Yesterday, my brother took the train down to the south-west for a few weeks’ well-earned holiday, leaving me to the pleasures of uninterrupted solitude. No slur intended upon my brother, but I always find the day of his departure particularly stimulating. Instead of immediately collapsing onto the sofa in my pyjamas to watch romantic comedies in peace, as one would expect, I am sent into a flurry of activity. The prospect of three weeks without Monsieur’s computer cluttering up the table calls for a celebratory spring-clean (brothers are messy!). After doing the dishes and the laundry, putting away papers, stray items of clothing, and the piles of DVDs he never remembers to put back on the shelf, and wiping down every flat surface till not a single crumb or speck of dust can be seen, it’s time for a cup of tea and a pat on the back. The flat is tidy, and smells clean and fresh – on my way back from the laundrette yesterday afternoon, I even stopped off to buy a bunch of gaily-coloured dahlias from the friendly Chinese florist who always gives me a special deal or a sprig of something extra. Then out come my pencils and notebooks – because you don’t really think I go to all that trouble merely to gratify my housewifely instincts, do you?! I get some of my best work done on my first night alone in the flat, amid the new-found order and space.
Last night, I decided to start work on something new: a character bible. I’d been mulling over the idea ever since reading about it on Live to Write, Write to Live, and finally decided to give it a shot. The idea is to write a sort of identity card for each of the characters featuring in your novel, so that you can keep track of them more easily. Of course, this is just about compulsory when writing a trilogy or a series of novels, or even a novel à la A. S. Byatt, where you have to juggle twenty-odd main characters, not to mention secondary characters and those who might only appear once or twice before vanishing once more into the woodwork. There is nothing more annoying for a reader than to stumble across a discrepancy in a character’s appearance from one book to another. The energy you expend frowning over the mention of blue eyes when you were sure they were brown the last time you read about them, and the time you waste riffling through the previous chapters in search of the passage that will or will not confirm your suspicions, can all be saved with only a little extra effort on the part of the author.
In my own case, for a long time I was confident that my memory could be relied on to furnish me with all the necessary details. What was the world coming to if I could no longer remember basic facts about characters I had been working on for the past five years? And anything extra that came to me as I was working – or in the middle of the night – could be jotted down on a spare bit of paper or in a corner of my manuscript. That worked fine – until I introduced a new character into the story, who happened to be part of a very large family. What had seemed charmingly eccentric before was far less charming when I had to hunt through my notes in search of the various jottings and loose scraps of paper which would tell me the names of Luke’s six brothers, their respective ages, professions, marital status, and number of offspring. I could, of course, have reinvented it all ex nihilo, but there had been a logic to the process the first time around, and it was a logic I was loth to jeopardise with last-minute bungling. And so, two thirds of the way through my novel, I resigned myself to being practical and organised, and sat down to compile a character bible. I even bought a separate notebook especially for the purpose.
In the end, I was so engrossed that I skipped dinner in order to keep on working, merely snacking on hummus sandwiches and apples when I grew a little peckish at nine o’clock. I even found myself drawing up family trees! Some of the information I knew so well already that there wasn’t that much point writing it down, except for the satisfaction of seeing it down on paper. But in more than one other case, the act of collecting and organising various scattered details and half-formed thoughts was a useful, and even salutary, exercise. I’m convinced that if your characters are hazy in your own mind, they don’t have a chance of coming off on paper. Sure, you may know exactly what they look like the first time the hero or heroine sets eyes on them, but what about the rest of the time? What about the long inner journey each one went on in order to get them looking like that in the first place? The character bible enables you to pad out your characters, to give them both bones and flesh, so that each of their appearances in the story will be laden, and layered, with meaning. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use everything – in fact, most of the details will remain between the covers of the notebook. What matters is the coherence and credibility that prior work gives you, so that when that character does make his grand entrance, he is recognisable as a person, and not a cut-out paper doll or a puppet on a string.
Re-reading these last few paragraphs, I cannot help but be amused at the confident way I have been expatiating on a subject in which I am still such a novice. There’s nothing like talking oneself into something! That said, now that I have embraced the concept of the character bible, I am unlikely to give it up any time soon. Indeed, I can already see it is going to become a fixture of my work. And having appropriated it so quickly and unequivocally, I am now perfectly within my rights to apply the rules in my own quirky way…
Name: Robin Vent. Male. 26 years old. Tall, slim, athletic (plays tennis). Black hair, with side parting. Blue eyes. Very Brideshead Revisited (linen trousers, knife-edge crease, shirt and tie). Smoker. Post-grad student at Oxford (working on a Ph.D. in History of Art). Attended a public school. Eton or Harrow? I know absolutely nothing about either. Pause, to gaze meditatively at the ceiling, at the piano, into thin air. Byron attended Harrow. I like Byron (a little too much, perhaps?). Harrow it is, then. End of story.
© Florence Berlioz 2011