How to Make a Character Bible for Your Children's Book
A great way to really build a children's book character, attribute by attribute, is to create a blueprint of him, called a character bible. A character bible is a type of character outline in which everything about your character is laid out in one place so you can find answers to many questions about the character’s personality and desires.
Start a separate document from your story, in list or prose form, so that you can refer back to it and amend it as you get more into your writing. It can even include visuals if you are a doodler or illustrator.
The following is an example of a character bible from a middle-grade novel in progress:
What is his name? Who was he named after and why? Barnaby H. Lee. He was named after his granddad, Barnaby Hollis Lee, the man who invented a time machine, performed one public exhibition of how his technology worked, then disappeared three weeks later on the day Barnaby was born.
Sometimes, Barnaby’s mother looks at him funny, explaining hastily that he reminds her of her dad in many uncanny ways (which is explored later on in the story when Barnaby finds his granddad’s hidden time-machine blueprints).
How old is he? Barnaby is nine years old, but he seems wiser than his years. Not in a geeky way, but in the way he expresses himself and how he speculates about complicated social and emotional issues.
What color are his hair, eyes, skin? Barnaby has platinum blond hair, big green eyes, and translucent skin. He looks a little otherworldly.
What is his ethnicity? Barnaby’s parents are both olive-skinned, of Mediterranean descent. Barnaby looks like no one else in his family — except that he resembles his granddad in a way that is not physical.
What does he look like? He is tall for his age, slender, almost jellylike in his flexibility — it seems as if his limbs kind of flop around when he walks, as if they are attached, but barely.
Where does he live? Where was he born? Barnaby lives in Dead Oak Village, a suburb of a big American city, where he was born and where his family has lived for five generations or more.
How would you describe his personality? Barnaby is a dreamer, but he is also very smart. Unlike most boys his age, he is very sensitive and aware of emotions and feelings. He often has premonitions that turn out to be true, but he has not articulated this to anyone.
He likes to be around people, but often seems not present when he is, as if he is listening to a conversation happening in another room. Barnaby is the first to comfort you if you’re hurt; he is also the first to defend you if you need it. He has only one enemy: Shark Kittridge, a boy down the street who has been losing first place in the Invention Fair to Barnaby for two years.
What are your character’s physical quirks? Barnaby’s eyes are weird: Even when they focus on you, you can’t really get a fix on what’s in them or on his expression. Barnaby’s most noticeable characteristic is that he looks up to the left often, as if he is listening to a conversation you can’t hear.
What does he wish for more than anything? Barnaby wishes he could talk to his granddad. There’s something about the old man that niggles at him. He has never met him, of course, but he feels as if there’s something important the old man has to say to him, and Barnaby has no idea how he’s going to figure out what that is.
It is unusual for a boy his age to care about a dead relative this way, so his interest spooks his mom and creeps out everyone in his family.
What are his character weaknesses or flaws? Barnaby has the courage of his convictions. He won’t ever shove them down your throat, but he won’t back down, either. This makes him a great friend to have, and an exasperating one, too. It’s as if Barnaby came into this world fully formed, not precocious, but not needing much improvement.
For example, his mother never spends time lecturing Barnaby on how to behave; Barnaby came out of the womb knowing right from wrong; however, when Barnaby gets an idea in his head, he will do whatever is necessary to go where he wants, get what he wants. He never means to hurt anyone, but someone always seems to get hurt by accident.
This determination imperils his best friend, Phoebe, in a way he may not be able to resolve alone — she’s going to disappear, and people are going to assume she was abducted and dead — and Barnaby will have to answer for it. But Barnaby doesn’t like to ask for help, so he will make the situation worse for himself and for her.
Does he behave the same way around his friends as he does around adults? Why or why not? Barnaby is interested in everyone — from the smallest baby to the elderly. Strangely, Barnaby likes to sit with old people and get them to tell him stories. He even volunteers at a retirement home.
And he seems to be able to communicate with infants, who are practically hypnotized by his bulgy green eyes. Barnaby acts the same around everyone (polite, well-mannered, not at all hyperactive or pushy).
Is he smart? Not so bright? In what does he excel? In what does he fail? Barnaby is smart and excels at school. He’s not so good at group activities because he tends to disappear in them; he’s not that outgoing.
Is he talkative or more introverted? Barnaby can talk up a storm on issues he’s interested in, but he’s generally more introverted. He’s not shy; he just doesn’t offer up of himself.
Is he athletic? If yes, what are his favorite sports? If no, why not? Barnaby is a great wrestler. Even though he weighs next to nothing, his flexibility allows him to outmaneuver everyone in his weight class, even heavier wrestlers.
He’s good at track and other solo outdoor pursuits, but he has to be careful in the sun, due to his paleness. He’s not good at team sports, because he doesn’t seem to be able to pay attention for a long period of time.
What small details set him apart from others? Barnaby is set off from others by the way he looks, the way he’s so seemingly ethereal, and his maturity. It’s not that he’s adultlike, precocious, or obnoxious, it’s just that he seems to already have been wherever you are going.
In a conversation, Barnaby’s words seem to precede his thoughts, making him ahead of himself somehow. But he’s wistful about it, not a know-it-all, so you don’t hate him for it — you’re simply perplexed by it.
Does he have brothers and sisters? What are their names and ages? Barnaby has a sister and a brother. His sister Natasha is older, age 16, already driving, and moving on into adulthood pretty quickly. She adores Barnaby, but rarely has time for him. His brother Ryan is 14 and also has little time for Barnaby, but he’s not mean to him like many older brothers would be.
Does he have a best friend? Name and age, please. Barnaby’s best friend is a girl named Phoebe. She is 10 and lives next door. Phoebe is also a quiet, strange child who shares with Barnaby an affinity for the paranormal and the ability to stay happily by herself for hours. Barnaby and Phoebe have been best friends since they were three months old.
What’s his big secret that he keeps from everyone? At the end of the first chapter, Barnaby will find the map of his own house, which will lead him to the blueprints for his granddad’s time machine. But he knows he can’t tell anyone about it because his granddad died making time travel a reality. Besides that, his mother would completely freak out.
Now not every character will be developed to this extent for every story in every format. But even in a picture book in which your word count is very limited, it can’t hurt for you to know lots of details about your characters.