08 December 2019
Learn how to create a character profile with our essential advice, and downloadable template worksheet for you to fill in
How to create a character profile
The characters in your fiction are the key to its success. Your plot needs to keep readers turning pages, but the characters you create are what will draw people back to your writing and make them want to read more of it. If you think about the books you love, the chances are they include memorable characters. Jane Eyre, Inspector Rebus, Bridget Jones, Poirot. For many novels, character drives plot, and even if it doesn’t, you could have all the thrilling plot points in the world but if you didn’t involve relatable characters in the action readers would soon get bored. Good characters can often feel more real to readers than the people they know in their everyday lives, and that doesn’t happen by accident. The characters readers love are created by writers with the skills to make us feel we know them.
Why convincing characters are vital in writing fiction
When you have a strong idea for a new piece of writing, it will often be driven by a particular character. It may be a person who is going to fall in love, or a person who investigates a crime, or a person who uncovers a secret – but whatever is at the heart of your idea, the chances are it involves a person. A character. And if you’ve only just thought of them, the chances are that you aren’t going to know much about them at this point. How can you? They’ve only just suggested themselves to you. In the same way you would spend time getting to know a real-life person who interested and intrigued you, as a writer of fiction you need to invest time in getting to know your characters.
How to build a character
Just as you would with a new acquaintance, you might know your character’s name, age, and some sketchy details about their appearance, occupation, background and personality. But sketchy characters, in fiction as in life, aren’t satisfying. You want to know more about them. And just as in real life, it takes time to get beneath the surface and discover all you need to know about a character. What often happens when you are writing a book is that as you proceed with your first draft, you will discover things you didn’t know about your character. Beginner writers’ manuscripts are often thin on character development at the start because of this, and the writer will have to go back and fill in some of what they know.
But readers aren’t going to care about the way the writer gets to know about the character. Readers care about their own relationship with that character, which means that from the beginning of your book onwards, you, the writer, need to present them with a character they can believe in.
Of course you won’t give away everything you know about your character in the first chapters. Character development is a very important aspect of plotting in fiction, and throughout the process of reading your book, your reader should be deepening their knowledge of the characters. But you have to convince your reader to believe in your character from their very first appearance. To do that, they have to feel fully formed right from the beginning. Remember, nothing in writing happens by accident. You, the writer, have to make it happen. Think about how this works by thinking about the characters in the books you read yourself. The answers to the following questions will help you to see the importance of investing time and effort in creating your own characters.
- Question one: Who are your favourite fictional characters?
- Question two: What makes them appeal to you?
- Question three: How do you think the writer has done this?
What is a character profile
Even if you don’t reveal everything you know about them on the page, you need to know your characters inside out in order to make them feel credible and authentic. Two-dimensional, sketchy characters will disappoint readers, whereas fully fleshed out characters will entice them. To help you to create characters with enough depth to make readers believe in them, we’ve created you a free template you can use to help you get to know your character.
Download your free character profile template here. You can fill it in on your computer, or print out as a reference to have at hand as you write.
How to write a character profile
The template sheets can be used to create a profile for any character in your novel, not just the central one. Although your protagonist is the one you most need to create as a rounded and convincing character, everyone who is involved in the narrative requires being properly realised. If any characters in your writing run the risk of being two-dimensional, it’s worth spending time on them, fleshing them out and giving them the attention they need so that readers can engage with them.
Good writers of fiction don’t concentrate all their skills and attention to make their main character three-dimensional and believable. They apply their attention to every single character in their book. Sidekicks and supporting characters should never be cookie-cutter stereotypes, but credible creations in their own right. If there is a villain or an antagonist, they need to be much more than just the agent of bad things happening to your central character. Even if someone puts in a brief appearance, you need to remind yourself that they are there for a reason, not just to move the plot along. If they say anything they need to be ‘in character’.
If you’re a pantser, and prefer to write and see what happens, you might take a more haphazard approach to character development, and see what arises as your text progresses. The risk you run with this approach is that you will have to go back and rework early sections of your draft to accommodate what you have discovered about your characters. If you take a more organised approach at this point and adopt a more analytic approach to character creation, it may well save you time in the long run.
Character development sheet
Our template involves three basic stages for you to use in the creation of a good character.
This is the basic information you need to create any character: name, age, biographical details of family, job etc, appearance. For a writer’s purpose, at this point you need to know the reason they are in your book and it is a very good idea, at this point, to think about what they need or want that relates to the way your story will develop.
A basic character sketch works for any genre of fiction but you could add different notes to your basic sketch depending on the kind of book it is. For instance, if it’s a romance you might make notes on your central character’s past romantic history, the kind of partner they need, what has gone wrong in their love life that will be put right by the end of the book. If it’s a psychological thriller you might make notes about what baggage your central character is carrying, and the vulnerabilities that might have precipitated the situation your book addresses.
Deepening your knowledge of the character
Now that you know the basics about your character, it’s time to go deeper. Start with how the character presents themselves to the world. What do other people see? What are the character’s skills, hobbies, interests? What do they wear, and why do they wear it? What do they smell of? What food do they eat? Where do they live? Who lives there with them? What is it like in their house or flat?
Remember all characters need a backstory. Just as in real life, characters in fiction have a past that informs their present. Some of this may be relevant to your story, and whatever you know will add to your knowledge of the person you’re writing about. So now it’s time to go further into the character’s previous life, and investigate their background. What was it like for them growing up? What were their family relationships like? What about their schooling? Did they find it easy or difficult to make friends, and why? What was their first job? What was the event that changed them? What sort of child were they, and how did their life experience alter their personality? What and who do they love? Do they have any beliefs that are important to them? What do they dislike? What are they frightened of? What is the worst thing they have ever done? What are they most proud of? What secrets are they keeping?
Now that you know all this about your character, pay attention to how they communicate – and this means their internal voice as well as how they reveal themselves in dialogue. Remember that characters will speak differently from each other. Does your character have a manner of speaking? Words and phrases that reveal something about them? An accent?
If you have thoroughly looked into the background, lifestyle and personality of your character, you will know more about them than your book will require, but it’s not wasted knowledge. Knowing your character inside-out will do two things. It will enable you to write them confidently so that you can present them to the reader as a fully realised creation, and it will enable you to make good choices about how you convey them in the context of your story. If you’ve done this stage of the character creation process well, you’ll be ready to move on to stage three, which is working out how you are going to reveal your character in the context of your book.
The context for your character creation
The final stage in your character creation profile relates to your character in the context of your book. At this stage, you need to ask questions that relate to your plot and the underlying themes of your book. So if, for example, your novel is a crime thriller that involves a death by drowning and involves themes of family betrayal, you could investigate your character’s relationship to water (did they love/hate swimming as a child? Did any significant events, traumatic or pleasurable, happen to them around water? Were they bullied around water? Did they use water to bully someone else? Asking these questions and discovering the answers is likely to provide you with ideas for scenes and incidents that you can you can embed throughout your novel, revealing character and deepening the reader’s understanding of your themes.
In the context of your novel, your central character will need to on a journey of a kind, in which they grow and learn something in response to the circumstances in the book. Your character development process should include thinking about the character’s progression from the beginning of the book to its conclusion, and how the events in your novel will impact on their development. The most satisfying novels are the ones where the reader’s understanding of the character is deepened as the book progresses. A reader should be engaged with your character from the beginning, and become increasingly involved with them as the story progresses – and that is effected by the author being able to demonstrate not just their character, but how that character responds to their circumstances. For a good storyteller, plot and character should be deeply intertwined.
Character can be unpredictable
Don’t be surprised if your characters take on a life of their own, and do, say or feel something that you weren’t expecting. For instance, your character Sookie has taken a tray of buns out of the oven and they have burnt. ‘Sookie slumped down by the cooker and sobbed,’ you write. It suits your plot. It’s what you think she ought to do. And then you realise this is not what she would do at all. ‘Sookie picked up the tray of burnt offerings, and lobbed them in the bin. Then she grabbed her bag and marched out of the door. “Sod cupcakes, I’m going to the pub”.’ And you think, where did that come from? Don’t be afraid to let your characters tell you what they need to be, do and say. This when you will know they are really working – and that’s because you’ve created them so effectively. When your characters begin to assert their own personalities, it’s because you have achieved something every writer hopes for: you will have created someone who feels lifelike.
Character profile example
You’ve done the work and feel confident that you know your creations inside and out. But how are you going to show this on the page?
This is where your skills in showing, not telling (for more, see our article What show don't tell writing actually means), will come in.
- Introduce your character with a snapshot. Name them so that readers can identify them, and provide an intriguing glimpse of them that in some way relates to what will unfold in the novel. ‘Sophie was the first to arrive for the meeting’ neatly sets up a central character and a storyline. We don’t yet know what that will be, but it’s clear there is one.
- If you want to give an impression of their physical appearance, do it carefully. ‘Sophie was always well-dressed’ tells very little about Sophie. ‘It was important to Sophie to be well dressed and well groomed’ gives a little bit more insight into her personality. ‘Sophie’s good suit was her battle armour for meetings where she was the only woman present’ tells us even more. Spelling out in description what a character looks like will not help to bring them to life in a reader’s mind, but relating an aspect of their appearance to something else in their life can be very revealing.
- Remember your central character is not perfect. Readers relate to flaws because everyone has them. Make sure your character has flaws and vulnerabilities. ‘Sophie always felt safer knowing she had a miniature of gin in her handbag.’ This is a telling detail about someone – perhaps it foregrounds something that happens later in the story, or says something about the backstory?
- However, readers need to root for your character so give them reasons to do so. ‘Sophie had never regretted walking away from that bullying manager. She’d rather hold her head up as a cleaner than be humiliated in a management capacity.’ We see that she is a person with principles and that personal dignity matters to her.
- Show their inner life. Many writers use characters’ relationships with the arts and music to do this. ‘Sophie always identified with Kanga in Winnie the Pooh – she welcomed her friends and always put her kids first.’ This shows us valuable things about Sophie – she’s a good friend and mother and has retained a certain childlike quality – her go-to book is Winnie the Pooh, not Wuthering Heights.
- Always remember your character needs to have an arc and by the end of the story they need to have moved on, physically and emotionally in some way from the situation we first met them in. ‘The suit was the first one Sophie had owned that hadn’t come from a charity shop. It mattered that the women she helped could see they could turn their lives around, too.’
This is only a brief introduction to showing character in your fiction. To look at character creation in depth, visit Character description: 14 ways to get it right