Characters are the lifeblood of a novel. In fact, I would say that almost all stories that truly knocked it out of the park (critically and financially) have had strong characters at their core.
A great way to improve the quality of your characters is by writing a character profile. And that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about today.
- What a character profile is
- Why they are important
- How to create an amazing character profile
- Access to our character bio template to try it out yourself
Table of contents
- What Is a Character Profile?
- Why Are Character Profiles Important?
- What Makes a “Good” Character Profile?
- Step 1: Select Your Character Types
- Step 2: The Superficial Level
- Step 3: The Personality Level
- Step 4: The Backstory Level
- Advanced Techniques to Create a Character Profile
What Is a Character Profile?
A character profile is a detailed outline of your character, much like a regular outline for the plot.
It goes into detail on various aspects of a character, including but not limited to:
- Their basic appearance and personality
- Their backstory
- Their motivations
- Their family and possessions
- Their lifestyle
A good character profile will help you understand that character, so you know how they would behave in certain circumstances. It allows you to predict their actions, reactions, opinions, and the process by which they make decisions.
Typically, a character profile will take the form of a worksheet with key details laid out, and spaces to fill out each character trait. Download our character template to get started.
However, a character profile can be a few paragraphs about the character if you want. This may be simpler for less important characters.
But for the protagonist, antagonist, and other major players in your story, we do recommend the full treatment.
Why Are Character Profiles Important?
Let’s face it, taking all the time to create an outline and flesh out characters can be hard, particularly for those who write by the seat of their pants.
However, taking the time to flesh out these characters beforehand will save you valuable time in the long run.
Because when you know your characters inside and out, the writing goes faster, and your book requires less editing when you’re done.
Will You Put Everything From the Profile in the Novel?
Honestly, no. A lot of this will be just for you to know, though you could package it up as a bonus for readers of your newsletter.
That said, knowing what happened to your characters, even if it’s not important to the plot, will affect the way you write them.
A solid character profile will give depth to your characters even if you don’t realize it’s happening.
Let me say that again:
What Makes a “Good” Character Profile?
There are many ways to approach a character, and spending the time to flesh them out will be rewarding to you.
However, there are some ways that you can ruin your character profile. For example:
- Don’t spend so much time on your characters that you neglect the rest of your story
- Don’t try to examine them from every possible angle
Instead, you want to stick to the areas that are most relevant for your novel. These usually include their basic details, their backstory up to the beginning of the plot, and information on their personality.
In this article, we’ve divided the most important areas of consideration into four parts:
- Character Types
- Superficial Details
There’s a lot of important details encompassed in each of these, so let’s dive in.
Step 1: Select Your Character Types
Before you do anything, you should know the role that your characters will play in your story. And we’re not talking about their horoscope or anything like that.
Typically, a character will fall into one of several roles that contribute to the novel in a specific way. You can start by picking one from this list:
- Protagonist: the main character in your story
- Antagonist: the primary opposition to your character who creates the conflict
- Guide: a mentor figure that helps the protagonist in their goals
- Contagonist: a secondary antagonist who is usually more involved in the plot and with the protagonist personally
- Sidekicks: additional characters who support the protagonist, and who can play key roles of their own
- Love Interest: A type of supporting character for whom there is more emotional weight for the protagonist
- Temptress: an antagonistic character or force that tries to lure the hero away from the goal
- Confidant: a supporting character, often also a sidekick or love interest, that has a deep emotional support role for the protagonist
- Foil: a character that is so different and strange to the protagonist, that the clash highlights certain characteristics of the protagonist
There are more roles, and we recommend checking out our article on the subject, but these are the most common.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to develop a thorough character profile for every character in your book.
Typically most authors will draft their character profile based on the protagonist and antagonist, as well as a few key secondary characters.
Once you know the roles your characters will play, then you can start building the character profile.
Step 2: The Superficial Level
Alright, so let’s assume that you have a vague idea of who your characters are. Maybe you already have a few details in mind. That’s good. Hold on to those because they will help us as we define these characters.
But before we start writing, we don’t want to neglect other areas of their life, including the very basics, which is what we cover in step 2.
This is the easiest step. All you have to do is identify the following:
- Place of birth
- Current residence
- Education level
- Occupation (just the basics)
- Income level
- Marital status
Try not to overthink any of these things. We’ll dive deeper later on. This is just to get a superficial idea of who this character is, the kind of stuff you would find on a driver’s license.
We don’t need to know their entire backstory…yet.
The next basic category is physical appearance. This includes things like:
- Skin color
- Eye color
- Hair color
- Face shape
- Distinguishing marks like tattoos, scars, birthmarks, etc
- Any physical ailments or disfigurements
While this is still surface-level information, it can be important to the development of a character.
For example, if the cultures in your novel have certain biases towards people based on outward appearance, then this section could be quite important.
Clothing and Style
The third important thing to jot down at this basic level is the style of the person. Consider questions like these when developing the character:
- What do they typically wear? (at work, out on the town, at home, asleep, etc.)
- Do they wear accessories of any kind?
- Are there any objects or pets that they keep close?
- What is their level of grooming? (disheveled, neat, wearing makeup, etc.)
Each of these will give you a good idea already at what their personality is. Someone who typically dresses neatly will suggest a much different trait than someone who wears rags and has the stench of alcohol coming from him.
Step 3: The Personality Level
We recommend tackling personality next, before you determine backstory, although you can do both.
The reason we suggest personality first, is that by determining these internal traits, you can then work backward and find a suitable backstory that would create such a personality.
That said, you can do it the other way around: lock down the backstory first and then determine what kind of a personality would result from such an upbringing.
Whatever the case, backstory and personality are very much related, particularly when it comes to the wants, needs, and fears of an individual.
So let’s dive into the different parts of the personality that you should include in your character profile.
Communication and Mannerisms
We often don’t think of this, but each of us has a distinct way that we talk.
I’m not just talking about an accent, although we all have those too outside of our native dialect. But there are probably different words that you use more than most, different ways of phrasing things, even different body language that is unique to us.
Here are a few things to consider when determining the communications, mannerisms, and speech patterns of your character:
- Are they from a foreign land?
- What is their posture? (stiff, slouching, casual, relaxed, exhausted, etc.)
- Do they have a specific gesture that they overuse? (hand-talking, controlled, agitated)
- Do they make eye contact with the people they talk to?
- What curse word do they use the most? Do they curse?
- Do they have a catch phrase?
- Do they have speech impediments?
- Are there any “ticks” in the way they talk/move?
- What does their laugh sound like? (loud and booming, snickering, high squeak)
- What is their handwriting like?
- How do they walk? (confident, lazy, fast, distracted, etc.)
- What is their smile like? (warm, false, nervous, etc.)
- Do they wear their emotions on their sleeve or keep them hidden?
- What is their resting default facial expression?
These are just a few questions to get you started, you don’t necessarily have to answer them all. However, these are all important to consider because it will have a direct effect on how you write their dialogue and describe them when communicating.
This will feel like a very important part, but it is just one piece of the puzzle.
The psychological profile is a good example of something that you might not include verbatim in the story, but will be useful anyway. It’s the part of the iceberg that is still submerged below water. Knowing this will change the way you write them.
Here are some aspects to consider:
- Are they introverted or extroverted?
- What is happiness to them?
- Do they have a favorite place, food, movie, etc.? Why?
- How do they feel about love? Being in a relationship?
- Are they a leader or a follower?
- What gets them excited?
- Do they have a favorite quote?
- What makes them angry?
- What are their morals?
- What would they do with unlimited money? Time?
- What is their love language?
- What is their Myers-Briggs type?
- Do they have any mental disabilities?
Let’s comment on those last two.
The Myers-Briggs test is somewhat problematic, as there are certainly more than 16 personalities in the world. However, it can be a great place to start in getting to know your character’s personality. At the very least, it can give you inspiration.
For mental disabilities, you might want to consider giving most of your characters something that they struggled with in this area. Because even for a real person, each mental illness is a spectrum, and most of us struggle with something, even if it’s not enough to get a clinical diagnosis.
For example, I sometimes struggle with ADHD tendencies, enough that I got myself tested. I didn’t have clinical ADHD, but I clearly leaned in that directly.
I hope you get what I’m saying. Each of us falls somewhere on a spectrum for various mental struggles.
Figure out what your character might have, and make sure to study that thing. Not doing your research is a sure way to create a character who feels inauthentic.
Motivation and Fears
While this section could be lumped in with personality, motivation and fears are so important that we wrote a whole article about it. So let’s spend time discussing them.
Your motivation will drive your story, it is the reason why your character does anything, just like in real life. All of us do everything we do for a reason. If we had no motivation, we would just sit back and do nothing until we died.
Stories are about action. Stuff has to happen for there to be a plot, therefore finding that motivation will be crucial to developing your character.
The same is true for fears, which is a type of motivation. Every character should have something they fear more than anything. Ideally, they should be forced to confront that thing over the course of the story in order to get the thing that motivated them to take action in the first place.
Here are some questions to ask:
- What do they want most in the world at the start of the story?
- What do they actually need most in the world?
- What is their biggest fear?
- What are they most proud of?
Additionally, you will need to outline their goals in the story. This is different from motivation. Goals are the thing your character wants. Motivations are the reasons why they want those things.
In short, motivation will keep your central character from feeling like a flat character.
Step 4: The Backstory Level
At this point, you have the basic details, physical appearance, personality, and mannerisms of your major character. Now it’s time to add the basic functionalities of backstory.
It’s at this stage that you begin explaining why a character is the way they are. Why does that man look so disheveled? Why does that woman have a hard time trusting people? Why does that little boy have a scar on his face?
Let me be clear, you do not have to determine these things ahead of time. It’s perfectly fine to outline your character traits before you know how they got there.
For instance, I might invent a character that frequently rides a horse, is a loner, wears minimalist clothing and has a long scar down one arm and a tattoo on the other. Perhaps I have no other reason for picking these things other than that they look cool.
On the other hand, you can build backstory and let it determine the other traits this character has. It can go either way, and will likely go both ways. You could discover that the backstory you create offers new opportunities to tweak the physical appearance or personality of the character.
That’s fine. This is meant to be an evolving writing process.
So let’s take a look at the different character development questions surrounding backstory.
At the core of what a person is, you will often find family there. Our families shape us for better or worse, and the same is true of characters.
- Does your character have a family?
- How big is their family?
- Have any of them died? If so, how did this affect your central character?
- What is your character’s current relationship with their parents? Siblings?
- What are some defining moments between your character and their family members?
These are some important things to keep in mind. A family that is supportive and loving of a character will have a completely different impact than a family that is abusive and cold.
In the basic facts section, we asked about this person’s occupation and income. Now is the time to dig deeper.
Take a look at the following questions:
- Do they enjoy their job?
- Do they have any other hobbies or interests?
- What are they competent at?
- Are they used to living frugally or do they enjoy a lavish lifestyle?
- What are their opinions towards money?
These will give you a good start on what their lifestyle is at the start of your book. Preferably, you’ll upend all that once the plot gets going, but the lifestyle that they consider “comfortable” will determine their reactions to change.
This is where you create a general outline of their life up to this point. By now, you should have a lot of ideas, so start by jotting those down. Then ask yourself the following questions:
- Where were they raised? Do they still live there? Why?
- What are their happiest/saddest/earliest memories?
- What were they like as a child?
- What are some of the biggest defining moments of their life?
- How did they get to where they are today?
- What is their biggest regret?
- Has your character experienced any trauma?
Go through the major “beats” of the characters life, including childhood, adolescence, past relationships, important religious events, educational milestones, etc.
Once you’ve accomplished all this, you’ll have a pretty good idea of who your character is, helping them spring to life in every scene.
If you want to follow the same path that I took, get this template today!
Advanced Techniques to Create a Character Profile
But let’s not stop here. There are a number of advanced techniques that you can use to create your character profile.
Start by creating a full outline of this person’s life, as if you were writing a novel. Create a timeline or chronology of events from the beginning to the end. You don’t have to use any of this in your novel, but it can come in handy to know from the writer’s perspective.
One great way to get to know your characters is to come up with a character questionnaire. It may include many of the questions we’ve outlined thus far, but you can also take those questions and create a mock “interview” with your character.
Not only does this help deepen your character, it also gives you practice writing in their voice, which is essential.
Make Them Unique
When choosing things like a character’s occupation, interests, mannerisms, or fears, it can help to find things that are unique. The more exotic and unusual you make them, the more they will appeal to readers (within reason).
For example, an airline pilot who loves goldfish is a much more interesting and quirky character compared to a computer programmer who just goes home to Netflix and chill every day (no offense to my programmer friends).
In short, try to find unique combinations of each of these character traits, in a way that isn’t comical (unless it’s supposed to be).
Repeat for More Characters
I would suggest that there are at least two characters that best profit from a character profile: your protagonist and your antagonist.
However, if you really want to go the extra mile, keep repeating these steps for more of your supporting characters.
Just ensure your time spent writing characters does not keep you from writing the book.
I hope you found all of this helpful.
As someone who loves outlining, I find that creating a character profile is just as useful as creating a plot outline. It speeds up my writing and increases the quality.
If you like what you see here, we have a complete character profile template that you can check out to facilitate your character creation process. .
And if you enjoyed this post, you might like everything else we have on character development, including: