Building a comprehensive character profile

Examining some important elements that should go into every character profile, before, during and after the writing process…

As you’ll have seen in previous posts on this site, along with pretty much every other writing blog out there, character should be the writer’s Number One consideration. Crafting three-dimensional characters is a gradual process. They fill out as you progress with your work. Having a profile for each major player in your story can help you keep track of their development, their personality, their reasons for being themselves. This post centres around building a comprehensive character profile, and what things you should consider to inform their development and the greater story.

Relationships with other characters

Like real life, you can tell a lot about a person based on how they interact with others. When building a character profile, one of the first things I note is that character’s relationship to others in their sphere. Who their closest allies are, and their enemies. Are they close family or estranged siblings? Are they co-workers locked in a rivalry? Or are there ex-lovers and ex-partners who have made a return to the scene?

Also, it doesn’t matter if these other characters don’t actually feature in your story. Your main character may have a sister that they don’t speak to. That fact alone can tell your readers a lot about your main character. Perhaps family ties are not important to them, or maybe they’re stubborn and have stood their ground in an argument. We never have to meet the estranged sister. The readers will be looking deeper at your main character.

Religion, politics and social attitudes

Remember, the core of a good story is conflict. What’s often at the centre of a good conflict? Religion, politics, and/or society. So when you’re outlining your characters, take a moment to consider… what’s their political leaning? Are they conservative or more liberal? Do they have a religion? If so, how devout are they? What’s their take on social issues? Are they vocally in favour of one thing, or virulently against another?

Remember that all of these will be affected by the period you’re setting your story in. And they all go back to our previous point about relationships with other characters. How will a controversial opinion or decision by one character affect their friendship circle? Do they form a united front, but with some reluctance by one or two members? How is that reluctance dealt with? In short, how do these attitudes inform the conflict of the story?

What is their core principle or philosophy?

These may be tied to politics, religion etc. if you wish. Essentially, when you boil your character down to the bare bones, what’s the one thing that’s driving their existence, their actions and their thoughts?

If I’m to give examples from my own work, in Sin & Secrecy, Lady Vyrrington’s core principle is to love as few people as possible, to stop anyone getting punished for her sins. Abel Stirkwhistle’s philosophy is that he is the judge, jury and executioner for anyone he sees as a sinner or criminal.

In You Can Hear Chopin, the core principles of my main antagonist Leopold Upfauer are tied to those of the Nazi Party, with focus on their idea that mentally ill people were unworthy of life. That philosophy directly affects my main protagonist Heinrich Oeunhausen, whose wife Sofie has schizophrenia. All the same, he has to suppress his own principles and join the Nazi Party in the hope that he will be better protected. Which takes us back to conflict again. Mapping the core principles out can lead you to examine how they clash with those of other characters.

Do they have any quirks, eccentricities, or defining characteristics?

Use your character profile to note down anything unique about each person. Do they have a catchphrase? Or any tics, tells or quirks that stand them out from the crowd? They don’t even need to be anything extraordinary. In You Can Hear Chopin, Upfauer is always cold and stands by a fire when there’s one in a room, and complains when there isn’t one. Meanwhile, Heinrich often refers to his watch, always conscious of time, as anyone who works in a hotel should be. They don’t necessarily have to affect the story, but they add believable human qualities to the characters. Which is what readers want to see.

The question of good and evil

What side is your character on? Are they hero or villain? Good, evil, or neutral? Or, as with real life, are they capable of being more than one? Can your protagonists occasionally make a decision that will take them down an evil path? Or is your antagonist capable of occasional kindness? What does this say about them as characters? A villain who does the odd bit of good could be construed as manipulative, for example.

Don’t forget to answer WHY?

When you’re defining all of these elements in a character profile, don’t forget to be conscious of the reasons behind your decisions. Why don’t these two siblings speak to each other anymore? Was it a childhood disagreement that festered into adulthood? What broke down this ex-couple’s marriage? Was it a difference in politics? Knowing the answers to these can enrich characters’ backstories. It also gives you a much clearer image of the characters when you’re writing your story.

Keep your character profile updated

As we know, a lot can change in the course of writing a story. That’s why it’s important to check your character profiles regularly. Update them according to the latest version of your manuscript. If two characters you had down as friends suddenly have a falling out, make sure that’s noted down. Again, include the reasons why. These decisions might affect other character development and plot points.

Thank you for reading. Is anything missing from this list? Get in touch via my Facebook and Instagram pagesAlso, read further posts out more about my latest novel, and stay up to date with my podcast.