This is a guide for putting together a character profile. It will help you flesh out your characters and stop them from being Mary Sues or cardboard cutouts. It will help you write memorable characters that your readers feel strongly about, thus leading them to need to read your books.
I absolutely adore psychology, so this is something I love doing. This method may not work for everyone, but it does give a starting point and something to consider. It seems that this method is somewhat similar to the Dungeons & Dragons way, though, as I’ve never played D&D or any other RPG, I can’t confirm or deny that.
I like to think of writing these character profiles as being a little like a therapist, cracking their minds open to poke around inside.
Start with the absolute basics:
- Physical appearance/species/gender.
- Place in the world – high, low, outsider, something else.
- Attitude towards the world they’re in.
- Basic drives and goals for the plot.
These are my absolute core basics. They’re the first things that come to my mind. That’s enough for me to hit the ground running and get down my first couple of chapters; from there the smaller details start to unfurl. This is where you might need to gather up your Post-its, notecards, Scrivener, or something with plenty of room.
Next, start going into the backstory. Backstory is what formed your character into who and what they are. It will have had a big impact on their personality, outlook, and attitude towards the world.
- Who were their parents?
- What was their childhood like?
- What sort of surroundings did they grow up in?
- Siblings? Friends? Rivals? Education?
What sort of an impact do those things above have on the character? Their parents and their method of raising can have a dramatic impact. If the parents were lenient and didn’t really give the character many boundaries, then they could be more pushy and entitled, or perhaps they’re a free thinker and hate being boxed in. The concept of being told no or being limited could be strange and unpleasant to them. On the other hand, a character that grew up in a very strictly regimented situation could then find comfort in a similar state in their adult years. Perhaps they like a very solid routine and aren’t very open to change.
Their surroundings again have an impact. As an expat, this is something that shows up quite a bit in my world. An American views and approaches the world differently to a Czech or a Brit – just as a country person is different to a city person. Ask yourself, or the character, are they living in a similar situation to the one they grew up in, or is it different? For example, I’m a country girl from England and I now live in Prague, which is a big city in a non-English-speaking country. It’s a huge shift. This means that I view the city differently to a native here, or even a city kid from, say, NYC.
If they live in a situation that they’ve grown up in and are very familiar with, then they’re likely to be far more comfortable with it and not notice the ‘normal’ things such as beggars on the corner, or the way you can’t go to Azahe after 11pm because the vampires will shank you. That’s just how the city works, and they don’t think twice about it; someone who’s much newer to the city, however, will give those things much more thought.
Siblings again have an impact; I’m an oldest child, so I didn’t have the benefit of being molly-coddled like my younger sister. That rivalry does colour my view of the world and my view of people. The same will apply to your character. Did they come from a big family or a small one? Did they get along really well, or did everyone have to fight for a place at the dinner table? If there were constant fights, then that will have instilled the strong sense of survival and fighting for what’s theirs early on. If, however, they got along swimmingly with everyone, then they may not be as prone to confrontation. That then leads to trouble if they find themselves in a rougher part of town where they could be seen as weak.
Now that you have some idea of their home life, childhood, place of origin, and family, you have some basis to bounce from. This can lead you into the big turning points and important moments in their life and the impact they had. These can be positive or negative.
A darker, more negative turning point could be something incredibly traumatic such as a kidnapping, rape, family murder, or the like. That would alter the character’s worldview, potentially alter their view on trust and the type of people that committed the crime. It could make them nervous or embolden them, depending on their personality. A much more positive turning point could be landing their dream job, meeting the love of their life, or winning a big award. That could improve their confidence and self-esteem, make a less stable person more stable, bring focus to a scattered person, and so on.
Once you have those turning points down, you’ll have a reasonable idea of the character; that’s given you a pretty solid basis to work with. You have all of the fundamentals down. This is when you start to really see how their personality is constructed.
Look into their views of the world, their political outlook, and how that affects their interactions with other people. What about their relationships with others, their attitudes towards other genders, species, people from another class in society? How about their decision-making methodology? Do they pause and give it a lot of thought, or do they dive in and place complete trust that their gods will look after them? Are they loyal to their loved ones, or do they not believe in such a thing? Do they enjoy long-term relationships or short, passionate flings? What about their attitudes to money, property, travel, freedom, ambition, food, drink, pleasure; all of those things?
Now we can look at the character’s drives, ambitions, hopes, dreams, and goals. These are, of course, absolutely essential to the plot of your book; that is, after all, about your character’s drives and goals. As you have the foundations down for your character, these will be very easy. A lot of people throw their character into a situation and see what happens; that’s how their story comes about. If you’re planning things ahead of time, you need to know not only the big goal for the actual plot of the book (for example it could be “save the boy”) but what their smaller goals, aims, ambitions, etc. are.
Why those? Do they want a high paying job? A big family? To slay dragons? To live in a cave in the middle of the Sahara Desert? How does that alter and impact their decisions and relationships? For example, they could well desire freedom above all else; how does that affect their relationships? Do they only have short passionate flings so that they’re not tied down, or do they already have their dream lover that wants freedom as much as they? Are they monogamous or poly? Just how far will they go to achieve that freedom? What form does the freedom take? What are they willing to put ahead of the freedom? Do they love their other half enough that they would sacrifice freedom to keep them, or is freedom more important to them, which then leads to a heart-wrenching break-up?
How do those goals and such relate back into their backstory and the characters around them? Are they rivals with their best friend because they’re both aiming for the same political seat of power? Is one doing it to bring pride to their family? What about the other? Do they just enjoy the ego boost, or is there something more there? Maybe they want to help people: Why? Always ask why and dig deeper.
What do they do for fun? How does that colour their interactions with their society and place in the world? What about those people around them? Do they enjoy team sports? Which position do they play? Are they a tight-knit team of four or a flexible team of 20? Are they introverted or extroverted? If they’re an introvert, are they happy about that or do they find that they have to deal with people? Maybe they’re an extrovert that doesn’t get enough contact with people?
This leads us nicely down into the mental health section. As you have a good understanding of their personality, upbringing, and background, you should have some idea about their mental health. Do they suffer from any of the big and more common issues such as depression? What caused that? How does it manifest? How do they deal with it? Maybe they have something a little smaller but equally as difficult to deal with, such as trust issues. Again, what impact does it have, how does it affect their relationships, their work, their overall lifestyle?
Why put in all of this effort?
It helps you understand your characters fully which then leads to you writing interesting, believable characters who have quirks and facets that the reader can relate to and thoroughly enjoy rather than just thinking, “Sue is a stubborn bitch who hates Tanya.”
You now know that the reason Sue is stubborn is because her mother was that way and having grown up with four brothers she had to dig her heels in and refuse to give in if she ever wanted anything in life. The reason that she hates Tanya is because she views Tanya as a weak, entitled brat that reminds her of the first and only girl to break Sue’s heart – Sian. That then allows you give more depth to their interactions and dialogue. Rather than being flat and dull, it has something more there for the reader to learn and understand.
Understanding your characters helps you develop your plot and also provides potential for conflict and twists. It could be that Andrew always stops eating the moment that Sean does, no matter how hungry he is or how little he’s eaten recently. Sean could finally call him on it as he feels insulted that Andrew doesn’t adequately respect the effort he puts into his cooking. That turns into an argument where Andrew admits that he has an eating disorder that he keeps tight control on; it’s something that developed when his father was killed when Andrew was a little boy. That not only gave you the minor conflict over the food, but it also provided insight into both characters and potentially gave you another route for the plot to take. Maybe Sean sees that opening up as the moment to show Andrew some affection and they take the next step, or perhaps Sean remembers hearing something about a similar murder of another friend’s father at about the same time.
The overall point here is that characters should stand as believable, deep, interesting, fully fleshed-out people. If you have that understanding and detail, then you can use them to make your plot more interesting and keep readers coming back because they have fallen in love, or hate, with your characters. They need to know what happens next; they’ve become emotionally invested in them because they’re real people, they’re friends. As writers, our aim and goal is to hook our readers, to enrich their lives in some way, and to give them one hell of a book hangover when they’re done with our books. Deep, fleshed-out characters do that.