dirty blond hair is always cut short and combed cleanly. Green eyes, pale skin. Always maintains a well-trimmed mustache, even while living in primitive conditions. Deep, gruff voice (think Sam Elliot).

Living arrangements (i.e., lives with wife and three young children; rents a ramshackle apartment alone; has tens in nomadic tribe with three concubines):

Lives out of a saddlepack and canvas tent wherever he’s digging for gold.

Occupation, including name of employer (if applicable):

Was a flatboatman, then a collier, then a Missouri Militiaman, then a Missouri Mounted volunteer, a flatboatman again, then a gold prospector.

Degree of skill at occupation (beginner, really competent, experienced but a bumbler, etc.):

A clever, hard worker at every job he undertakes. His imposing stature and silver tongue helped him work his way to the top of wherever he happened to be.

Character’s feeling about his occupation (loves it, hates it, regards it as “just a job,” has mixed feelings, is actively searching for other employment):

Wallace sees every job as an opportunity and his current position is never good enough—only a means to an end.

Family/General background (whatever you think is important: ethnicity, siblings’ names, parents’ names, social status, clan affiliation, total repugnance toward everybody he knew before the age of twelve):

Born William Cain in 1816 to an ordinary family, his first job was building and operating flatboats out of Louisville, Kentucky. William worked with a regular crew of men to carry hemp, tobacco, and whiskey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans.

In 1836, one night outside of a New Orleans saloon, William killed two Creoles in what he claimed was self-defense. The law disagreed. A wanted man, William Cain changed his name to Wallace Griffin and high-tailed it to the Missouri frontier.

He found himself in Clay County, working as a collier, side-by-side with Glenn McCallahan. Soon bored with the job, Wallace joined the Missouri Militia to fight the Mormons in 1838, honing his shooting skills with Kentucky rifles and various pistols. He was commended by his peers and officers alike.

After the war, he felt it was safe enough to return to flatboating until the Mexican-American War heated up. Wallace entered the 1st Regiment of Missouri Mounted Volunteers as a Sergeant due to his previous service.

During the war, he led a squad of soldiers that included Boyd Haw, Stephen Fromm, Solomon Clark, and Glenn McCallahan.

After being discharged from the war in 1847, Wallace grew depressed upon his return to Missouri and the flatboat routine. News of the Gold Rush reached his ears and he knew he had to follow, convincing his previous subordinates to join him.

What three or four things does this person value most in life? (i.e., success, money, family, God, love, integrity, power, peace and quiet):

Pride, Vengeance, Power

What three things does he most fear:

Being made a fool of, loss of control over his destiny, failure

What is this person’s basic underlying attitude about life?
(i.e. “Things will usually turn out all right,” or “They’re all out for themselves,” or “It’s best to expect nothing because then you won’t be disappointed,” etc.):

A man leads or a man gets trampled.

What does he need to know about another person in order to accept that other as “all right” and trustworthy:

Wallace needs to know that the other person has a semblance of backbone, willing to take chances. But not too much backbone so as to completely challenge Wallace.

What would cause this person more pain than anything else possible:

Someone or something taking away his sense of power and self-righteousness.

What would this person consider the most wonderful thing that could ever happen to him:

To see that he has molded others into versions of himself.

What three words would she use to describe herself, accurate or not:

Skilled shooter, father figure, quick on his feet

How accurate is his self-description:

Mostly accurate. Wallace is seen as a father figure to those who served under him since he exhibited a strong sense of fortitude and looked after them. He was also renowned in the military for sharpshooting and quick-draw skills. He’s only sometimes quick on his feet. About half the time, he can adapt to unexpected situations. The other times, he resorts to brute force with differing consequences.

What organization most embodies this person’s values? (i.e., Mensa, Daughters of the American Revolution, her church, Aryan Pride, PTA):

Any organization which lets him lead others and feed from their attention and admiration.

Does he belong to this group? If not, why not:

N/A


I hope you find this template as useful as I have. If you have any favorite questions you use to probe your characters, I’d love to hear about them.

-Phillip

0 thoughts on “Who are You?

  1. When I started writing I thought these types of things were a waste of time. The character would come out through the story and why waste time writing long bio’s and histories when I could be writing the story. I was so wrong. I can’t write them from scratch -I need to have done (at least a lot of) the first draft so I can get the character straight in my head – but I’ve found this sort of thing invaluable when trying to nail a consistent personality, attitude and motivation for my key characters. I tend to do character interviews rather than bio’s as I’ve found the characters voice tends to come through as well which really helps, but there as some great questions on the template you’ve used. I may well steal…

    Been wondering what was going on with Wolf’s Tail so good to hear about it. Wallace definitely sounds like an interesting antagonist. Love the fact that in certain situations he associates money (or gold) with power, but actually he is all about people – leading, persuading, intimidating. Thats where he really sees power.

    1. Thanks for the awesome comment Mobe. Like you, I’ve hated character bios since, like, forever. I want to write a story, not fill out a job application! I think I’ve found a happy medium like you–writing the first draft to discover the characters and then using the bios to get to know them better.

      So yes, please steal away. Kress put together some great questions that made me really think about my characters’ actions and reactions within the story.

      And I’m very happy to hear Wallace sounds interesting! I think that means the bio is working. 😀

  2. What a great post, Phillip! I’ve heard of using bios and character interviews, but I’ve hadn’t seen a template until now. Thank you for sharing this 🙂

    1. Thanks Marie! Getting to know my characters better has been a great motivator for continuing the story. I’m learning that one really has to know the characters intimately before one’s ready to write about them.

  3. Thanks for introducing us to Wallace. Great job on the character bio, Phillip. That’s one of my favorite things to do, get to know my characters in depth. Nancy’s book is great.
    Good luck and I hope you’re wife and the wee one are doing well.

    1. Thank you Jill. I’m looking forward to harnessing my new found confidence in my characters to keep writing. My wife and the little one are doing great, by the way, thanks for checking. 🙂

  4. Wonderful bio. I do the same thing. Even before I start my outline, I sketch out my characters in Scrivener (the program has character sheets you can add to or modify). I don’t use half the stuff I create, and I often add things as time goes on, but it helps me be consistent with the characters, and as you point out, it helps the reader get more inside the characters’ heads.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Carrie. Consistency is key and I think this will help me out there, big time. And I love Scrivener–it’s where I input Nancy’s template.

  5. Wow Phil. I am leading a class on characterizations this weekend and this is magnificent. May I use it as an example of a well done Bio?

    1. John, I’m quite flattered and you can certainly use it as an example. 🙂 🙂

  6. Wow! A thorough bio on ol’ Wallace/William. Great job!!! I feel like I know him! Love the questions, especially: “What would this person consider the most wonderful thing that could ever happen to him?” I might have to use your template to explore my characters.

    1. Thank you Linda! I love that you said you feel like you know him. Feel free to use the template, but unfortunately I can’t take credit for it since I took it from Nancy’s book. 🙂

  7. I’ve never done this myself, at least not in this very structured way, but as I read yours an idea hit me: What if there were a book made up of nothing but character bios? You could set up natural conflicts among them with subtle clues in the answers, and imply how the motivations are going to play out. Then maybe you could start repeating them but with changes that show how the conflicts are developing.

    I know. Kind of meta, but it’s so crazy it might just work!

    1. I’ve always been jealous of you guys that can keep their characters straight without much structure. 😉

      In regards to your book idea, I would throw down all sorts of shiny nickels for such a thing. Brilliant!

      1. I was hoping you’d write it!

  8. The best part of your bio was: “What would this person consider the most wonderful thing that could ever happen to him: To see that he has molded others into versions of himself.” Makes him sound like a very interesting person. I like to use Gotham Writer’s Workshop’s character questionnaire (http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/106). The questions are a little unorthodox, but they haven’t failed me yet in getting very deep into who my characters are.

    1. Wow, some really good questions on the Gotham site. Thank you Shelley!

  9. Phillip, this was great, and what an awesome character study you’ve done for Wallace. It’s true, we have to know them almost as well as we know our family members, otherwise they will appear 2-dimensional and boring to readers. I had the same issue with the last draft of my novel, that same funny feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When I finally wrote myself into a corner and stalled in the summer 2012, I did some more reading on craft and story structure. Then it eventually occurred to me how embarrassingly little I knew about my characters. Now, as I rework the novel, I’ve done a lot of free writing in the characters’ voices. It’s a good exercise whenever I get stuck on the outline. Great post.

    1. Thank you Gwen. 🙂 So glad to hear that the free writing and character work you’ve done has paid off. It really does help!

  10. […] my week has been chaotic and busy, I managed to sneak in a blog post and some character analysis. More work awaits me this weekend, so if you happen to come across a […]

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