I write better when I use character profiles.
I find it so, so easy to dive head first into a WIP and lose track of the details. In Strange, one of my beta readers circled passages asking “is she fourteen or fifteen” and “I thought Ariella had brown eyes?”
When you’re working with a lot of different characters, base details like this are easy to lose if they’re not particularly important to the story. Should I have caught those details while drafting? Yes. But with a character profile, at least I have a frame of reference.
So… you want to make a character profile?
How does one go about that exactly?
How you want to view a character profile is up to you. Ask yourself: why are you doing this? For me, I use it as reference and to get into my characters’ heads. But it’s also a fun activity for when you’ve hit a road block, or as NaNo prep. Knowing what you want to get out of it helps the process.
Then you have to decide: How do I want to do this?
There are some great resources out there if you want to use a pre-made system. One of the many great things about tabletop gaming is that the world has already demanded easy character sheets. I’ve tried both CharaHub and Notebook.AI for character profiles, and they both have their strengths.
But what if you’re like me and you want to customize your own character profile?
I’m going to take y’all through my template!
So, clearly I’m a Mac user. I use Pages for my character templates these days because of the iCloud interface – I really like having this stuff accessible on my phone, iPad, laptop, and desktop. However, before I converted, I used MS Word for all this and all my old character templates are still in that format. So whatever program you want to use works for me!
Bear with me now, because as I’m reviewing my screen caps there are so many typos. I am the Queen of Typos.
So lets take a look at the template itself.
What you’re looking at is the latest evolution of my character templates. The ones I used in college don’t have quite enough detail for me. I actually have a couple forms that are really long – like 12 pages – but I’ve pared down the information that is the most important to me to a two-page template. How you create your templates will also depend on your own story.
Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to Charlotte Van Caelen.
Char is the first character I tested this template on. I started with the base details – the things that are the most important to me. The “Basics” are the bare minimum that I need to know to write. I like to use a picture as a visual (and because I am the Creative Queen, the “face” of my character could be anyone from an A-List celeb to me Googling “girl with brown hair” until something clicks). I find that a photograph covers a lot of the physical details, which saves me planning time.
How you write up the basics is up to you – I like a few, clear physical traits and a few underlying personality traits, but in this section I like to keep my answers as concise as possible.
Family and Relationships
I think everyone is influenced by their families, so it’s important to know who they are, even if they aren’t a part of the story. Some days, it feels as through this section hardly matters, and other days I want to branch it out and add friendships and romantic relationships. At the moment I don’t include those simply because they change and evolve throughout the story. If there’s something important, though, I will make a note of it somewhere in the profile.
For Charlotte, this section is particularly important, even though it is brief. Her main motivation in the story revolves around her little sister, and both her parents and grandmother are involved. The other characters in the book have less need of it, but knowing things like Phineas’ parents were super supportive of him helps me build the way he responds to the world.
Who is my character?
After basics, this section is the most important to me. Who are they? What drives them to do what they do? How do they see the world? Even though there are only five questions here, each other reveals a little to me about how she will behave.
I’ve contemplated using the Myers-Briggs Personality test to break down my characters, but I haven’t wanted to overcomplicate things. I think it’s important to have a list of weaknesses as long as the strengths, but in many ways I believe the characters evolve as you write them. You want a framework, but depending on how you write, you don’t need to put them in a cage.
How Does Your Character Think?
While who they are at the core is important, the things we love and the things that scare us will always drive us, even when it is against our inner nature to do so. Religion will give a character a certain perspective, but it is important to always be respectful when lacing religion into a novel. Superstitions will add interesting behavior. Passion, fear, hope, and regret can drive them. These are often background motivation and will pop up when/if they become relevant to your main plot.
In Charlotte’s story, Faith/Religion will be most important to me as part of my theme revolves around acceptance in the things we do not understand. It’s important to know where my characters stand. Still, I like to know that Charlotte loves dance.
What is your character like?
The quirks section is my favorite, especially likes and dislikes, because these help define all the micro-behaviors. For example, since Charlotte likes Jane Eyre, maybe she quotes it in a situation. Does anyone get the reference? Suddenly, we’ve build a camaraderie over knowing that Char likes Jane Eyre.
Mannerisms are very important to me, because it shows the nervous habits and things that the characters do. Charlotte is self-conscious and afraid, and won’t keep eye contact. That means my dialogue tags should never read: “Charlotte said, looking deep into his piercing blue eyes” because that is out of character for her.
The quirks are the building blocks of your character. It makes them stand out as individuals. These are doubly important when switching perspectives, because they will help give your character a unique voice.
What can your character do?
The items in this section will differ depending on your story. Mine is magic-centric, so knowing magical abilities is important in my novel. Depending on the type of story I’m writing, I change up the items here.
There is one thing I want to outline for magic-based fantasy novels that is so important. Item #2 – “Rate Their Power on a Scale of 1-10”. If you are using magic, it is so so so important to make sure there is consequences and that they are not All Powerful. Charlotte’s magic is only mid-range, but because she’s had it locked inside her for so long, it is ready to burst. That is dangerous to herself and others, but what is the cost? Char is in constant pain and at the end of the day, it’s still going to be lightning and bad for both her and the other guy. Magic ALWAYS has a cost.
That’s it! That’s how I write up my character profiles. It’s simple, easy, and helps me keep a rein on my characters and know where they’re coming from. I’m not a great Plotter, but character profiles are incredibly helpful to me in my process.
If you use profiles, too, I’d love to hear about your methods!