Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Writing Tip #6 - Character Profiles


Do you know what’s in your protagonist’s wallet – how much money, which credit cards, pictures of who? How much do they have in their checking account? Will he wear socks that have a hole in the toe? Will she look into the medicine cabinet at her friend’s house? Do they check out online porn sites? What is their favorite song, flavor of ice cream, cocktail? What was her/his main fear growing up? Which parent did they love most? What is the main driving force in their life, the thing that burns in their belly? What is the thing they are most afraid of? Do they really believe in God or do they just give religion lip service. Who was their first love, their first sexual experience? What habit does their lover have that drives them up a wall?


If you can’t answer these questions, then you don’t know enough about your main characters. Each character has a backstory that drives that character’s motivations and actions. You as a write must know that backstory intimately, even though 90% of it will not show up in the story you are writing. It is all these character traits that determine how your characters will act, what decisions they make, which way they will jump. It’s not enough to know John loves Adam. The writer must know what it is about Adam that attracts John, and why, and also what Adam does the burns John’s ass. To give a character depth, you must know them as well as you know yourself, and certainly better than they know themselves. You are their God, and you see all the way into their heart. Nothing can hide from you.

If you don’t take the time to know your characters – all your main characters – they will seem shallow, one-dimensional. Most readers quickly lose interest in shallow characters. The following is a starting point that I sometimes use in getting to know a character. I’ve known writer who write 30-50 page character profiles. I think that’s overkill, but each writer is different. For minor characters this will probably be enough. For key characters, you will want to add much more meat to the skeleton below. It takes me months to work out an important player, but the following is what I use to start that process.


Physiology:
Sex: Male
Age: 28 H&W: 6’2”, 185
Coloring: Black eyes, black hair, amber skin.
Posture: Dignified, slender yet somewhat muscular, meticulously groomed, stylish clothes.
Defects: none.
Heredity: American-Chinese, second generation.

Sociology:
Class: Lower – wore hand-me-downs until he was thirteen. Family works a farm in Lodi. Put himself through school on scholarships.
Occupation: Doctor.
Education: Just graduated medical school with honors.
Home Life: Lives in an apartment near campus with his lover, Campbell Reardon. He has very little money and depends on Campbell’s money to get by. He doesn’t keep in touch with his parents, who tossed him out because he was gay.
Religion: He is too preoccupied with his personal goals to think about a higher power. Although he has read books on Buddhism and is interested in learning more.
Race: American born Chinese. He takes after his mother in looks and temperament.
Community: He feels comfortable in the medical community and the gay community. He is not ashamed of his family’s humble life, but he is determined to be successful. He doesn’t like the limelight, and doesn’t like to be in groups.
Politics: Flaming liberal. Green all the way. Thinks Bush should be tried for war crimes against humanity for the Iraq invasion.
Hobbies: A voracious reader of detective stores, but he always reads the last five pages first, then reads the book. Plays tennis, which is how he met Campbell.

Psychology:
Character Type: Hero – He’s not perfect, but confident about his skills and takes actions without hesitation. He is the bright side of human nature.
Sex Life: Openly gay. He believes in monogamous relationships. He loves his partner, Campbell, and wants them to marry.
Morality: Anything goes, but there is no need to flaunt it or hide it.
Ambition: He wants to serve the community by being a pediatric doctor. Although he dreams about going into research and finding a cure for cancer or AIDS, he has a deep feeling of wanting to help children. .
Temperament: Fun-loving. He likes having fun and making other people happy.
Frustrations: The fact that Campbell refuses to come out. Winston wants to live in an open, loving gay relationship with Campbell, but Campbell is afraid of his family finding out.
Contradictions: He wants to support Campbell and his family, yet he wants Campbell to be open about their relationship.
I.Q.: Much higher than normal, but he consciously tries not to flaunt it.
Superstitions: Things always happen in threes. No such thing as luck – you get what you want by working hard for it. He wears a lucky coin his mother once gave him, but not for the luck. He also puts much faith in Chinese medicine, particularly Acupressure and Acupuncture.
1st love: His boyfriend, Campbell. They have lived together for months, and Winston wants to take it the next step: marriage.
Sanctuary: The pediatric ward. He loves spending his time helping the children.
Favorite Color: Blue, the color of Campbell’s eyes.
Favorite Music: Cool jazz, but also likes Italian opera.
Drug of choice: Gray Goose Vodka.
Ruling Passion: He will do anything not to hurt the people he loves, even if it means tremendous self-sacrifice.
Fatal Flaw: He expects the world, and especially his family, to revolve around him because he is doing what is – in his mind - right.
His Problem: He wants desperately to marry Campbell, but Campbell is going down a path that will tear them apart.
His transition: He comes to realize that he has the knowledge to expose Blake to keep Campbell from leaving him, but to do that, he will certainly hurt Campbell as well. He decides to give up Campbell rather than hurt him.

Six Key Questions:
1. Is he the protagonist? Yes.
2. What does he want? He wants to marry Campbell and live openly while treating children and helping the community.
3. Why does he want it? Because he feels he should have every right that straight people have, to marry the person he loves.
4. What happens if he fails? He will be crushed, but he won’t slink away to the closet.
5. How does he change? He realizes that living openly, and raising a family is more important to him than Campbell.
6. What is he most afraid of? Losing his integrity.

2 comments:

Harper Kingsley said...

You make me worry that I don't know enough about my characters. This has been really helpful, and now I'm going to go make up some character profiles of my own.

Thank you.

Erastes said...

I'm almost embarrassed, with this very knowledgable post, to say that I rarely know anything at all about my characters when I start to write. I started out doing "what I'd seen was the thing to do" and trying to make character templates and fact sheets but I simply couldn't do it.

I have to get to know the characters at the same speed as the reader, so with Standish all I had was a guy sitting at a desk and as the "camera" moved in we found out what he looked like and it wasn't until he started thinking and talking that I found out more about him.

Similarly the guy I'm writing now, he started out as just a guy sitting in a carriage going over the last ten years of his life, now I know he's got a mother with dementia and he's painfully shy! But not a lot else yet. It's just the way it works for me.