Character Profiles – Help or Waste?

When creating characters, you’re often told to use character profiles. But do they really help you flesh out your characters or are they just laundry lists of useless facts you’ll never use? I think they usually tend to be a combination, and it depends on the profile. There are some character profiles with more hard-hitting questions and there are some with more shallow questions, and how much you get out of a profile depends somewhat on what the balance is.

Character profiles are also more or less helpful for each writer, since every writer is different. I tend to like them because they give me things to think about regarding the character that I won’t necessarily think of on my own, and then a place to write them down, but others just find them time-consuming and would rather learn about their characters through writing. Neither of these is wrong, and I’ve used both methods in the past.

So what should you look for or put on a character profile?

I tend to get the most use out of questions that talk about a character’s nature, past, and relationships. I also like those spots for physical attributes in case I don’t remember, and other things that will recur in the book. A tendency to run a hand through their hair, always wearing their sleeves rolled up to the elbows, a certain thing they do that makes another character laugh, etc. (Although you could say these tie in with the nature-related questions, which would also be acceptable.)

You can do a lot of character development by connecting the past and present, even coincidentally. For instance, in “worst childhood memories” for my character Cordain, I found out that his sister Braia was bitten by a spider when they were little and he’d been terrified she was going to die. As it turned out, I’d already put down “spiders” as a fear of his, and now I knew why. You can also do this intentionally, by looking at something about them (a fear, a goal, a scar, a mannerism, just about anything) and figuring out why they’re scared of that, what happened to lead to that goal, how they got that scar, etc.

But what questions should actually go on your character profiles?

Basic physical appearance. I usually leave weight off of this because I don’t tend to find it useful, but something like body type makes a good alternative for me because it’s easier for me to picture at a glance. What you do is up to you. I also like to have a face claim of a celebrity (Pinterest or faceclaim directories – which you can just google to pull up a few – are really helpful for this) so that I have an even clearer image of that character. And don’t worry if the faceclaim doesn’t fit your character 100%, because that’s just not possible. Pick someone that’s as close as you can get.

Personality type. I usually have their MBTI type, what Divergent faction they’re in, what Hogwarts house they’re in, and sometimes what their alignment is (neutral good, chaotic evil, etc.). You may just consider this super nerdy, but it actually tells me a lot about their character to know these things, because these are preconceived boxes with assigned traits. All of these might not fit your character, but it gives you a framework. And on Pinterest you can find oodles of posts about each MBTI personality type, which can be super helpful for getting to know your character. I actually have a whole post on personality typing your characters.

Name meaning. Maybe this is just me, but I find name meanings fascinating and I tend to enjoy using them as plot ideas for those characters. And some of them fit perfectly right off the bat (I once named a queen character Rhianna and then later looked it up and found out it means “great queen”), some are wonderfully ironic (my cruel, evil pirate’s name means “grace”), and some are just funny (I have a set of brothers named Sulien and Ciaran. Sulien means “sun born” and Ciaran means “little dark one.” On top of which, Ciaran is very pale with platinum blond hair and much more pleasant to be around than Sulien.)

How they treat people above and below them. This tells a lot about their character and how they’re likely to respond to characters who are above or below them. My character Nissa from The Shadow Raven treats nobles with the respect due, but she mixes it with a hint of mockery. Meanwhile, in those below her (and there are few below her) she sees herself and wants to help them. At least at the beginning of the book.

Best and worst childhood memory. These could come up in the book or could not, but they’re good to know anyway. They can lead to a lot of present-day things like goals, fears, scars, behaviors, etc.

Moments that changed them/significant moments. These are two separate things, but they almost always overlap. If it changed you, it’s a significant moment. These can be job changes, family changes (new siblings, death of a parent, adoption, etc.), home changes, whatever.

Odd things in their childhood. For instance, being raised by a thief/assassin is fairly odd, as is killing your parents at the age of twelve or so. Yes, those are descriptions of three of my characters. The latter is a psychopath, so… he’s fun. (Actually he is a lot of fun to write, but anyway.) Anything particularly odd about their childhood. And try to base it on their society, too. For instance, it would be odd in Shae-Nir (where Cordain lives) for a child to be raised by a single parent or to live in a big mansion or not participate in the harvest festival. In Vanore (where Nissa lives), it’s pretty unusual to be orphaned, not to live in a house, or to steal from the palace. Pay attention to what things would be odd in your character’s society, not just yours.

Goals based on their past. I love this one, because it embodies what I was saying about the past and present being interconnected. For instance, Nissa’s profile says that when she was a child she wanted to be a teacher, and then in this section it says “The want to become a teacher was based on the help, hope, and encouragement that her own teachers gave her, but that dream mostly died.” Her current goal (“instilling fear in people’s hearts”) is based on never wanting to be abandoned again due to {spoilers} and never wanting to depend on anyone again (due to the same spoilers).

How they respond to a threat/fight, and what their weakness is in fighting. These are helpful to know, and fighting weakness is one I need to remember is there and look up when my characters are fighting (or even just sparring), because I tend to forget about weaknesses in that area. Also, keep in mind that fighting could refer to physical fighting or verbal fights.

Choice of weapon. Obviously this ties in with the above.

You can also add things that are world- or story-specific. What affiliations they have with key organizations in their city, who they work for if it’s pertinent to the story, etc.

Ultimately, it’s most important to get to know the core of your character and their worldview. That will color all of the details.

What do you include in your character profiles? Do you focus on details or big-picture concepts?

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6 thoughts on “Character Profiles – Help or Waste?

  1. I used to loooooove filling our character profiles, and then I realized that I spent a little too much time filling them out and never actually used (or even went back to) the information. And even after doing all that, I would struggle to get the character’s voice into the story. What I’ve started doing it just getting some kind of reference picture so I can remember their general appearance and then just write a few pages in their POV (just like a short little scene of “a day in the life of” kinda thing. That’s really helped me see how they think, and what they do. And it sticks in my head better. ;)

    1. Getting into writing a character is definitely really helpful for finding out who they are. That’s why I like roleplaying with my characters; it’s fun to throw your characters into random scenarios with other authors’ characters (or even totally unrelated characters of your own) and get to know how they respond to those scenarios, and it tells you SO. MUCH about who they are as people. POV scenes basically do the same thing, and have the bonus perk of being an exercise in your actual writing and prose. That’s definitely a really good method. :)

  2. This is such a cool post, Ariel! I actually really like character profiles, but half the time the information changes on them by the time I write the first draft, so then I have to do them all over again. -_- So I’ve learned that I have to write my first draft first, and then fill out the profiles to use during my second drafts.

    Great post, and Merry Christmas!

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