How to build a character profile
For some writers ** I’m looking at all you pantser ** the idea of creating a character profile may seem counter-intuitive, boring or even unnecessary. “Won’t my character just reveal themselves during through the writing?” “Can’t I just let my characters evolve organically? Isn’t that why it’s called creative writing not constructed writing?” Okay, Okay, I get it. You don’t like the idea of character profiles. What if I told you that the crafting of character profiles is the most efficient way to a) get to know your characters b) make the behaviour of each character consistent c) differentiate your cast and d) make that cast of characters feel alive like they are real people?
Of course, you can go the alternative route of multiple drafts consisting of confusing or contradicting behaviour, inconsistent or flat dialogue and more…flatness. If this option sounds like the method for you, have at it! Enjoy spending the next seven years editing and rewriting your cardboard characters.
Now, for those of you interested in option one, let’s unpack the basic format of a character profile. A basic character profile should cover five essential elements:
Before we continue, you may be wondering who in your cast of characters needs a profile. My suggestion would be all major and minor characters. I wouldn’t bother creating a profile for a character that only appears in one or two scenes, but I would make a profile for significant minor characters like the ‘best friend,’ for example.
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Basic character profile
Figuring out your character’s backstory is essential to understanding their psychology, their personality and how they view the world. A good backstory should cover a character’s childhood and all the significant life experiences they had prior to the start of the novel. Take your time with this step, because the insights gathered here will inform every other element of the character profile.
Our personalities are a combination of nature and nurture; some behaviours are learned and others are innate. Some people have sunny disposition while others are big old storm clouds. The value of a character’s backstory is figuring how that character’s past experiences influence their present-day thought processes and their decision-making ability.
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to use the protagonist from my current mystery novel, Daff (Daphne). Daphne is an only child; her father was a cop and her mother a nurse. Being the only child of two career orientated parents, she spent a lot of time alone and most of her social interaction was with adults. As a teenager, she found it difficult to connect with people her own age and was often mistaken for being older than she was. Having spent so much time on her own when she was younger, her interests as an adult tend to be solitary activities like reading and gardening. When she was in her early twenties, her mother passed away from cancer and her fiancé was killed in a car accident.
When I say role, I don’t mean protagonist, love interest, best friend or villain; what I’m referring to is the role your character plays within their social network. Are they a leader, a comforter, a realist or a dreamer? Once you’ve figured out your character’s role is, ask yourself why they fit that role. Daff is a sceptic. She questions everything and she is always suspicious of people intentions and the information they present her with. Why is she like this? Well, her dad was a cop for starters. Being raised by a police officer means Daff is very aware of the dark side of human nature; she’s heard countless anecdotes about drug busts, murders, violent crimes and the many, many lies people tell to conceal their guilt. Little wonder she has a cold and clinical view of the world…
I’m not referring to your character’s motivation in terms of the narrative or any given scene, what I mean is, how does your character’s role influence or feed into their personal motivation? What is the one thing your character values above all else? For Daff, it’s protection. As a sceptic, Daff sees the world as threatening and dangerous, so her primary motivation is always to seek safety. Following the deaths of her mother and fiancé, this tendency was compounded, making Daff a fierce protector of her loved ones.
Your character’s weaknesses and strengths should be derived from their life experiences while complimenting their role and primary motivation. For example, Daff’s weaknesses are her tendency towards coldness, rigidness and she is a total realist. Daff’s perceived coldness stems from her need for self-protection; her suspicious of others means it takes her a long time to trust someone and to show her true self. Daff’s rigidness is the result of having career-driven parents whose lives were set around firm routines and her literal/realist nature aligns with her interest in science and biology (which connects with her chosen career).
In terms of strengths, Daff is deeply analytical, this was a learned behaviour from childhood as she idolised her detective father’s ability to see beneath the surface. Her interest in science and biology also makes her a deep thinker, and her need for protection means she rarely makes rash decisions; her choices are always well informed and considered.
Once you’ve completed a basic profile, you can start figuring out the finer details. For example, how does your character speak? One of the easiest ways to differentiate your cast of characters is to use a wide variety of syntaxes. Once you’ve considered each character’s respective backstory and experiences, this will be much easier. If a character has a private school background and a tertiary education, then they may have a wider vocabulary. A person raised in northern Queensland will use different slang to someone raised in Sydney. Some characters may use contractions while others don’t. Maybe your character has a catchphrase or they use endearments like honey, darling or babe. Some characters may lean heavily on sarcasm while others are measured and considered in their use of language.
Another thing to consider is mannerism. Maybe your character talk with their hands, play with their hair, hook their thumbs into their jeans or maybe they’re super restless, always tinkering with objects or fidgeting.
This is going to sound kind of silly, but the quickest way to figure out how your characters are different from one another is to imagine how they would react in a tricky situation. For example, imagine one of your characters has fallen into a hole and they can’t escape. What do they do? How they behave? Do they feel embarrassed or foolish? Pissed off? Do they panic, are they calm; do they call out for help or stubbornly try to get themselves out. If someone were to walk past and ask, “do you need a hand?”, how would your character respond? Would they be angry, sarcastic, grateful or something else?
If you really want to get down into the weeds of your character, you can also figure out things their interest and hobbies, the kind of bands or music they like, what they eat for breakfast, whether they drink coffee, tea or whiskey. It’s pretty unlikely that all or any of these details will appear in the story, but if the character feels like a living breathing person, the changes of that translating to the page are tenfold.
And at the end of the day, that’s the goal, isn’t it? To create characters that feel real to the reader and that they can connect with. A plot is all well and good, but if a reader doesn’t care about the character, it’s unlikely they’ll make it to the final line.