How To Write Great Character Profiles

How To Write Great Character Profiles

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Writing three-dimensional characters is the cornerstone of every great story. Readers want to relate to—and get lost in—the stories you create. You can achieve this goal by using character profiles. Character profiles are a combination of description and personality traits. They help you create characters with depth and dimension that readers will love. This article will show you how to write character profiles that will be uniquely yours.

Know your protagonist

Creating a great character is one part inspiration and one part method. Good characters are designed carefully, and that means having to know who they are, down to their core. A character profile isn’t the same thing as a plot outline — which usually still leaves characters to be figured out as you go. It’s a blueprint of your main character, down to their genre, their accomplishments, how they think, and generally everything you’ll ever need to know to write them well. 

Since all of this information goes into a character profile, you may want to do it in several stages. To conduct an initial character profile, think about your own biography. Chances are you’ve been where your character is — which means your past experience can inform their present. For example, you may remember a story or a time when you’d searched for something but discovered it three years later still in a box. Write that story now, but have the character find that item the next day instead. Use what you’ve remembered, and develop your character. Each protagonist is different, but they all require a way of thinking. You learn a little more of your character the more you write them. You will not understand all at once, but you will see more with each paragraph. 

Plus, in the telling of your character’s story, you get to decide how to narrate that story. How much do they talk? Why are they telling it now? How do their ramifications affect your secondary characters? Make these decisions fast — it’s not easy to change decisions later on, and once you go on a rant or start a pattern that’s hard to recover from. Whenever you can afford it, write in your character’s voice. It makes the writing process more intuitive, and allows you to put extra detail into descriptions. Describe an interior in the style of your character. Describe themselves in the style of your character. You can never know too much about your main character.

State your character’s primary trait

The trait you choose to showcase in your character profile is pretty much your only defining characteristic. Your course of action is very similar to picking a goal for main characters in general, and to convey it convincingly, you should take several steps. First, make sure the trait is definite enough for readers to grasp using relevant examples. You may also want to include its origins—in this case, they don’t matter. They could be influenced by personal growth, the plot, or even someone the character follows and respects.

Then, you should try to show that the chosen trait shows up and influences the way the character acts around you, making it organic. This makes the trait a device a writer uses to provoke certain reactions in the reader, instead of just a superficial statement of opinion like Trump is good and Obama is bad. Finally, you can incorporate subtext into your character profiles and journaling in general — make the trait seem controversial or sensitive, and thus add a layer of depth and mystery to your character.

Explore likeable qualities

Every character has qualities that are both likable and unlikable. Incorporate a mix of both in your character’s traits. Readers generally enjoy flawed characters when they are capable of change. However, some characters are more complex, combining qualities that would be unlikeable in any other circumstances. Look at the characters in your favorite movies, books, and TV shows. What traits do they possess that make them unlikeable? Give your characters negative traits – that’s why they’re called flaws, after all — but have them make changes by the end of the story. Or, like in The Godfather, manage to make even selfish, corruptibility complex by mixing in the lesson of family loyalty.

Your character’s moral outlook isn’t automatically an unlikeable quality nor is a moral outlook. Moral ambiguity is an increasingly common trope reflected in film, literature, and television. Take Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, who combines intelligence with muggle-born prejudice. Or consider Nora in A Doll’s House, who sacrifices everything her dearly held values to craft a new identity for herself. However, a lack of strong moral sense is generally unlikeable as well. Finding the sweet spot between you character’s moral crisis and good qualities makes your character’s moral journey surprising, compelling, and fun to read.

Choose a character flaw

Every character needs a flaw. A defining character detail that makes the character complicated and relatable. When readers go through the emotional toll of a story, they need to see themselves in the characters. That’s why big name authors create dynamic, unforgettable characters who crackle with realistic personality. Ask yourself, when readers are invested in your character, what’s going to unravel their minds?

Characters need flaws to create reasons that your readers can punch them. Characters that never confront the consequences of their actions are boring. Find your secondary characters a fault, as flaws make the conflict escalate. Make sure that your protagonists can also wobble.

Give your characters a deep need

Your characters must be motivated in some way. They must have a need that is not immediately apparent, but forms the basis for their character development over the course of the plot. The need can be as simple as survival, or survival with something else on top of it, like starvation and an extra layer of clothes in winter. In addition to any physical needs, make sure that you include one social need for every character, and that one goal that inspires the main character to take action. These are especially important when dealing with protagonists. Without strong needs, protagonists may not have sufficient motivation to take actions that aren’t directly related to the plot. If you don’t give your protagonist a reason to keep working toward their goal, then they’ll likely lose interest in the plot when the obstacles are too difficult to overcome.

Go through each character carefully and hash out ways in which they would try to fill their needs on a daily basis. Does Tom just need to eat? Or does his love interest need to show up as well? Briefly sketch out how your character would go about meeting these basic needs. Be sure that all of your characters are aware that they need to fulfill the basic needs in order for their lives to return to normal. The way they go about fulfilling these needs can differ greatly between characters. For example, Tom may simply steal food from a local market, while his love interest poisons the nest of the common buzzard and collects the eggs which fall out. Tom steals the food and ends up making more enemies than necessary, while his girlfriend becomes a local hero.

Describe your character’s greatest fear

One of the most effective kinds of details to include in your character profiles are details about the most significant stories — and fears — in your character’s life. Every character has something they fear the most, and most of the time, it’s something that’s happened before. In the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry fears that he will be forced to confront the Basilisk again in the Chamber of Secrets. In Will’s case, he fears the darkness in Memphis. With Jude, it’s ghosts. The ghosts have caused a lot of problems, and Jude has seen her grandmother killed by one — which was the first time that Jude faced true death. The strong emotion is always tied to or a result of the fear.

While the fear is prominent, there may be other things that happen to your character in reaction to this story that are typical of their emotional makeup — they don’t necessarily have to be huge. Will is a big guy who doesn’t like to be touched, doesn’t like to be vulnerable to people, and is very much a loner. He doesn’t need to have big tantrums, or kick people, or block doors — all of those are externalized actions, which might satisfy emotionally, but would also be invisible in the writing. In other words, you see it and can relate to it, but it doesn’t create the predicament.

State what the world is like for your main character

Let the reader know what kind of world your character lives in. If it’s a fairytale, you might want to include a few details about where the hero begins and the various other kingdoms, for instance. If your character is living in a futuristic world, you might want to spend a few sentences explaining that world for the reader. For example, if this character has uploaded the contents of their mind to a computer, you might want to know more about that world, so you know how the internet is arranged, or how people interact with technology and artificial intelligence.

Establish the premise of the story. This is the key to deciding what kind of details to include about your character. For example, if your character is a basketball player on a basketball team as his entire identity, you might want to include details about his shot, or about how he’s related to the other strong players, or even about the coach. Do you want to add information about your character’s personality or emotions? If so, limit yourself to commenting on how it affects the story, even if it’s in a moment of anger. If you want to add more of that at a later point, you can say that this character is someone who often has moments of anger or frustration.

Plan your backstory

Although only you and your story will know whether your character was born in a cave beneath a dragon’s bones, or sneezed in the ooze of a radioactive meteorite, not every detail is admissible. Use your character profile to determine the parameters of your world with regards to backstories and explanations. Ask yourself what would be realistic, or at least consistent with your story. You’re building the universe your story is set in. Your alien races need to be kind of reasonable, and your weather patterns need to make a kind of sense.

Some future changes to your character arc can easily be foreseen by keeping track of the possible outcomes in your character profiles. If you’re nervous about leaving the option open for a character to betray, maim, or otherwise cause harm to your protagonists, know now that you could regret this decision later. Keep in mind, of course, that there are stories that focus on characters who are antiheroes, antiheroines, antagonists, or even the villain themselves. 

Give them depth

Every great character starts with a three dimensional profile that provides the reader plenty of information about the kind of person they are at the outset. Even if your character shares their secret over a long, drawn out whisper in chapter two, as long as the secret proves to be old news and entirely obvious to anyone who was paying attention during the first few pages, your reader won’t trust them going forward. An equally bad error would be to cast a character who is clearly evil for their first few actions, turning your entire plot into a foregone conclusion.

In order to make your character relatable and at least somewhat surprising, you’ll need to convince the reader that your character and their actions are genuine and complex, just like anyone else. 

Pay attention to their physical reactions. If they’re shocked by an event, play it straight — even if your character is thinking to themselves that they were expecting all that to happen. It’s one thing if their poker face lasts for half a paragraph — but as you move into longer scenes with a cast of characters, the real world is suddenly full of interruptions, distractions, and beyond that, the need to actually sleep. An undercover spy shouldn’t sit in a meeting trying to look shocked for six hours, before finally reacting and revealing their quest.

Profile your antagonists too

While your protagonist is likely to be at the center of your book, it’s important to remember that your antagonists shouldn’t be overlooked — they’re just as important to the story. Sure, they’re trying to defeat the protagonist, but no one wants to read a story about someone who always loses. Pacing in your novel is largely determined by your characterizations, so it’s important to make sure you know as much about your heroes as your villains. To that end, it’s smart to build a detailed profile for every one of your characters, whether they’re major or minor. Once you have fully developed profiles, you’ll have a better understanding of what they’re capable of, what makes them tick, and how those traits may influence the outcome of your story.

A character profile will help you see strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and barriers that may otherwise escape you if you only let your characters speak. The good news is that character profiles aren’t just for writers, they’re also for readers. In fact, some avid readers even consider character sketches to be more important than plot summaries. 

But whatever you do, don’t be afraid to break from the traditional rules surrounding creative genres. It takes experimentation and perseverance, which, as you now know, is exactly what writing is all about. No matter what your genre, no matter the scope of your project, the opportunity is there for all writers to create compelling and fascinating characters. You will know you’ve done it right when readers beg you for more of your excellent character. Good luck.

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