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Thread: help wanted: methodical character profiles

  1. #1
    I've got a Gnome's de Plum arthurwhitehall's Avatar
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    Question help wanted: methodical character profiles

    I'm a self-confessedly inept planner; after all, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

    My characters profiles are an eyesore. How can I create more effective, comprehensive templates?

    Om, I seek the advice of the oracles.
    Last edited by arthurwhitehall; 11-27-2012 at 07:16 PM.

  2. #2
    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    Welcome, arthurwhitehall. You should visit the New Members forum.

    I don't do character profiles. At the most, I write down what they look like. Each character to me has a define mindset, history and temperament that comes out as I write them.

    I'm a big believer in: Create as you go. That you write the character without a written down template and let them make up their own minds. Later, in the revision, I go through and straighten their early actions up.


    If you must, arrange a interview with them. Sit the character down, ask them a set list of question or hypothetical situation. Use the same list with each character. This will let you better understand them.

    Example:

    "A person walks up to you and slaps you. What do you do?"

    My MC: He'd smile and say, "so that's how you wanna play?"
    My (currently writing) MC: He would literally rip the man's head off.
    Don't Fear Failure.

    "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn" -- Alvin Toffler.

    "The heights of great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night" -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

  3. #3
    I've got a Gnome's de Plum arthurwhitehall's Avatar
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    Thank you, I've took note of your interview tip and it should help flesh out my characters. However, I still need help with setting up a more quantitative outline. Without some structure, I'll just procrastinate indefinitely. I also want to set up a cross narrative mythos, so concrete references are crucial.
    Last edited by arthurwhitehall; 11-27-2012 at 12:04 PM.

  4. #4
    Travel biologist, piss-poor fluffer quicklime's Avatar
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    i don't profile either, beyond very basic sketches. Too much detail work makes it harder to hear the characters themselves.
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  5. #5
    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by arthurwhitehall View Post
    Without some structure, I'll just procrastinate indefinitely.
    Or maybe the act of structuring is the procrastination.

    *Scuttles away*
    Don't Fear Failure.

    "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn" -- Alvin Toffler.

    "The heights of great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night" -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

  6. #6
    Eight Legs, All Holding Pens ArachnePhobia's Avatar
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    My favorite profile template is found in Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval. It's on page 80 of the book. A few sample questions from it:

    -What is your character's earliest memory? and Give your character one small, revealing gesture or movement. (He may bite his nails. She may cross and recross her legs.) (P 80)

    Write Now! also has some great exercises for character-building.

    You want information that will tell you how your character will react in the situations you're getting 'im into. Random stuff like "favorite band" probably won't do that, unless that's immediately relevant to the plot (for instance, breaking into said band's hotel room leads the character to find the missing pages of the Blood-Scripted Vix Victis hidden in the guitarist's old Yamaha).

    Some other example questions I have on my template:

    -What does this character have to do in the course of a day another might find unusual?

    -What are this character's five biggest strengths and five biggest weaknesses?
    ~The Worms Crawl In The Worms Crawl Out~

  7. #7
    The Crazy Man in the Sun. Feel me. WillSauger's Avatar
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    K, try this:


    This is a broken down example from The Writer's little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr.

    Character Name:
    Age:
    Master/Major/Minor (circle one)
    Role/Title:

    Pertinent Bio:

    Physical:
    Ht/Wt:
    Hair:
    Eyes:
    Nose:
    Mouth:
    Hands:
    Striking Features:

    Distinctive Language:

    Goal/Motivation:
    1.
    2.
    3.
    4.

    Fatal Flaw:

    Saving Grace:
    He put his on a card.


    I used this years ago, but it was more of a mess coming back to this, rather than knowing the characters. This'll help you keep a straight head.
    Don't Fear Failure.

    "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn" -- Alvin Toffler.

    "The heights of great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night" -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

  8. #8
    I've got a Gnome's de Plum arthurwhitehall's Avatar
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    Thank you for all your advice, and if anybody has some more I'd be glad to read it.

    If I tried my hand at drafting my own template, would you mind assessing it? Noting if anything was missing, or too trivial?
    Last edited by arthurwhitehall; 11-27-2012 at 04:05 PM.

  9. #9
    Likes metaphors mixed, not stirred Chris P's Avatar
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    I don't do profiles either, unless I get stuck and need to figure out how a character would act. Most of my novels start as separate scenes starring the same characters, and how each character acts determines his or her personality; it's the common theme through the scenes.

    When I get stuck, I do write a brief profile focusing only on the character's goals/motivations, and tendency to do interesting things to get them. Height, weight, hair color, etc. are all things I as a reader picture on my own, so I let my readers do the same thing.

    The story is told by what the characters do. Perhaps write a list of what does when:
    1. someone disagrees with him?
    2. she gets lost while driving in a strange town?
    3. he gets propositioned by an attractive person?

    Or whatever is most likely to occur in your story.
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  10. #10
    I've got a Gnome's de Plum arthurwhitehall's Avatar
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    Could everyone please stop stating how they don't use character profiles? It's what I want to use in my own work and I don't feel that is any more of an amateurish thing to do than carefully structuring a plot; which many famous writers do (and some don't, such as Stephen King).
    Last edited by arthurwhitehall; 11-27-2012 at 07:34 PM.

  11. #11
    DenturePunk writer bearilou's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by arthurwhitehall View Post
    Could everyone please stop stating how they don't use character profiles? It's what I wish to use in my own work and I don't feel that is any more of an amateurish thing to do than carefully structuring the plot, which many famous writers do (and some don't, such as Stephen King).
    Except, they are giving you useful questions for your character to answer, so they are helping.

    Many writers don't find knowing what their character's favorite ice cream flavor is all that important to a fully fleshed out character, unless said ice cream flavor is critical to the plot.

    In that respect, some writers, such as myself, find that I end up building a character template as I write them when the trivial information comes up. As in, I'm writing a scene and I note the color of my MCs eyes. To remain consistent, I have a spreadsheet that I dump that information into. So I'm backfilling that kind of information.

    I may have something for you to use, if you're interested. I'll drop you a pm.

    In the meantime, I had gotten this from K. M. Weiland when I signed up for her news letter. Hey, it's free and has some useful information in it. Not sure if that is what you're looking for.

    Also, this. Again, if this is the kind of thing you're talking about.

    edit: Hm...in rereading your question, I think all my words and links aren't useful for you. I got hung up on character profiles... Sorry. :/
    Last edited by bearilou; 11-27-2012 at 05:41 PM.
    Quote Originally Posted by Phaeal View Post
    The first draft is a huge pile of clay that you've laboriously heaped on your table, patting it into a rough shape as you go along. From the second draft onward, you'll cut away chunks, add bits, pat and punch and pinch, until you finally have a gorgeous figure of, oh, Marcus Aurelius. Or a duck. But a damn fine duck.
    Quote Originally Posted by KTC View Post
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  12. #12
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    I think character profiles are extremely likely to create unrealistic characters, but if you can make it work, go for it.

    I just use real people. Whatever else they are, real people are never cardboard, or unrealistic.

  13. #13
    I've got a Gnome's de Plum arthurwhitehall's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bearilou View Post
    Except, they are giving you useful questions for your character to answer, so they are helping.
    They are giving help, I just feel that adding "Oh, I don't use character profiles" to every reply is kind of patronising.

    Thanks for the links. I understand who my characters are. I'm looking for templates to record the things I know about my characters so I don't get it wrong. Your eclectics link is a good place to start.

    Quote Originally Posted by bearilou View Post
    edit: Hm...in rereading your question, I think all my words and links aren't useful for you. I got hung up on character profiles... Sorry. :/
    It's okay, I deleted the second question: nobody seemed to pick up on it, but I'm sure I can figure it out myself.
    Last edited by arthurwhitehall; 11-27-2012 at 07:30 PM.

  14. #14
    Ustom Ser Itle Dgullen's Avatar
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    Planning's essential, and plans are useless. I like to do a lot of detail planning for plot, scene and character, and once I've done that I generally don't look at the detail again unless I need to.

    Things I've found useful are questions like:
    What will X do anything to avoid?
    What will X do anything to achieve?

    And also to tunnel down into your answer. If X fears dogs, why does he fear them? Maybe one bit him. So why was that so dreadful? His best friend died of rabies. OK. Now we're getting closer.

    I often do height/weight/hair things too, just to stop everyone being the same. In general though, I think less is more with description, as well as character - characters aren't people, they're representations of people, and I think their quirks and desires etc should be relevant to the story.

    My happorth's worth.

  15. #15
    She Who Constantly Changes Avatars CJ Knightrey's Avatar
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    I disagree with the thought that character outlines are useless. For some it works, for some it doesn't. For me, they work really well. Before I start I do character sketches for every major character and minor characters that appear more then five times and have something to contribute. It really helps to get my characters to feel real and well rounded, and gives me a starting point to understand them. For major characters I figure out 12 bits of information:
    -Age*
    -Birth date
    -Hair Colour
    -Eye Colour
    -Height
    -Build
    -Power* (I write supernatural stuff so :P)
    -Personality*
    -Background*
    -Biggest Fear*
    -Dream*
    -Motivation*

    All the things without a star are things that aren't really essential for me to understand a character but I like to know anyway. The stuff that is starred are the things that really help me to get to know my character are why they do what they do. I think it is possible to go overboard with analysing characters before writing them, because they grow with the story and sometimes things have to change and making them to rigid in their history might mess with that.

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  16. #16
    she sells seashells wax_and_wick's Avatar
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    For character creation (separate from profiles), I like the way Brandon Sanderson works. He'll throw the character an age, gender, and setting... then brainstorm two interests or concerns for the character (unrelated to each other... like "puzzles" and "taking care of pet monkey") then come up with secrets and/or yearnings that are related to the interests. For instance - that character might have the ambition of trying to teach her monkey how to solve puzzles. Or have a secret that she's trained her monkey to steal puzzles. Etc.

    What I've done recently is used this method to come up with a backstory and interests that seem real for characters. I usually come up with a main plot separately and have already placed the blank characters at points of conflict. This way, the characters have interests that are relevant to the story, without seeming to be exclusively about the story. (The secrets and/or yearnings form subplots - like... someone discovers that her monkey has been stealing puzzles and kidnaps the monkey or blackmails her... but this is all happening WHILE she confronts the main plot that also has to do with her life.)

    By the time I get to this point, I usually know quite a bit about the character's personality and history. Things just spring to mind while doing this.

    At this point, I will create a basic profile, which includes:

    Name
    Physical (includes age, race, gender if you think you'd forget it, any physical quirks like allergies, body/hair/eyes/face, and clothing)
    Psychological (personality, intellect, speech patterns, habits, quirks, skills, interests, flaws/issues, and secrets/yearnings)
    Life (history, current situation, relationships, and any belongings important to the story)
    Viewpoint (in general what types of things the character will notice in POV, what the character's perspective is)
    Character Arc (how I plan for the character to change during the book)
    Writing Notes (I leave this one blank so I can jot down anything I learn about the character while writing that I might need to remember - usually these are details... like, I won't decide a character's handedness before writing unless I can tell it will be important to the story... but if I have a character do something that suggests handedness sometime in the natural course of the story, then I'll quickly put it here)

    The name is the main heading and all the other things are sub-headings... I often do bullet points for the actual info because it's quicker for me to reference.

    I only do a profile this complete for the POV characters - anything more would take FOREVER and I advise against it. My current project has two profiles this detailed. They get leaner and leaner as I go down the list. However, I do keep note of any character I come up with while writing (bit parts like a bus driver who has a few lines, for instance) - I'll put them in my character file with their name and anything I wrote about them, and leave it at that. I do that because it's handy during revisions or if I have the character appear again - I just look for the name heading in my file instead of searching through previous chapters to know what I've already said about this person (cuts down on changing hair colors and names).

    I use these personality profiles for fantasy, btw - the magic stuff goes under psychological (skills), but I guess you could put it in different places. I usually break the psychological section into multiple sub-headings, because it's by far the most complex.

  17. #17
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    It might be useful to distinguish between a character sheet of facts referenced in the text that you probably don't want to accidentally contradict (e.g. what they look like, where they went to school, whether the scar is on the right or left) and the more probing personality profile some of us are talking about.

    The fact sheet is something that it can be handy to have easily accessible all the time & update as you go, to keep your internal continuity straight. Most writers keep notes in some form for this purpose -- you can be as freeform or structured as you like, use any tool you prefer (some people like Excel, some people like text, & there are lots of specialized products for the purpose too).

    The more in-depth personality profile is the more divisive type. People have given a bunch of good ideas above. I have sometimes found it useful to give a character some psychological tests -- there are various ones on line based on the Myers-Briggs model, & others as well. Once a character has started to take shape in my head, testing them like this is a way to discover in them some of the complexity that real people always have, and brand-new fictional people tend to lack.

    But the thing about in-depth personality profiles is that, for me, they're just a stage in my discovery process. Filling out a form, answering psych-test questions, thinking about the various aspects of the character's dreams and quirks and goals, is something that helps me figure out who the character is and how they might act or react under various conditions. And once I've done the thought-work and developed the profile to whatever level of detail I need -- I put it aside and probably never look at it again. It's done its job, and now the character has to stand on their own like anybody else. If the character develops as I write them in ways that don't completely match up to the original profile, so be it. It's a process, not a prison.

  18. #18
    practical experience, FTW JHUK's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by arthurwhitehall View Post
    Could everyone please stop stating how they don't use character profiles? It's what I want to use in my own work and I don't feel that is any more of an amateurish thing to do than carefully structuring a plot; which many famous writers do (and some don't, such as Stephen King).
    I'm in the category that USES them and I agree that it should be up to the individual to decide. I also believe in using outlines (very loose and open to change as I proceed). I would caution however that character profiles ought to be flexible, also, in case you change your mind (which should be before you get too far along, just to avoid conflicts or inconsistencies).

    As for the nay-sayers, I also agree that it feels very patronizing. If someone can write an exciting, consistent, and believable story without it, fine..... but it's more rare to carry off well than writers want to admit.
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