How to Build Character Profiles… For Writers Who Hate Planning

1. The Best Laid Plans

How Architects Build Character Profiles

When I started screenwriting I discovered my characters as I wrote them. It was fun to meet them for the first time, but when I went back to edit their personalities had problems. They seemed less like themselves in the first scenes than they did toward the end. Their dialogue drew from stoic clichés in the first act. Their voices didn’t sound distinct until the third. I decided to take screenwriting courses to help fix the problem.

George R.R. Martins says, “There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners.”

My screenwriting professor was an architect. He worked from blueprints. He had us summarize our scenes before we could write a single line of dialogue. There are only so many pages that fit into a script. That’s why he had us edit our screenplays before we ever wrote them down. Our hero needed to make an impression early on. The professor wouldn’t let us start writing our stories until we’d proven we knew who our heroes were already.

My screenwriting professor gave us a character research template with 40 questions, each with 5-10 subquestions of their own. This was the Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Index of character profiles.

It got Freudian. We needed to know the relationship between our hero and their parents, their siblings, how they were disciplined, schooled, the religion they were brought up in, their travel experiences, and their economic situation.

We needed to define our heroes’ political beliefs, even if we had no intention of airing them. We needed to dress the set of our heroes’ homes, even if our story spent no time in them. We needed to take our heroes in for a checkup, even if their health never came up.

The descriptions of our characters’ physical features needed to go way beyond their fashion sense. We needed to know the gestures they used most often, their most common facial expressions, the tonality of their voices, their manners, and their posture.

The psychological profile of our heroes ran the gamut of the Meyer-Briggs Type Indicator. We needed to know how they managed stress, without knowing what the stressors were. We needed to imagine how they dealt with errors, without knowing the circumstances. We needed to know how they coped with suffering, without knowing the causes of their pain.

The problem I had with front loading all of this character information was that it was hard to remember once I started writing. It turns out I’m not an architect.

How Gardeners Build Character Profiles 

I’m that second kind of writer George R.R. Martin was talking about: the gardener. I plant my ideas. I have a sense of the type of flower I’m nurturing, but I let it branch out in directions beyond my predictions.

My screenwriting professor’s character profiling exercise told me a lot about who my heroes were when they were sitting down. Those details changed once they were in motion. His exercise gave me a baseline for my heroes’ emotions, but did little to predict the fluctuations.

People don’t know who they really are until they’re given opportunities and faced with challenges. As a gardener, I need to see how my characters react to fertilizer and how they fair through stormy weather.

Here’s a character research exercise to help you imagine how your hero would react to things beyond their control. The goal of this is to help you build a profile that reveals who your character is when they’re outside of their comfort zone, when their nightly routine is broken, and things don’t go according to plan.

2. Hammer Time

The Party Scenario

What’s your hero’s ideal gathering look like?

  • A dinner party where everyone does their best to accurately quote scholarly articles, where drinking wine is a procedure, and there’s a special fork for every course.
  • A marathon viewing of a cult TV show where the guests come as their favorite characters and all the horderves resemble props from the series.
  • A place where the kegs are vaulting horses for inebriated athletes, where girls take turns holding their breath in each others’ mouths, and there’s a trail of red cups leading from the entryway to the boulevard.

It’s a thought experiment so feel free to come up with your own scenario. Just identify your hero’s comfort zone, so we can take them to the opposite place.

What does your hero do when they walk into a party and realize it was a mistake?

  • Do they make a beeline for the booze?
  • Do they note the locations of the bathrooms an other hiding places?
  • Do they find the one person they know and attach themselves like a barnacle?
  • Do they pretend to text on a dead phone?
  • Do they orbit the most attractive people, hoping they get invited into the group?
  • Do they stand on the porch and wait for someone else to acknowledge them?
  • Do they turn tail and run?

Where does your hero end up spending most of their time?

  • Do they camp on the couch with their head down?
  • Do they eavesdrop on a conversation waiting for an opening?
  • Do they gage the interests of the party goers so they can lie to fit in?
  • Do they think they’re hitting on someone until that person’s significant other enters the room?
  • Do they get drunk and tell jokes that aren’t suited for the room?

What is your hero’s breaking point? How much social anxiety can they take?

  • Do they feel their age, when the millennials around them reminisce about the boy bands they grew up listening to?
  • Do they get beached whale drunk and pass out on the floor?
  • Do they get up when a couple starts making out on top of them?
  • Do they get into a punch up with a jealous lover?

How do they leave?

  • Do they shake hands with everyone they spent more than a second speaking with, giving out business cards as they pass?
  • Does your hero wait for the person they came with to turn around before giving them the Batman goodbye?
  • Do they get tossed out on their ass?
  • Do they leave with the first person who hits on them?
  • Do they linger until the last cabs arrive and walk home alone?
  • Do they drive home drunk?

The point of this exercise is to help you identify your character’s social disposition, to find the core of your character on the introversion extroversion spectrum. Your hero’s reactions to a bad party should give you some idea of how they’d function in a lot of social situations.

More Scenarios to get Your Imagination Going

How would your hero deal with being pulled over when they’ve done nothing wrong?

  • Would they keep their hands at 10 and 2 and just take their ticket?
  • Would they dispute the officer’s claim?
  • Would they lay down some legal jargon?
  • Would they lay on the charm?
  • Would they presume they actually did something wrong?
  • Would they play dumb?
  • Would they pump the gas and keep going?

You can put your hero’s feelings about authority into a character profile, but it helps to imagine how things would actually play out in the real world. Who knows, you might even find an idea for scene in this.

How would your hero react to the sound of a scream coming from a dark alley?

  • Would they call 9-1-1 and then check to see what’s going on?
  • Would they charge in that direction, never mind the odds against them?
  • Would they gather a crowd to go in at once?
  • Would they throw a rock through a shop window to trigger a security alarm?
  • Would they keep their head down, move on, and spend the night telling themselves they didn’t hear what they thought they heard?

What kind of hero are you working with? Are they a coward, action oriented, or levelheaded? Imagine the same scenario again, but this time the odds are stacked against them. If the rush into the alley with the intention of fighting they’ll lose. If they run the authorities will not respond in time. How does your hero react now? Do they bargain with the attackers? Do they appeal to the attackers sense of reason? Do they work out some kind of con?

3. It All Falls Down

Characters Should Be Defined by Actions

Come up with your own version of one of these scenarios and run your characters through it. If a few of them do the exact same thing, combine them. If the entire cast does the same thing you need to tweak them. You need a diversity of personalities to keep the conflict going.

If you’ve already written a draft ask yourself if your hero would answer your questions the same way when they’re introduced as they would in the end. If their answers differ make sure the story justifies the change in their opinions.

Your hero’s past, physical features, mannerisms, and surroundings matter, but their actions matter more. Research your hero’s personality in order to predict their behavior. Come up with your own guided meditation challenge course and put your hero through the rigor. Then you’ll know who you’re actually working with.

As the old Gotham Proverb goes, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”

12 thoughts on “How to Build Character Profiles… For Writers Who Hate Planning”

  1. I actually think both the architectural and gardening approach work well in tandem. Does one need to fill out hundreds of questions on forms in order to be an architect? No. (And I might argue that, if you do, you may not be in the right profession as a writer.) But some of the most common errors I see writers making are errors in internal validity. In fact, it’s actually a little frightening to me how many people write stories or even entire books, yet when I bring up problems with internal validity, they respond with, “What’s that?”

    In short, I tell them, “You have to know your character intimately before writing them, or they will come off as fakes.” Where internal validity of character is breached, readers just know, even if they can’t pinpoint why. Readers don’t care about characters who lack a sense of real cohesion. And as you point out, Drew, even if you never let your readers know about a character’s background or what he’d do at a party “off screen,” YOU’D darned well better know! Otherwise, attention gets off the characters and onto the writer, a palpable presence who is “trying to write what a character would be like” rather than showing us a viable character we care about.

    Some of the simplest writing advice is the best: “Show, don’t tell.” If you say, “Joe was so angry that he …,” I the reader will feel anything but angry. Let me see Joe in action and assess for myself that he is angry (or question whether this is anger, desperation, fear or something else). Let me experience it vicariously and I’ll stay with Joe.

    Well done as ever, Drew. I’m off to recommend this read to a few specific friends …

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