Character Profiles and Why They Are Amazing

Posted April 5, 2018 by Amber in Writing / 11 Comments

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Have you ever written a character profile?

How do you keep your characters in check while writing?

This post is over 1300 words.  Did you make it to the end?  Give yourself a celebratory cookie.
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11 responses to “Character Profiles and Why They Are Amazing

  1. I always used to make character sheets when I started a project! Characters are the most important part of a book for me and usually I built my stories around the characters I created. So I worked them out completely into detail and worked out the story from there. I find that the better the characters are worked out, the better the book is.

    Bee (Quite The Novel Idea / Novel Ink) recently posted: {Bee Reviews} Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett
    • Amber

      Yes! I can plan the world and plot to pieces, but if the characters aren’t there, I can’t get a word down. It’s the same when I’m reading a book… flat characters COMPLETELY ruin it for me.

  2. Danielle

    DUUUUUUUUUUDE THIS IS AWESOME WHY DONT I HAVE A MAC???!!! lol but no seriously. This is amazing. I have a hard time completing my characters when I start writing. I’m so plot-based that when it comes to characters development, I’m like WHUT is a character?? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but wherever you found this format, it’s excellent and if you don’t mind, I want to use it for my own stories. Well, not steal just borrow. Ok that sounds weird and stalkery lol. Imma go now, bye lol.

  3. Oh I absolutely love these! Character profiles are pretty much the first thing I do when starting a new story and I love it so much. It’s so much fun to see your characters come to life this way, and it’s so helpful even though you might stray away from some of the things in the profiles later on! You’ve got some stuff in your profiles that I never thought of adding, so thank you! 🙂

    Michelle @ The Writing Hufflepuff recently posted: The Radical Element // Twelve Stories About Badass Girls
    • Amber

      You’re welcome! I am constantly updating and tweaking mine as I find things interesting too. I feel like the natural answers that come from answering the questions in the profiles really help me grow my characters in unexpected ways. Plus, it’s fun! 😀

  4. I have a really similar system, I have Word documents with a template quite like yours. I got the original one from NaNoWriMo years ago and just kept editing it to add more random things like Hogwarts House and Divergent Faction-these are quick and easy ways for me to get to know my characters. Thanks for sharing your methods. Charlotte sounds like a great character.

    • Amber

      I know a lot of people use the Hogwarts house method. That’s one I’ve always struggled with – I even get people I know wrong (including my husband, I thought for sure he’d be a Hufflepuff). Divergent faction is one I like, though!

        • Amber

          OMG, that is SUUUUUCH a problem for me. It’s really easy to write characters like ourselves? Whenever I try writing an extrovert, it’s so uncomfortable. My best characters have been inspired by other people, because of the observable personality traits and reactions.