When I sit down to start a new novel or short story, the first thing I do is profile my main characters. The full debate of “plot first vs characters first” writing is best left for another post and has no true correct answer. The way I operate goes like this: A story idea strikes. Typically, it’s some snippet of plot that I want to play with, and I have the relationship of the characters present already in mind. The relationship defines the scene, just as, I believe, the characters define the entire book or story. That’s why, when I sit down to start outlining, I flesh out the characters first. Your characters’ past, personality, and habits define how they will react in the plot scenario you’ve created for them. So how can you know exactly where the plot is going unless you know how your characters will react to the plot? You can’t. I find that as I profile my characters, I shape a general plot idea before ever outlining the exact sequence of events.
Your character profiles can look however you want. Some people like to a bubble graph. Others like to pretend they’re interviewing the character. Me, I stick to a good old, structured, fill-in-the-blank page that keeps vital character elements broken down into easily referenced sections. I find it streamlines my work process later.
The real key to a strong character profile is thoroughly defining the three major aspects of character: background, personality, and mannerisms.
To help you create relatable characters your readers can fall in love with, snag these newsletter-exclusive templates. Ask yourself all 30 questions in the Character Questionnaire to help you fill out the profile templates for all your main characters.
Where your character has been determines where he/she is going. Sure, some personality traits are genetic, but your past experiences define your opinions, your fears, your hobbies, and can even determine how you react to situations. For instance, a character tormented in his youth for his small stature may always wear thick-soled shoes, may obsess over his physical fitness, or may develop a hair-trigger temper that is set off by any reference to size. Mapping out your major characters’ childhoods, defining life moments, and most influential relationships is a necessary exercise, even if chunks of that background never make it explicitly into the novel. However, every character should have an inciting incident and some formative events in their past that have led them to the “present” of your book. The most important elements of characters’ backgrounds are their family dynamic, their social status, any traumas (or lack thereof), their interactions with their closest peers, and their romantic history. Those are the pieces you reveal slowly throughout the story so that your readers understand who your characters are. The big moments should be hashed out thoroughly, but the smaller details will still come through in the way your character behaves, which brings us to the next piece of a character profile …
Events in your character’s past will shape their reactions and demeanor to a degree, but you still need to hash out your character’s full mental state outside of past experiences. This is where you dive into those elements that are ingrained at birth. A character’s personality dictates his/her relationship with the readers, as well as with the other characters in the story. If you neglect to break down and understand your character this way, you run the risk of putting a flat character on the page who doesn’t make your readers feel anything but bored. And you must stick to the traits you create, or your character’s contradictory actions will leave readers puzzled, unless you provide an arc that shows the character’s progression into a new personality trait. For example, say your protagonist is a natural helper. She goes out of her way all the time to help her friends and family. If someone asks her a favor in the course of your story, and your protagonist suddenly blows up in their face and refuses to offer help, your reader is going to have no idea why. However, if you set up a storyline wherein your protagonist slowly begins to feel used by this particular friend or family member, that eventual explosion will make sense and may even be rewarding to the reader.
It’s vitally important to select a varied array of traits. People are complex. No one is just GOOD or just BAD. If you want your characters to be realistic, avoid crafting a hero who never causes harm, messes up, breaks rules, or says the wrong thing. Avoid villains who are always angry, aggressive, and in the wrong. None of this means your heroes and villains can’t have a few of those stereotypical traits. Many traits are common because they are realistic and effective. All I’m saying is that a laundry list of goody-goody traits for your hero and nasty traits for your villain leaves you with a cast of caricatures.
Not every villain needs to have redeemable qualities, but adding a somewhat rational or even sympathetic motive for their actions can give your story depth. Spiderman villains are a prime example of this. Sandman is robbing to save his daughter; Doc Ock has been driven mad by an AI; Harry Osborne thinks Spiderman killed his father. If you’ve never tried this sympathetic villain angle, it’s a great exercise that I highly recommend, even if you don’t end up keeping that storyline.
Not every hero needs a gritty dark side, but they also shouldn’t all be saints. And they absolutely need a weakness. If you want your protagonist’s story to really take shape, explore the idea of having one of her best qualities also be her weakness. Perhaps she overcame extreme hardship all on her own and it’s made her incredibly strong and independent … but it’s also made her unwilling to listen to the opinions of those who care for her or allow them to really get to know her.
When mapping out character personality, you want to ask yourself questions that pertain to the character’s emotions. What makes your character happy, sad, mad, worried, afraid, etc. Next, dive into likes and dislikes. But most importantly, you MUST ask yourself, “What does this character want most?” Apply that question to your character’s life in general but also to every aspect of the character’s life: family, friends, romance, career, etc. Understanding what your character wants out of life is what creates the conflicts of your story. It creates the stakes of the story. How far will your character go to achieve their goal? What must he/she do to reach it? Will he/she have to betray someone to get there? Your characters’ driving desires dictate and explain their actions and determine how they interact with the other characters.
Appearance and Mannerisms
Many beginner writers make the mistake of focusing solely on hair color, eye color, height, and race in character description. Those elements help your readers create a picture in their heads and shouldn’t be ignored, but they aren’t the attributes that make a character stick out.
When it comes to physical appearance, you want one or two elements that stand out and help define the character. Think Harry Potter’s scar, which is the catalyst for pretty much everything that happens to him in life and a constant reminder of his inciting incident. He’s literally marked as the Chosen One. Think Indiana Jones’ hat. It’s both practical and distinctive, aligning with who he is as a person.
But character description does not always have to deal in appearance. Gestures, habits, and tics define your character also and should be utilized to showcase a new aspect of personality. If you get your readers familiar with a character’s gestures, they will know when he/she is angry, anxious, or happy without you having to spell it out. Violet Baudelaire from Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events always ties her hair up in a ribbon when she’s working on an invention or thinking her hardest. Eventually, every time she whips out that ribbon, you know exactly what she’s doing, no exposition needed.
Another interesting element to character description that can be fun to play around with is symbolism. Symbolism is a device that uses indirect suggestion through imagery to give readers a hidden clue or message. Flannery O’Conner was a master of character symbolism. In “Good Country People,” the Bible salesman’s true nature is revealed the moment he appears on the page … if you’re looking closely. His signature suitcase of Bibles is so heavy that is tilts him to one side. He is literally a crooked salesman. Dropping symbolic Easter eggs like this is not only fun for you, but also for your more eagle-eyed readers.
With a cast of complex, distinctive, clearly defined characters, you can hook readers quickly and keep them coming back for more. If you take the time to craft characters with care and make them three dimensional, they are far more likely to connect with readers. Those readers become fans of your characters. They care for them. They don’t want to leave their world. And that is how you create fans as an author. Writing up a character profile also makes your work as a writer easier. Not sure what the next step for your character should be? Struggling to decide what your character should say in a particular moment? Consult your profile page. Inspiration is far more likely to strike.
Need help creating your character profiles? Enter your email address below to receive a free character creation template and a questionnaire with 30 questions to ask yourself when creating a character. Happy writing!