List your favorite novels, those you can count on one hand, and I’ll bet they have one major thing in common — an unforgettable hero.
Regardless the genre, your characters must behave like real people in real-life situations who make mistakes, have regrets, and grow emotionally or spiritually throughout the story. Fail, and it shows.
Some master novelists make this look easy, but it’s a skill that takes time to refine.
As a Pantser (one who writes by by the seat of his pants as a process of discovery), I follow Stephen King’s practice of “putting interesting characters in difficult situations and writing to find out what happens.”
Part of the high wire act of writing as a Pantser, often the character surprises you and you must do some back hoeing to make it work. You may find yourself thinking, as I frequently do, Aah, so that’s why he’s the way he is.
But if you’re a novice writer, or you’d classify yourself as an Outliner rather than a Pantser, you might rather create a character profile before you begin writing your novel.
If that’s you, let me walk you through the various elements of a character profile and what questions to answer. Then I’ll leave you with a Character Profile Template I developed to help simplify the process.
What Is a Character Profile?
It’s an in-depth life history of a fictional character.
Those who espouse building character profiles naturally advise that your protagonist, antagonist, and each of the more important orbital characters in your story get their own separate profile.
Many great novelists and colleagues of mine swear by them and wouldn’t dream of developing a character any other way. If you’ve never written one, you may find this tool helpful in jumpstarting your own creativity.
Character profiles can help you:
- Write faster, because you’re not working from scratch
- Maintain continuity
- Add plot twists
- Add character depth
- Build stronger relationships between characters
The more detailed the profile, the richer your character motivations are bound to be.
For example, a character bullied as a child might grow up a career criminal — or the opposite, someone empathetic with and compassionate to the disenfranchised.
Some writers delve deep enough to actually turn each profile into its own short story. Some add the character’s favorite quote, hobby, quirks, favorite foods, fears, and childhood memories.
But beware: don’t dump every detail into your story.
A profile is simply background information (backstory) designed to inform you about your characters. It helps you to get to know them well enough to be able to reveal to your readers what’s most important for the sake of the story.
Just be sure to allow readers to deduce some things for themselves, giving them a role in the reading experience. Avoid spoon feeding every detail. Allow the theater of their mind to fill in the blanks.
Create a Character Profile in 5 Steps
Determine the following with as much, or as little, detail as you feel you need to get to know your characters. In essence, you want to conduct an interview with your fictitious character.
You may find yourself a hybrid of an Outliner and Pantser (as I often do), meaning you do need the security of an outline, but you also enjoy the freedom of letting your story and your characters take you where they will.
It’s your story. Have fun developing each character. Enjoy the process — you never know where they’ll take you!
1. Determine the character’s role.
Begin by deciding which role your character will play. (It may prove to be more than one on the list, and in that case, strive to combine characters so they’re easier for the reader to identify and keep track of.)
- Protagonist: the main character or hero
- Antagonist: the villain
- Orbital: neither lead nor bad guy, but prominent throughout
- Love Interest
2. Decide on the basics.
Ask your characters who they are today — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Remember, they need to feel real and knowable, not perfect. Not only does perfect not exist, it’s boring. So, be creative. Your readers will thank you.
- Full name
- A nickname? Where did it come from?
- Current hometown
- Short Term Goals
- Long Term Goals
- Best qualities
- Worst qualities
- Favorite book
- Favorite movie
- Favorite possession
- Greatest passion
- Favorite foods
- Best friend
- Worst enemy
2. Establish physical characteristics.
What does your character look and sound like? Again, this is largely for your own information.
Gone are the days when novels describe even the main character in such detail. Except for characteristics that affect the story, why not let each reader see the person however they choose?
- Body Type
- Fitness level
- Hair color
- Hair type/style
- Eye color
- Distinguishing features (birthmarks/scars/tattoos)
- Overall appearance/upkeep/style
3. Layer in emotional characteristics.
It’s easy to conjure the appearance of a character, but what your character thinks and feels is what really drives him. What comprises his emotional makeup?
- Introverted or Extroverted?
- Spiritual Worldview
- Political Worldview
- Internal Struggles
- What makes him happy?
- Deepest longing
- If he could do or be anything, what would it be?
4. Create a past.
Who we are is shaped by our family background and experiences. Get to know your character’s story, and you’ll likely learn what motivates them to get out of bed every morning.
- Family members/birth order (describe relationships)
- First jobs
5. How is this character involved in the story?
Dig deeper. Finish with these questions:
- What does he want? (a novel-worthy goal or challenge)
- What are his needs or desires?
- What or who stands in his way?
- What will he do about it?
- What happens if he fails? (the stakes must be dire enough to carry an entire novel)
- What sacrifices will he have to make?
- What fundamental changes do you see coming in him?
- What heroic qualities need to emerge for him to succeed?
Time to Get Started
Ready to create a profile for your lead character? Feel free to create your own character questionnaire, or use the Character Profile Template I created.
You might base your first character on one of your best friends, a quirky relative, or an adult you remember from childhood — maybe a mixture of all three!
Regardless who you pattern him after, develop a character who feels real, and he could become unforgettable.