Like a profiler collecting clues about a criminal’s behavior to aid in his capture, the writer is collecting attributes about a character to aid in capturing the essence of who he is and what motivates him to act. When deployed in a story, they become the building blocks of characterization. They make the character come to life.
What are they?
Put simply, character profiles give a detailed description of the fictional characters in your book.
Why create them?
I suppose you could just keep track of the characters in your head, but for the rest of us simple humans who don’t have an eidetic memory there are benefits to creating character profiles, such as the following:
- They help writers keep track of the physical traits of their characters so they don’t contradict themselves later in the book. Is Jeannie a blonde or brunette? Oh wait, Sally is the blonde. Are Frank’s eyes blue or green?
- They help writers get to know their characters more intimately to determine how they would act in certain situations. Oh yeah, Frank has a fear of heights because of that thing that happened to him as a kid. He’s going to feel really anxious about scaling the side of that building.
- They help writers create characters who are believable. Most likely the intimate knowledge of your character will reflect in your writing and deepen the connection with the reader.
What is included in a character profile?
In addition to the obvious (name/nickname), character profiles cover several broad categories such as:
- Physical description: Include things such as age, height, weight, body type, eye & hair color (or lack thereof–of hair or eyes or both), manner of dress, overall health, distinguishable marks, etc.
- Speech/mannerisms: Include the character’s primary language and any other languages spoken, dialect, vocabulary, etc.
- Behaviors/vices: Does the character drink, smoke, or do drugs? Does he have any phobias, etc.?
- Talents/skills/hobbies: What special abilities does the character have? Is he a chess wizard or a black belt in karate? Does she have a photographic memory or sing like an angel? Is she skilled with a bow? Is he a human calculator? What do they do for fun?
- Likes/dislikes: Include things like food, drink, book, movie, etc.
- Relationships: Are they single, married, divorced, or widowed? Do they have siblings? Children? Friends? Enemies? Are their parents and grandparents still alive? What is the nature of those relationships?
- Possessions: Do they own a home? What is the condition of it? What kind of vehicle do they drive? What condition is it in? Do they have any pets? How is the pet treated?
- History: What was their childhood like? What kind of environment did they grow up in? What are some major highlights from the character’s history that causes him or her to act the way he or she does?
Is it really necessary to get that detailed in a character profile?
It depends on the role of the character in your story. For major characters, it’s recommended that you get fairly detailed and cover the categories listed above. While you probably won’t have every detail ironed out (some of it will come as you write), you will have a good foundation to build from when you sit down to write your story. It will help you create more compelling characters if you spend time going through this process.
For example, you could just tell the reader your character drinks whiskey, and leave it at that, or you could tell him what brand of whiskey your character prefers, maybe something like Dalmore 64 Trinitas or McIvor Finest Scotch Whiskey.
Seriously? Who really cares what brand of whiskey the character drinks?
Well, you certainly don’t need to get this detailed all the time, but if you do this on occasion it can tell your reader a lot about the character with that one simple distinction. His taste in whiskey will most likely translate to other areas in his life and give the reader an idea what he values. What motivates him to act or not.
Which brand do you think the character I’m imagining drinks?
Don’t let the name fool you. At just $12 a bottle, McIvor Finest Scotch Whiskey is probably something you would’ve grabbed from the liquor store shelf during your penny-pinching college days. You’d have been hard pressed to find the other in any local shop, any shop for that matter. It retails for over $160,000 a bottle and if it’s not the most expensive scotch whiskey in the world, then it’s probably a close second.
What if I told you my character drinks Dalmore 64 Trinitas? Now, do you think it matters little which type he prefers? There is a world of difference in a person who prefers one over the other.
But this piece of information still doesn’t give you enough to get the full picture. There are many reasons this could be his drink of choice. Here are a few and you will notice in each case you get a very different perception of the character.
- He grew up in the lap of luxury and this is the lifestyle he’s accustomed to. He never even looks at the price of anything, because money is not an issue.
- He is a self-made man, a new member to the billionaire’s club, but still so insecure he feels the need to flaunt his wealth as a way to fit in.
- He grew up in the welfare system, the son of a single, crack-addicted mother living in the slums. He used his rare athletic ability to land a spot on the nation’s top ranked football team as a star quarterback. Unaccustomed to having money, he doesn’t understand the value of it and will burn through his millions in just five short years.
- He’s running a Ponzi investment scheme, bilking his clients out of millions of dollars. It’s not his money anyway, so he doesn’t care how it’s spent. He’s just living in the moment, believing he’s too smart to get caught.
- He was recently diagnosed with lung cancer, fired from his job as a high school chemistry teacher, used his superior knowledge of chemical processes to run a meth lab and produces the world’s most sought after blue crystal meth.
So, which one is my character? No, he’s not # 5. We all know that’s Walter White from Breaking Bad. The truth is he is none of them, but he does drink Dalmore 64 Trinitas 🙂
What is the best format for creating character profiles?
That’s entirely up to you. There is no right or wrong way to do a character profile. It’s a matter of personal preference. You can create a separate Word document for each character or combine them all in one. You can print/download a character profile from the internet, write/type in the details, and store it in a binder/file it on your computer.
I started out with a character profile (Word document) I downloaded from the internet. I filled out one for each of my major characters and stored them on my computer. I later discovered that this didn’t really work for me for several reasons, such as:
- I wanted all the characters in one file but Word wasn’t conducive for what I was envisioning. (I guess I could’ve inserted hyperlinks to each character but I didn’t think about it until now and it still wouldn’t have solved my other issues).
- I got tired of re-typing things into each word document (I wanted a drop-down list to choose from for the most common attributes).
- Because it was free-form, when I would refer back to it, I couldn’t easily find an attribute I was looking for without scrolling through a lot of text.
As a former accounting nerd, I prefer to track data in Excel so I created a character profile template. Within the template, I added drop-down boxes for common characteristics like hair color (blonde, brunette, black, grey, red, salt-n-pepper, white, etc.) to save myself the time of re-typing each time I created a new profile. I copied the template into an Excel worksheet with a new tab for each character so they were all stored in one Excel spreadsheet per novel. The data is easily accessible, viewable, editable, and searchable. I occasionally modify the template, but this format has proved to be the most effective way for me to keep track of each character’s features so far.
That being said, I also like the interview style (posed as a question to the character) for creating character profiles. The Excel format provides a good snapshot of my character’s features (hair color, eye color, height, weight, etc.), but the interview questionnaire helps me find the character’s voice. I obviously don’t include questions like “What color is your hair?” It’s already included in the Excel format and I’d likely get a one-word response (Blonde) or snide comment (Do we really have to go over this again? You’re kind of acting like one right now). I ask deeper questions like, “What is your greatest fear?” Or this one that I recently added thanks to this post by Olivia Berrier: “What is the most embarrassing part of being you?”
If you haven’t used character profiles and don’t know where to start, here are a few links to character profiles on the internet you may find useful:
What do you think about character profiles? Do you use them? If so, what have you found most helpful?