Why is it important to create profiles for your fictional characters before you start to write?
Because if you are too eager to push on with writing the novel, and you skimp on taking the time to get to know the characters before you begin, you will have little sense of how they should act and react to what is happening around them in any given scene.
Let’s say that your central character’s wife confesses to him in the opening chapter that she has been having an affair…
- Does he remain calm or hit the roof?
- Does he want to know the details, or is the fact that she has been unfaithful all the information he needs?
- Does he tell her to pack her bags, or does he leave the house himself?
- Does he visit the man she has been seeing to punch his lights out, or is he not the violent kind?
You won’t know the answers to any of these questions because you really don’t know who the character is. So you make it up as you go, trusting your instincts.
If you are talented enough (or lucky enough) you might create a great character for a novel by “winging it”. More likely, the readers simply won’t believe in the character – because neither will you.
Of course, you can never get to know your characters perfectly before you start writing. I usually advice people to try to get to know them as well as they know themselves, but in reality that is clearly impossible.
It takes a lifetime to truly get to know yourself. And with characters in fiction, you will always learn more about them as you bring them to life through the writing.
Nevertheless, the more spadework you do on character creation at the outset, the stronger and more believable your characters will end up.
So, how do you create a character profile for a novel?
You get to know fictional characters in exactly the same way that you get to know people in the real world – namely, by spending time with them, hanging out with them, asking them questions…
- To start with, as you write the profile for each character, you will concentrate on discovering the bare essentials of who they are – an overall impression, if you like.
- Later, you will refine this initial impression with more subtle details – just like you do with real people.
Did I say each character?
Sorry, but yes – the major characters, anyway. You obviously don’t need to put as much effort into the profiles, or mini-biographies, of characters nearer the bottom of the cast list than the top…
- The minor fictional characters – or flat characters – will be two-dimensional stereotypes, and you can create stereotypes with a few broad brush strokes.
- But the round characters – and the central character, in particular – need to be fully-rounded human beings, and that means getting to know them in much more detail.
Here, then, are the questions you need to ask…
12 Steps to Create Character Profiles
1. What Is The Character’s Name?
What’s in a name? In the case of characters in novels, quite a lot. Naming your fictional characters is something you will want to give full care and attention to, because finding perfect character names can make the world of difference to how the characters are perceived by the readers.
If you are anything like most novel writers, you will probably go through several names for your story people until you settle on the right ones. But fortunately, with modern word processing, changing character names mid-draft is a simple case of searching for the old one and replacing with the new.
Four Tips for Finding the Perfect Name
i) Make the Names Fit the Characters
The ordinary guy next door in your novel will likely be a John or a Dave, while his smarty-pants lawyer will be an Augustus or a Barnaby. John or Dave’s wife, who frequently terrifies him, could be a Ruth (as in ruthless), while Ruth’s sweet best friend is a Daisy.
The names you give your characters, then, must be meaningful, must say something about who they are as people. But beware of being too obvious about it…
Calling a character you create “Frank Stone” is great – so long as he is a tough, straight-talking, dependable kind of guy. Calling his joyless landlady “Miss Sowerbutt” might be overdoing it.
ii) Don’t Forget Nicknames
It is rare that a person is called exactly the same thing by everyone they know…
- Ruth calls her husband Dave for most of the time, but David when he’s screwed up again.
- When she’s feeling amorous (which, unfortunately for Dave, doesn’t happen often), Ruth calls him Stud.
- While to his golf buddies, Dave will always be Sandy (on account of his always landing in the bunkers).
iii) Make Life Easy for the Readers
Have you ever read a novel and mixed up the characters? It might have been your own fault for not concentrating, but the writer might have been partly to blame by creating characters with simpler names.
So if you have a Jack in your novel, don’t also have a Jade, a John and a Jane. If you have a Bob, don’t have a Rob. Or a Polly and a Molly.
If you can, try to have all the names start with a different letter, vary the number of syllables in each name – first names and surnames – and strike a balance between everyday names and more unusual ones.
iv) Know Where to Look for Help
Sometimes when you are brainstorming for names, the perfect ones come straight to mind. More often, your mind barely functions at all (or is that just me?)
If you do ever become stuck searching for the perfect name, try these reference sources…
- For surnames, a good telephone directory. The more urban the area covered, the more ethnically diverse it is likely to be (if it’s foreign-sounding names you are after).
- For first names, try one of those books on naming babies. Not only do they suggest names you never even knew existed, they give you their meanings too – which brings us back to what I said at the start: the names you give your story people must be fitting.
2. How Old Are They?
You might think that age is the simplest thing to decide when creating profiles for your characters, but it isn’t always as straightforward as you would imagine.
What is complicated about it? Well, nothing – so long as your novel doesn’t take place over a large number of years…
- If a character is ten years old, say, and the novel spans just one year, you won’t have a problem.
- But if the novel spans twenty years, you might have to write two (or more) mini-biographies for the character – given that thirty year olds tend to lead very different lives, and have very different internal make-ups, to ten year olds.
A character profile really only describes a character at a fixed point in time. In the example above, you might have to create one for the ten year old, another for the thirty year old, and perhaps others for the different stages in between.
The same thing would apply if the character didn’t grow older but instead underwent a profound change of some sort in the novel’s middle (over and above the normal change they experience as a result of the novel’s story, that is).
They might experience a riding accident which leaves them in a wheelchair, for example, or the murder of a loved one. In such cases, you might feel the need to create two profiles for them, one pre-event and one post-event.
Why? Because to write convincingly about fictional characters at any given point in the novel, you need to know what they are like at that time. The profile telling you this won’t be of much use once the character has grown up or undergone a life-changing event.
In most novels, characters remain pretty much the same throughout, only changing at the end. In more complicated novels, this won’t be the case, and you will need to create two or more character profiles for each of their different personas.
3. What Does the Character Look Like?
Here are the kinds of things you need to know when you decide on a character’s physical appearance…
- Is your character tall or short?
- Are they thin or fat?
- What is their body shape?
- What color and style is their hair?
- What color are their eyes?
- What are their most distinguishing features?
- Do they have a particular smell – pleasant or otherwise? (Don’t forget to use all of the senses when you create character profiles.)
- What clothes do they wear?
- Do they use any “props” – like a walking cane or an iPod?
- Do they have a particular way of walking, running, standing, sitting?
You could, of course, write pages and pages describing fictional characters physically, but beware of wasting time. A good compromise is to start by writing a brief general impression of how a fictional character looks…
- An arthritic old man.
- A stick-thin girl.
- A forty-year-old woman who looks sixty.
Next, make each impression vivid and unique by adding a few telling details…
For the arthritic old man:
- He wears a pair of thick spectacles held together with tape.
- He has a nose that, in its youth, saw one too many bar brawls.
- His oxblood brogues are always polished to a shine.
For the stick-thin girl:
- She is always dressed in pink.
- She has wide green eyes and a toothy smile.
- She can’t sit still for a second.
For the forty-year-old woman who looks sixty:
- She looks permanently hungover, though she doesn’t drink.
- Her clothes come from charity shops and are never the right size.
- She smells like last night’s ashtray.
You can make the physical descriptions more comprehensive if you wish, but I hope you agree that the sketches of the three fictional characters above are sufficient for you to be able to picture them physically.
So long as you can do this, you will be able to come up with any other details you need at the time of writing.
For example, I could probably work for hours on the forty-year-old woman who looks sixty, dreaming up more and more ways to describe her physically – but it would be much more productive to wait until she is in a scene and then see what opportunities present themselves…
- If she is eating breakfast at home, I could describe the way she can’t eat her cereal without spilling milk down her front – and how she doesn’t bother wiping it clean.
- If she is walking down the street, I could describe how she is careful not to catch a glimpse of her reflection in the store windows.
- If she is travelling on a crowded bus, I could talk about the other passengers preferring to stand than take the last seat next to her.
It would have been difficult to think of these three details out of context. Once you put the character into a specific situation, during the writing phase, the right details can come much more easily.
So, don’t waste too much time on physical description when you create character profiles. Write just enough to be able to picture a character in your mind’s eye, then move on.
As a matter of fact, something very similar could be said about all of the remaining categories. I have included plenty of suggestions below for details you might want to know when you create characters for your novel, but the fact is that two or three sentences in each category are all you’ll need to give you a strong sense of who each character is.
So long as you have that sense, all of the other details will suggest themselves at the time of writing.
4. Do They Use Any “Props”?
What are props? They are something that a fictional character carries with them, or uses in some way…
- Sherlock Holmes has his pipe and violin.
- Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny, has his steel balls that he is constantly playing with nervously in his hand.
- Kojak, of course, has a lollipop.
Giving a character in a novel – particularly the leading character – a prop to use can be a great way of making them stand out from the crowd. Used well, a prop can even define a fictional character, saying more about them than a whole page of psychological analysis.
When you create character profiles, or at least the profile for your protagonist, it is worthwhile spending a little time on this, because props can truly bring fictional characters to life.
What props could you give to your leading character? Here are a few ideas…
- A walking cane.
- An umbrella, which they carry even on a dry day.
- A string of worry beads.
- Bubble gum.
- An i-Pod, chock full of operatic arias.
- A lucky coin, which they spin throughout the novel to help them make decisions.
- A faithful dog that goes everywhere with them.
- A yo-yo.
- An old baseball cap they are never without.
In one sense, props are meaningless and inconsequential. After all, the only thing that a walking cane really says about a character is that they have a bad leg.
Make the cane flame-red with a solid silver handle, though, and it suddenly becomes a little more interesting. (Here is a character who isn’t afraid to stand in the glare of the spotlight!)
And make the character use the cane at key moments during the novel – to defend themselves against an intruder, say – and the prop becomes a useful storytelling device, too.
Just remember that if you do create characters with a prop to use (and it certainly isn’t essential in a novel), it should be in keeping with who they are as a person…
- Don’t give a character in a novel that flame-red stick if they are the shy and retiring type.
- And giving a character a dog as a “sidekick” will work much better with someone who doesn’t get along with people rather than the life and soul of the party.
5. How Do They Speak?
This means both the words that they use…
- Do they use long, fancy words or short, Anglo-Saxon ones?
- Are they educated or uneducated?
- Do they use precise grammar, poor grammar or something in between?
- Do they swear – if so, all the time or just when they hit their thumb with a hammer?
- What is their favorite curse word?
- Do they have any pet phrases, particularly unusual ones?
And it means the manner in which they speak…
- Is their voice low or high in pitch?
- Do they have a booming voice or do people struggle to hear them from three feet away?
- Do they speak differently to different people and in different situations?
- Do they have a “telephone voice”?
- Do they have a stammer – or some other speech impediment?
- Do they chatter on and on, or are they laconic like Clint Eastwood?
- Are they a good conversationalist or are they “hard work”?
Oh, and don’t forget the following…
- What is their laugh like?
- Do they look people in the eye when they talk to them or down at their shoes?
- Are there any habits or mannerisms associated with the way they speak – a facial tic, perhaps?
6. What Are They Like As a Person?
This is probably the most important aspect of how to create character profiles of all, in that it gets to the very heart of who your fictional characters are.
What you are trying to do here is pin down their essential nature…
- Are they happy or unhappy?
- Are they an optimist or a pessimist?
- Are they adventurous or do they tend towards the familiar?
- What is their basic temperament?
- Are they moody?
- What are their religious or spiritual beliefs?
- Are they the life and soul of a party or the quiet one in the corner?
- Are they environmentally conscious?
- Are they left wing or right wing, or could they not care less about politics?
- Do they believe people are basically good, or do they not trust a soul?
- Do they think life is great and can’t wait to get out of bed every morning, or do they believe life is some kind of sick joke and can’t wait for it to be over?
- Are they the sort of person to believe in a conspiracy theory?
- Are they mean or generous? (Not just in the financial sense.)
- Do they need a “drug” to get through the day? (Anything from coffee to crack.)
- What do they fear?
- What do they feel guilty about?
- Are they a romantic or a realist?
- Do they have an inner child?
- Are they sensitive or thick-skinned?
- Are they conscientious?
I’m sure that this list barely scratches the surface, but it gives you an idea of the sorts of things you should be looking for here. If you get stuck, try this…
If you had to describe a character using three adjectives, what would they be…
- Nervous, gullible, insecure?
- Mean, cynical, materialistic?
- Romantic, naive, immature?
- Generous, thin-skinned, kind?
If you ignored this entire article and simply came up with three adjectives to describe each character, you would at least have a solid foundation on which to start building fully-rounded story people.
7. What Do the Characters Like and Dislike?
Don’t spend too long on this one. Just make a few quick notes on what your character loves and hates…
- What music do they listen to? What music do they hate?
- Would they prefer to go to the opera or a karaoke night?
- What would they order in a restaurant? Or would they prefer a greasy burger?
- What is their comfort food of choice?
- What would they stay in to watch on TV?
- Would they prefer a beach holiday or a sightseeing one?
- What do they like to read at the breakfast table?
- Do they like clean and contemporary or period charm?
- What is their most treasured possession?
- What is their opinion of modern art?
- What sport do they follow, if any?
- At Christmas, are they a big kid or a Scrooge?
The odds are that very few of these things will find their way into your novel. But one or two will. And they will certainly help you to pin down the character in your imagination.
8. Who Do They Know?
We are all influenced and shaped by the people we know, or have known, and it is no different for characters in a novel.
When working on each character profile, simply jot down a brief list of the most important people in their lives…
- Best friend.
- Other friends.
There are obviously limits to how far you will want to go here. Working out every character’s entire network is pointless. So concentrate on those relationships that are most important to them, particularly in regard to the story you want to tell.
As well as making a note of the names of these important people in a character’s life, also write a few words about the nature of the relationships…
- Is their marriage happy or unhappy – or something in between?
- Do they worship their boss? Or despise them?
- Are they secretly in love with their best friend’s wife?
Oh, and don’t forget to make a note of what other people think of them…
- Are they pitied by their children?
- Do their colleagues admire and respect them?
- Does their pet poodle wait by the window all day for them to return?
9. Where Do They Live?
Whether a fictional character’s home is an important location in the story you are telling or not, where a character lives – just like with real people – says a lot about who they are…
- What kind of house do they live in?
- What kind of neighborhood?
- Is the house large or small?
- Have they lived there for six months or their whole lives?
- Is it modern or period – or mock period?
- What kind of objects do they surround themselves with?
- Do they like where they live, or do they have aspirations to move on?
- Can they not wait to get home every evening, or not wait to get out in the mornings?
- Is it well maintained or going to seed?
- What about the garden?
- Is the house tidy or cluttered?
- Is it clean or dirty?
Of course, if their home doesn’t feature in the novel at all, feel free to skip this part of the character’s profile. But even if just one scene takes place there, you should work hard at creating an environment which perfectly encapsulates who your character is.
Incidentally, creating a character’s home is one of those many areas of novel writing which blurs with other areas – in this case, setting.
If you want, you can skip this task until you do work on your setting. But I have always found it useful to “build” a character’s house at the same time as creating the character profiles – simply because a home feels more like an extension of the person than an extension of the landscape.
10. What Do the Characters Do?
A character’s main activity will, in most cases, be their job…
- What do they do to earn a living?
- How much do they earn? Is it enough for them?
- Do they enjoy their job, or do they dread going into work every morning?
- Is it their dream job, the one they always wanted to do, or have they become trapped?
- Are they good at what they do? Are they respected?
- Is their position in jeopardy?
But don’t forget to make a note of all of those other things which can occupy a person’s time…
- Do they have a hobby or a pastime?
- Do they do any charity work or community work?
- How do they like to unwind after a long day?
- What do they do at the weekends?
- Do they have any noteworthy talents or abilities?
- What are they good at? What are they not good at?
- What is their party piece?
I said earlier in this section that one way of making readers care about a character – particularly the central character – is to make them good at what they do. So what does your character excel at…
- Their job?
- Their hobby?
- Raising a family?
- Planning bank heists in their spare time?
11. What About Their Past?
Creating character profiles isn’t just about providing sufficient information for the span of the story being told. Our pasts have made all of us who we are today, and it is no different with fictional characters.
What you are looking for here, then, are any formative events from a character’s past that have made them who they are at the start of the story…
- Did they have an impoverished childhood – so much so that it made them determined to become rich in adulthood?
- Do they have any skeletons waiting to fall out of the closet during the course of the story?
- Have they ever been betrayed by a friend – one who asks for their help in the novel, perhaps?
And so on. There is no need to go overboard here. Imagining a character’s entire past is a mammoth undertaking, so restrict yourself to those events which have a bearing on the story being told. Then move on.
12. What Is Their Role in the Novel?
You will be pleased to hear that this is the final category. It is also one which strays right into plotting territory, so you may not be able to answer these questions until you have a better idea of what your novel is about…
- What does the character want in the story?
- Why do they want it?
- How do the story’s events change them, if at all?
There is no need to answer these questions in any depth, because you will do that when you write your novel’s plot. But it is worthwhile to at least think about these issues during the characterization stage, because it will help you to ensure that plot and character work perfectly in harmony.
And that is it: how to create character profiles in 12 steps.
How hard you work on creating profiles, or biographies, for your fictional characters before you start to write is something only you can decide.
- At one extreme, you can write pages and pages on each and every character in the novel, even the two-dimensional flat characters.
- At the other extreme, you can simply jot down a few notes for each one – or perhaps not make any notes at all, but just think about the characters in your mind while you are out on a walk.
Personally, I write a page or two (three at the most) for the major characters, and perhaps three or four sentences for the stereotypical minors.
If you want to make a lot of notes, that is fine. Just be aware that you are NOT going to put all of this information into your novel.
Sure, you’ll use a lot of it – like what a character does for a job, what car they drive and so on. And you will want to make the most of some of those interesting, telling details you have dreamed up – the story behind the scar on their forehead, say.
But never forget that the reason you create profiles for the characters is simply to get to know them in your mind, so that when you place them into a dramatic situation and you need to decide what they should do (or say or think or feel) next, you will instinctively know.
And the choice you make will be the right one – because you took the trouble to create believable story people in your imagination before you started to write.