One of the most important elements in a novel or short story is characterization: making the characters seem vivid, real, alive. One technique that many writers use with success is to create a character profile for the main characters in the novel. The purpose of a character profile is twofold: to assist the writer in creating a character that is as lifelike as possible and to help with continuity issues in the story.
In our author interviews many bestselling authors have stated that they came up with the basics of a character's personality and then they found that the character just "came alive" for them and ended up driving the story all on his own. These are writers with years of experience developing characters and it now comes more naturally to them. But for the beginning writer, sometimes a more concrete approach is helpful.
How Character Profiles Help Writers
That is where the character profile comes in -- it is simply a tool for organizing your thoughts about a certain character and keeping track of a particular character's idiosyncrasies and relationships. It can help flesh out a cardboard character and even make you think about facets of his or her personality that you had not considered before. Character profiles are especially helpful for novels which involve several main characters and for stories which use multiple points of view.
Character profiles are useful when writing in any genre. Depending on the genre in which you write, you will create additional sections on the Character Profile Worksheet. For example, fantasy writers can use the character profiles to keep track of factors such as magical abilities, family lineage, spells the character is under, and limitations on the character's power to ensure continuity in the action.
For literary and mainstream novels, profiles are especially useful for keeping in mind motivations of the character -- hurts and disappointments in the past which may not be alluded to directly in the dialogue, but which nevertheless color everything the character thinks and feels. For example, someone who was abused as a child will most likely react differently in certain situations than someone who had a happy, loving childhood.
A Character Profile is also of great help during the rewrite stage of your novel. You can use the profile to ensure continuity in the character's actions. For example, if in draft 1 your heroine is just recovering from a nasty divorce and in draft 2 you've decided to make her a happily married mother of three, you will know to check every scene with dialogue about her marital status as well as scenes where the (now non-existent) dastardly ex-husband is mentioned.
Keep Your Profiles Updated
If you change an attribute of your character, be sure to update your Character Profile Worksheet right away. Obviously, a character can develop over the course of the novel. The Worksheet provides a place for you to note that fact so that when you read over your final draft you can see if you achieved your particular character development goal for that character.
A Character Profile is just meant to be a guide where you can list facts and details to help you get to know your characters, especially if you get stuck on one character who doesn't quite seem real. You also want to be sure you don't create a Mary Sue character. Maybe he needs a new characteristic -- a hidden trauma, a fabulous skill or a deadly secret -- something that will make the character come alive for you. If you are having trouble coming up with character details try to see how your character performs using a writing prompt or walk them through a situation known well to you.
How detailed you want your character worksheets to be just depends on what works best for you. So, next time you're stuck on characterization, pull out the Character Profile Worksheet and get to know someone new.
Socioeconomic Level as a child:
Socioeconomic Level as an adult:
Siblings (describe relationship):
Spouse (describe relationship):
Children (describe relationship):
Grandparents (describe relationship):
Grandchildren (describe relationship):
Significant Others (describe relationship):
Glasses or contact lenses?
Shape of Face:
How does he/she dress?
Habits: (smoking, drinking etc.)
Style (Elegant, shabby etc.):
Intellectual/Mental/Personality Attributes and Attitudes
Any Mental Illnesses?
Character's short-term goals in life:
Character's long-term goals in life:
How does Character see himself/herself?
How does Character believe he/she is perceived by others?
How self-confident is the character?
Does the character seem ruled by emotion or logic or some combination thereof?
What would most embarrass this character?
Introvert or Extrovert?
How does the character deal with anger?
What does the character want out of life?
What would the character like to change in his/her life?
What motivates this character?
What frightens this character?
What makes this character happy?
Is the character judgmental of others?
Is the character generous or stingy?
Is the character generally polite or rude?
Does the character believe in God?
What are the character's spiritual beliefs?
Is religion or spirituality a part of this character's life?
If so, what role does it play?
How the Character is Involved in the Story
Character's role in the novel (main character? hero? heroine? Romantic interest? etc.):
Scene where character first appears:
Relationships with other characters:
1. Character's Name: -- (Describe relationship with this character and changes to relationship over the course of the novel).
2. Character's Name: -- (Describe relationship with this character and changes to relationship over the course of the novel).
3. Character's Name: -- (Describe relationship with this character and changes to relationship over the course of the novel).
4. Character's Name: -- (Describe relationship with this character and changes to relationship over the course of the novel).
How character is different at the end of the novel from when the novel began:
Additional Notes on This Character:
This article has been expanded on from the original published in the June 1998 issue of The Internet Writing Journal.
You can find out more about character building in our characters section. Some useful books about characterization include Writer's Guide to Character Traits and Characters & Viewpoint.