My Take on Writing Part 2: Profiling

To me, profiling characters is one of the most important parts of writing. And I’m not talking about profiling in terms of that controversial practice that has received media attention. No, I’m talking about drafting a profile of the characters that go into a novel. If this type of profiling isn’t done, then the novel as a whole will suffer.

I learned all about profiling when I was taking a writing course several years ago. One of my assignments was to pick a character from a novel I’d written and just free write about every single thing I could think of about her. And I mean everything. What she looked like. What she liked to eat. What drove her to a particular point. Her strengths and weaknesses.

The reason this should be done? Taking the time to discover these things about the characters in a novel adds depth that cannot be addressed simply through plot. And readers like depth. Remember that conflicts can come from characters, and the only way to set up this conflict is to know the character.

Okay. So this may seem daunting. Quite frankly, I found the same thing to be true when I did that exercise. My first thought was, “I can come up with enough stuff to fill three pages?” It turns out I did that and more. So here is what I recommend to do:

1. Pick your main characters. Profiling doesn’t have to be done for every single character in a novel. If that were the case, then I’d spend all of my time writing about characters and none drafting the novel itself. Instead, pick the top three or four main characters. Definitely do the protagonist and antagonist at a minimum.

2. Set up a template. Determine what you want to look at for all of your characters. Here are some ideas I’ve come up with: Looks, personality, daily schedule, likes/dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, childhood (up through age 18), adulthood, faith walk, romantic history… The list can go on and on, as much as you wish. I like to use a profile because that way I’m consistent in what I examine for each character.

3. Draft the character profile: For each of the main characters discussed in Step 1, complete the profile. Take the time to really think about each of the topics in the template. Pages should be written about each. After completing the profiles, I think you’ll find that your characters take on a depth that will add richness to the novel.

Do keep some things in mind.

First, all characters have both good and bad traits. Just as all characters have strengths and weaknesses, all characters have good and bad traits, including the antagonists. I know. I know. It’s easy to think that antagonists are all bad. But they’re not. They may have some redeeming traits in them, even if they’re very faint. For example, one of my antagonists (actually, one of my favorite characters), is definitely someone I wouldn’t want to tangle with. He’s dangerous, for lack of a better term. Yet he also has a bizarre compassion that shows itself at strange times.

Second, characters can change. Just because you have a profile of a character doesn’t mean that their personality will be the same as you initially anticipated. Instead, as you write the novel, you may find that they seem to take a personality that you haven’t expected. That’s okay. Let it happen, as these changes may be minor. If they become major, then be sure to update your profile. For example, in a novel that I’ve written and rewritten, I discovered that my leading man had a dramatically different faith history than I anticipated. So I took the time to go back and redraft as necessary his profile. I found that it’s immensely helped me in picturing how he’d react.

Okay. So I’ve provided you with some good ideas on how to do a character profile. I think that if you take the time to do this step, your novel will be all the more richer for it.

Next up: Plotting and Timelines

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