I was working on Jacob Wonderbar #2 the other day and it came time to reintroduce a teacher that plays an important role in the first book. I summoned my mental image of the teacher… which was completely blank.
What did she look like again? What color hair and eyes did she have? Total blank.
I mean, I’m not great with faces in real life, let alone with fictional characters. I think have a mild form of that face blindness thing, so by the way if I meet you again in real life and I have a blank look on my face it’s not personal I think you’re great just give me some context!!!
Anyway, after that moment I knew I had to work on my Series Bible.
What’s a Series Bible?
Series Bibles take many different forms. Sometimes when writers are coming into an already-existing series or, say, a line of books with certain rules (such as in romance) the Series Bible will give them the characters, world, plotlines, and rules that the writer has to follow.
But you can also create your own – if you’re writing a series, or even if you’re just crafting a single novel set in a unique world with its own rules, I highly recommend creating your own Series Bible. Whenever you reintroduce a character the Series Bible will remind you what they look like. If you have different worlds/planets/lands/classrooms/lairs you won’t have to go hunting through your manuscript to try and remember which one is which.
The Series Bible is a lifesaver when your brain has reached capacity.
What to include in a Series Bible
What to include:
- Characters: What they look like (just copy and paste straight from the book), how many brothers and sisters they have, important events in their past, personality traits, etc. Also, any unique schedules they have, hobbies, etc. I’d include all characters, major and minor. You never know who’s going to reappear.
- Worlds/Planets/Lands/Classrooms/etc.: What they look like, their backstory, any important details, etc.
- Rules of Law: Any important/unique laws or conventions, styles, etc.
- Any backstory that happens off the page: Make sure you know and keep track of all the key details.
- Inventions/Special Powers: This is important, especially for science fiction and fantasy. When you invent something, even when it’s just barely mentioned, it can create huge repercussions for the rest of the story. For instance, if you introduce a personal hyperwarp drive, whenever a character is in trouble your reader will be like, “Duh, use the personal hyperwarp drive, USE THE PERSONAL HYPERWARP DRIVE!!” Keep track of our inventions and powers, and make sure their rules of use are clearly delineated.
- Anything else you need to remember for later
Your Series Bible will save you when you paper over a plot hole only to open up a big ole gaping chasm somewhere else in the book.
Now I just need one for my real life.
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Art: The Virgin in a dress decorated with ears by Andreas Praefcke
Sam Hranac says
I have always called this a character outline and included what you have as paragraphs plus the following as bullets.
Animal / object comparison
Sees self as
Is seen as
How they feel about people's opinions of them
Persistence level (1-10 scale)
Power level (1-10 scale)
Flexibility (1-10 scale)
Problem at story open
How problems get worse
Richard Mabry says
I've done this all along, but just called them "notes." Thanks for the cool new name.
Ransom Noble says
Great advice. I definitely need a series bible!
Rick Daley says
Great post, thanks (again, but hey, thanking you never gets old).
I'd add one thing: a timeline.
I have one in MS Excel that lists the characters' names on the vertical axis, and then each year on the horizontal axis.
I highlight cells in a row based on birth/death of the characters, so I can easily look and see what age each person is, and then accurately calculate the differences in their ages.
This is for one novel, which covers the protagonists youth and his adult life (and (spoiler!) death).
This a great idea! I've already succeeded in changing a character's eye colours once – and I'm still on the first book. Definitely something I'm going to do. Thanks!
Katrina L. Lantz says
Thank you for this post. As always, you give essential advice I wouldn't have thought of on my own.
Also, my husband is just like your wife. How do they do that?
Alleged Author says
When I write about a character, I type in "woman" or "man" into Google images and find a picture of someone to describe. It sounds really weird, right? It totally works though. I also do it with scenery and buildings. That way I have a jumping off point before I characterize my protagonists! 😛
Kristi Helvig says
Great post! It seems like it would be more difficult if you didn't intend the first book to become a series, but then it turned into one after the fact. Kristin Cashore discussed this with Graceling.
I keep mine Microsoft Publisher in the form of a color-coded text boxes. Each character's age at the time of certain events are color highlighted according to the event. I created mine to avoid contradictions and age problems.
Also, maps are great to keep east from west and kingdoms where you say they are located.
Emily Anderson says
I have a notebook I keep all my info in: character sketches, story maps, drawings, schedules, research notes, everything (I'm kind of an organizational freak). I can't write if my notebook isn't next to me. Even if I don't look at it, I have to know it's there for a quick reference.
"Now I just need one for my real life" – Brilliant! I would have laughed out loud, but my roommate is sleeping… 🙂
I started something like this when I accidentally used the same name for two minor characters. It helped a lot, but I have always felt like a wuss of writer because I couldn't just remember all of my characters (what kind of a creator AM I?). It makes me feel a lot better to know that I'm not a wuss of a writer because lots of other writers do it, too! PHEW!
I HAVE to do this. Thanks for the tip, Nathan.
Hey! Hey! Hey! Hoo-Ray! another Tuesday!
I've really been a fan of using TiddlyWiki for my notetaking/Bible-ing:
Makes me wonder how thick that Series Bible is for Lost. I mean they've got to have like 30 prophets writing that thing.
J.J. Bennett says
I start with a "series bible" and branch off from there. The important thing to note, is if you change your series bible information you better make note of it! FYI…
This is a good idea.
I'm terrible at both names and faces, so I was actually thinking it might not be a bad idea to do something like this for real life!
So, thanks for the suggestion – I guess I should really thank your wife – so thanks, Nathan's wife for the suggestion, and thanks Nathan for sharing it with us. 🙂
wowzers! Jacob Wonderbar numero 2 already! Much BIC action in progress I see. Such a busy busy person, Nathan. Do you consider yourself an agent or an author first?
One series I liked is The Traveler. Haven't read the conclusion though. I interviewed John Twelve Hawks online, the only place he can be found. Not even his agent knows who he really is. His advice was put as much work into your villains as your protags. That's a keeper. I have a two book series. Completed. It will be a series when the first is published.
George Fripley says
I spend a lot of time writing short character biographies to make sure I stay consistent, although my descriptions could use much work.
It is often more fun than the story and a goldmine of inspiration – so much so that I now have a draft of a book of such characters – The Dregs of History -which currently has over 50 humorous characters. I
Nathan Bransford says
I probably spend fifty hours or more agenting for every one hour writing so definitely agenting.
Thank you for the timely post. You must hover over my shoulder while I struggle to write and think, "Hmmm, she really needs to…"
Peter Dudley says
I'm guessing the series bible is easier to build (and perhaps more relevant) after the first book is finished. Or perhaps after the first book first draft is finished. Pretty easy to create as you're going through revision of that first draft. One would think.
Ted Cross says
I have everything on notecards – one for each character.
Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe says
Sound advice Nathan. Very early on I created my Annabelle Who's Who and Annabelle Timeline. Every idea I get for the series goes in there.
The timeline is an outline for the entire series. All three hundred years, from 1692 AD to the present, is touched on with plot points for my characters and how the main events effect them.
The Who's Who has short bios for all characters including important events.
When things change in the writing and editing, I go back and change those files, too.
It sure helps in the long run.
Vacuum Queen says
At what point did you know you would be writing Jacob #2? Or, is it already sold? Just curious how that worked.
And, we read my 4 year old son a book from the movie Cars, called "Meet the Cars." In it, there are pictures and paragraph descriptions of each of the cars from the film PLUS another 50 or so cars. Each could have been in the movie but wasn't. I imagine the whole Pixar writing gang sitting around dreaming these characters up and making cuts later. I like to keep my characters and extras in a little file like that just in case I want to use them or need to look back to them. I like to make extras too…just to know about the neighborhood. So I agree that your Bible idea is good.
India Drummond says
I use a program called Writers Cafe to help me keep this type of info straight. It has characters sheets and a section called a "scrapbook" where you can place photos and text.
Because I'm like you (sometimes can't visualise imaginary people), I go to dating sites, image comparison sites like hot-or-not, facebook, or sometimes just google image search and find pictures of REAL people (not models or actors) that look like my characters. That way, when I need to describe them, I can just look at them.
No one ever sees those photos but me, but it really does help me make the characters more concrete if I can see the little details about their faces and expressions.
Mike French says
The best books I've read hardly describe their characters looks at all and leave the reader to form an impression based on how the character behaves.
Your wife has it when she says …
"that is the person who sold me a lollipop when I went to the county fair in 1985 but now they have orange hair."
So best to leave a lot of the details in your series bible out of the novel itself.
Now in real life it would be helpul ! Although people might be offended when you start to look them up in you life series bible –
O yes page 23 – ugly looking neigbour from No 42, boring and tedious, divorced 3 times and drinks cocktails at 7 in the morning whilst mowing front lawn …
Hey! A fellow prosopagnosiac.
I've been criticised for not describing my characters' faces in detail, but then when I read such details in other people's writing I end up skimming – I never get a mental image of what the character looks like forming: they're just wasted words to me.
The best test I've found (so far) to see if you suffer face blindness?* Watch an episode of America's Next Top Model and then try to match the photos to the models – I get confused every time they change their hair for the photoshoot.
*Research suggests that 1 in 20 people suffers from prosopagnosia. Scary, huh?
Lynn Viehl says
It's a good idea to put together a series lexicon, too, especially if you use any coined or colloquial terms. I include in mine how characters' names are spelled and what nicknames I've used for them.
You'll find that in a chronological series with recurring characters you're soon juggling a lot of info, and sometimes naming details and spellings slip off the radar. In mine I have to incorporate at least 50+ individual descriptions, personality traits, backstories, etc. by book three or four, at which point I stop remembering middle names, whose name changed after a marriage, etc.
RR Kovar says
My very first writing teacher encouraged us to create a profile for each character introduced, no matter how minor, and also to maintain a list of important information about our world – even if it was this world – so we would have the information we needed without having to search for it. I still use both of these along with my version of an outline "stuff that needs to happen". I don't think I could write novels without those tools.
I've done this. The best part of it is getting all of the back story out of your head and onto paper. That way you won't bore your reader, and yet, you're world has a history. And characters can reference this history without great detail. It makes it all the more real.
One of the reasons I've started using Scrivener. I wish I'd had it ages ago!
I always do the Series Bible thing, which I did not know had a name. They are invaluable when you write stories with complex worldbuilding like speculative fiction generally has.
knowing you watched "Lost" last night makes this a really relevant post to me.
I hope it doesn't fall apart because I've been very slowly working my way forward from the beginning after having backed up several times to catch up, then moved all the way forward from different season intervals studying the conflict introduction and levels of each characters awareness of the depth of the unfolding; studying what is real by the world builders rules and what is drawn from their (characters) imaginations imagery sets.
I use character studies from real life which is a crutch developed before electronic retrieval. I take so much time developing my equipment and rules that they become burned into my memory.
I live in the world I build, thats part of the draw and brain high for me that makes writing my favorite art form.
I still use a bible for stuff/formulas that are revealed as foreshadowing in a folder called "keypages" also a "keyevents" folder for stuff that must happen as promised earlier to move the plot forward and muddy up each cooperating and competing characters understanding of the depth of trouble they may be in.
Sam Hranac (…)
New Novelist 2.0
Liquid Story Binder
My core characters I keep in the same age bracket and supporting cast are younger or older but not stated. People rarely know other peoples ages until friendship occurs.
I'll find a way to book mark this or use acrobat to downlaod.
Great suggestions by everyone.
Dana Fredsti says
In my current WIP, one of my characters changed eye color within the same page. Written on the same day. I don't think I was drinking at the time… At any rate, that convinced me I needed a series bible and I started one that day.
Matthew Rush says
Your client Natalie Whipple was talking about character sheets the other day and I was like: Am I the only dork who hears that term and thinks dungeons and dragons?
RR Kovar says
No, Matthew, you are not. I started making character sheets before I had ever heard of D&D, but I began referring to them as character sketches or snapshots, etc. after I became aware of role playing games.
verification – werbs: words which can be used as verbs, but aren't always. Conversely, what happens when you verb a noun (ex: scrap booking *shudders*)
J. T. Shea says
Nice picture! The Gothic edition of JACOB WONDERBAR, no doubt?
But JACOB WONDERBAR #2? No, Nathan. JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KERRANG. JACOB WONDERBAR BEYOND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW. JACOB WONDERBAR BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW (WITH APES). THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW STRIKES BACK!
Free corndog with every copy. Although if Amazon still can't bundle paper with E-books there could be problems…
Mind maps are great for this.
Thank you all for the software suggestions! Finally some ones for MAC crept in there… 😉
Blayze Kohime says
I just have to say this is an even better idea than you thought. Putting out all my character, place, etc into neat little entries like that actually caused me to come up with some new creative ways things could be used and how it all interrelates. I would go so far as to say in the future I might outline a simple world building bible prior to starting to write, then build on it as I do so to make sure everything comes together.
Great concept, and great advice. I'm just hung up on one thing–why is it a bible? I get that it's sacred info but the Bible contradicts itself and has multiple versions of things. The Bible needed a series bible. This is really a series encyclopedia.