One of the most common exercises writers are told to do is creating a character profile. Many places even offer free templates to help you build these profiles easily. They have sections for all kinds of information: gender, sexuality (if you're lucky – many assume heteronormative casts), appearance, job, hobbies, etc.
At first glance these exercises seem extremely useful; character profiles can be powerful tools if they are done well. Unfortunately, most writers don't use them correctly.
Character profiles shouldn't be used as character development exercises, and they certainly shouldn't be the only type of development you do. You rarely get a clear picture of your character by writing a laundry list of facts. Your characters are people, and people are more than collections of facts.
You need to do the hard work first. Walk your character through several writing exercises, building the character profile as you go. Whenever you finish an exercise, add some point form notes about what you've learned to the profile. Include all the details of their physical appearance, but don't focus on those.
Your goal for this profile is to create a complete picture of whom your character is. Don't be afraid to let it grow into several or even a dozen pages. Knowing more about your characters is always a good thing.
This character profile then becomes your ultimate character resource. If you need to check the color of their eyes, you can do that. If you need to show a memory to demonstrate something about your character, you have a handy list to choose from. Most of these details will never make it into your story, but they’ll be there when you need them.
The Ultimate Character Profile
Over the years, I've gone through many different character profile templates that were lacking but also contained some good ideas. So I combined the most useful aspects of each one to form the template I use now.
My current character profile template (with the character’s name as the profile title) has nearly twenty sections:
Species (I only include this in worlds with multiple non-human species)
Best childhood memory
Worst childhood memory
Best adult memory (This and the next section are obviously left out in YA manuscripts)
Worst adult memory
Formative Years (This section is where I really expand. I often write 2-3 pages summing up their entire childhood and teen years)
This profile also serves as a sort of character blueprint that shows exactly what needs development to bring the character to life. Most of the character exercises in this column are designed to help fill one or more of the sections listed above. Once the profile is filled out, I use the character's memories and motivations to map how they'll respond to various aspects of the plot—and to other characters.
For minor characters, I often do a shorter version of this profile:
Your character profiles should also be tailored to your setting. Are you writing a fantasy or science fiction novel with multiple humanoid races? You'll want to have a section for each character's race. If your world has magic, you'll want to include a section for whether they can use magic. Writing a historical fiction novel about court intrigue? You might want a section for each person's title.
Once you've filled in most of the sections (everything but "Other Notes", which you'll fill in as you write), you can build character arcs using this information. Next month we'll discuss how to build both fully developed arcs for major characters and smaller arcs for minor characters.
Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and a columnist at Writer's Corner for both Creating Great Characters and Professional Interaction for Authors. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.
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