Character Profile 2012

February 20, 2012

I am a big fan of character profiles.  No matter how organically a character appears and develops in my mind and on the page, sooner or later I find myself compelled to “flesh them out” a bit more: to consider what their pet peeves are, what they studied in college, their favorite foods, what music they enjoy, whether they drive like a wild banshee or creep carefully exactly at the speed limit.  I certainly discover a lot of these things as I go along, but filling out a profile puts all the information in one place, and helps me tie together a more unified vision of the character as a person.

I also like them because I have a great fondness for filling out forms.  I’m weird that way.

The best thing about profiles is that they bring up areas I might never consider.  I may know all about the protagonist’s family, but completely blank out when questioned about his school history.  The extra information I come up with might not be relevant to the plot, directly, but it gives me a better idea of where this person is coming from, and what their motivations are.  I’m fast and skilled at imagining a person on the outside, down to the last freckle, but I have a harder time understanding what makes them tick.  Through writing profiles I have made huge revelations, even about characters I’ve worked with for years!

The Common Pitfalls of Character Profiles

The most common complaint among authors is that character profiles are tedious, and take too long.  This is so true.  I simply do not have the patience or motivation to fill out pages of categories like this:

  • Years of schooling:
  • Major and minor studies in college:
  • Degrees:
  • Grades achieved in school:
  • (Plus 47 other miscellaneous categories about the character’s school history…)

Bo-o-o-ring!!  Why wrack my brains for all those details (unless it’s really important) when I can just have a simple category called “Info About Schooling”?  Also, that sort of thing tends to box you in, creatively.  Notice how it assumes your character is a normal person living in the modern-day world?  These kinds of things can throw us speculative writers!

All I need is the prompt to make me wonder about the character’s educational history, and then I can brainstorm for as much or as little detail as I want or need.  Profiles that ask for too much detail dizzy me, especially when the character is fairly new and I don’t know anything about them yet except their looks or relevance to the plot.

Other profiles don’t ask for enough detail.

  • Name:
  • Age:
  • Birthday:
  • Hair color:
  • Eye color:
  • Height:
  • Weight:
  • Favorite food:
  • Pets:
  • Goal in life:

This is far too basic.  Maybe it’d be okay for a second grade writing assignment, but c’mon!  I probably already know all these things!  The main reason I use profiles is to help me think of the stuff I don’t know, and to understand the character’s personality better.  This doesn’t inspire me to wonder.

My Continual Hunt

Almost every time I go to fill out a new batch of profiles, I find myself searching for new outlines to try.  I enjoy the “questionnaire” kind that has questions you answer from the character’s point of view, but I usually only use these when I feel in need of a “refresher” in the character’s voice or personality.  (For that kind of profile, I really like the “Personal Interview” section of this profile here.)  Most of the time I am looking for the kind you fill out in third person, with all their basic information and lots of details.

Years ago, I used to write my own profiles, making the list of categories up myself.  Of course, this didn’t help much when it came to brainstorming.  Then a friend of mine sent me a VERY long one that she and her brother were using.  I still have that document she sent – it’s ten pages long, and that’s without any character information put into it!  (I don’t know where my friend got it originally, but she said later that what she sent me was the *short* version!)

I’m not sure I ever filled it out “as is”, because I didn’t like the format.  However, I liked the way it made me think.  It didn’t just ask what a character looked like; it also inquired how they felt about their looks.  It questioned me about not only where they live, but also their past homes and residences.  These kinds of things are the things that matter!

Don't just describe what a character looks like. How do they feel about how they look? How do they perceive themselves?

I took that ten-page profile, pared it down, and rearranged it to my liking.  Some categories I took away, and I added others I felt it was lacking.  Not long later, I came back and did it again.  And again.  Every couple of years I reorganize this thing!  My goal is to someday have a profile that’s easy to fill out (not too lengthy or overwhelming) and which inspires me to probe deeper into my character’s soul.

Here is my work for today – the character profile of February 2012!  I thought I’d stick it out there on the web, to see if some others might find it useful.  Maybe this will be “the one” for me.

Download: New Character Profile 2012


  1. I’ve never really found character profiles helpful. Of course, that could change, as I’ve only really started writing seriously recently…

    Usually at the beginning I can get the looks of a character and their main personality traits. Then, around that time, when I’m figuring out the chronology of events, I can get their birth dates, etc. Then I start writing from their perspective and get to know them better. I invent backstory as I go along, and sometimes it changes. I have to have a lot of backstory because I only understand what the characters are like now if I can see how they got there. Eventually they just feel so comfortable and I know them so well that I know exactly how they would speak/act (at different times of their life, too!) and just about any question of their backstory, or I make it up because I *know* what it would be just like I know what they would do or say.

    And I’ll keep my eyes out. Sometimes I’ll hear or see something that just fits the character, and that will get added to their story. Sometimes it fits even better than how they were originally.

    I find that character profiles are too hard at the beginning because I don’t know the characters yet. It takes me awhile to get acquainted, and often the best way is to write from their perspective where I ever so slowly get into their minds. Then, after awhile, it’s easy to get into their mindset and I know them very well.

    • I’m so sorry, greytawnyowl! Somehow I never saw that you had commented! Replying now…

      You sound very thoughtful and methodical at what you do, for a newer serious writer! 🙂

      I love getting to the point where I just *know* my characters. I’ve gotten to that point with my trilogy; they just flow right from my fingertips to the page, talking, acting, and thinking like themselves. I don’t usually have to ask themselves what they will do next, or how they’d say something. But these past few weeks I’ve been working on the Daik 11 series, and the characters there are almost strangers to me. As I mentioned to a friend on Facebook, I have to strain my brain to get them to do anything! 😀 I am filling out profiles for them (I know them a bit, since they’ve been around since an old half-draft) and that is helping a lot. Sometimes I just need to flesh them out a bit more, sniff out their motivations, etc.

      I am still planning to write a post soon about characters and motivation! Unfortunately I don’t feel like an authority on the topic because as a writer this is one of my weak points. But I will share some helpful links and some tips I’ve found useful. Profiles are one of the biggies. 🙂

      • It’s all right!

        Thank you!…I think it’s more my personality, actually. Good for a lot of things, not so for others (like first drafts…) 🙂

        I absolutely love *knowing* my characters. I’ve noticed that it takes longer for some than others. For some reason, they are just harder and I have to spend more time with them. I have one that’s been particularly stubborn… 🙂

        I’ve never really had trouble with motivation…I just figure out some part of their past that’s the why for what they do. But I’ll wait until you write that! 🙂

        • I think my problem is I tend to jump right to the “what happens TO the character” as opposed to asking myself from the get-go “what does the character do in reaction to these happenings?” So my plot tends to be events-based rather than character-based, even though I am heavily character-oriented. Thus, I come around to their motivations at the end of my planning, and have to fit it in around my plot. It’s rather awkward that way.

I love to hear your thoughts!

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