Ann Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye—
“How’s Mr. Hogan’s book coming along?”
“He’s got this really fine buddy I’m reading about,” I told her. “Really fine. You know: just a really, really fine buddy.”
If I’m going to tell you about an adventure I had, I’m not going to start with my first memory and work my way forward until I arrive at the adventure. Just the same, the entirety of my life will factor into my story, as the entirety of my experiences brought about and shaped how I reacted to each individual experience. The sum of my days color how I perceived the adventure, how I view it in retrospect, even how I tell it.
We are products of our past. The same is true of our characters. Like people who enter our lives, they don’t come factory-ready, hermetically sealed. When we, their creators, become versed in the past and future that extend beyond their shining moment in our stories, we find an essence we can bring to life and intimately acquaint with our readers.
“Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw … the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.”
To flesh out our characters, we need to know them like we know ourselves. Where did they come from? Who and what influenced their psyches? What do they look like, sound like, smell like? By building a character profile for the major players in our stories, we’ll ground ourselves in a knowledge that, in real life, accumulates with years of interaction.
Start with the basics.
- NAME: Does he have a nickname he’s embarrassed by? Include any nicknames he answers to. Make sure the name creates the right mental image of your character; a Bill causes a completely different image than a Byron. (See By Any Other Name).
- HEIGHT & WEIGHT: How tall is your character? Is he slight, wiry, plump, muscular?
- FACE: Does he look his age? Does he have any scars or distinguishing marks?
- COMPLEXION: Is his coloring olive, peachy, coffee-toned? Does he have rosacia or tend to flush?
- EYES: Color, shape. What is the look in his eyes—hard, nervous, dreamy? Does he wear glasses or contacts, have 20/40 vision?
- HAIR: Note the color of hair, as well as the style. Is it long, curly, short, spike, does he wear it shaved in a Mohawk? Is it thinning, prematurely gray?
- CARRIAGE: Does he have an unusual walk or posture? How about any trademark gestures? Does he talk with his hands, etc.?
- FASHION SENSE: Does he wear a black trench coat, a navy blazer with brass buttons, a Nehru jacket? Any jewelry? A lucky charm or religious artifact?
- SPEAKING STYLE: Is he outspoken, reserved, waffle on his opinions, meander from point to point? Does he stammer when he’s nervous or begin to ramble on? Does he use slang, have a particular dialogue tag that punctuates his speak? Does he speak a dialect specific to a region? What are his dialogue traits or habits? [For instance, Lost’s Sawyer was a nickname generator.]
Your character’s place of birth, family of origin, and early years have influenced who he is. To lay out a blueprint for his personality and psychological foundation, survey his past.
- City or town, its character and relation to the world at large
- Character of his neighborhood, his haunts
- What did his house look like? How was it furnished? Did he share a bedroom? What was his favorite possession?
- What was his hometown culture?
Family and Childhood
- Mother, personality/type of parent, occupation, etc.
- Father, personality/type of parent, occupation, etc.
- Family income level
- Family culture (provincial, worldly, etc.). If different from the hometown culture, how does this difference affect the family and your character?
- Siblings, birth order (pecking order), personalities, roles
- Significant adult relationship (parental figure, extended family, teacher, coach)?
- Best friend(s)
- Other friends
- Any childhood bullies/ enemies?
- What is his best memory?
- What is his worst memory? The death of a parent, the betrayal of a friend? *
* If you script a traumatic incident in the character’s formative years, sometime between the ages of six to twelve, you can create an emotionally charged turning point that has since clouded his worldview and continues to impact his life. This will also give you an impression of before and after images—or rather, what his eventual healing will look like.
(See Plot Development: The Hole)
- School, attitude towards it and performance
- Sports, clubs, school involvements
- Important or influential events
Present Day Personality & Status
- OCCUPATION: Does he have an occupation?
- ATTACHMENT: Is he single, married, divorced, widowed, married but looking?
- GENERAL DEMEANOR: How does he carry himself and come across to others? Is he easy-going, uptight, moody? Is he introverted, guarded, extroverted? Optimistic, pessimistic, indifferent?
- WORLDVIEW: Describe the perspective from which your character sees and interprets the world. (Worldview refers to the core beliefs that orientate a person in his world and dictate his perceptions, values, emotions, and ethics.)
- Does he believe in destiny? Futility? Live and let live?
- Does he subscribe to the tenets of a religious faith?
- Is he conscious of a personal philosophy?
- What prejudices does he have? Does he consider himself superior to people who haven’t read Shakespeare? Does he have contempt for the rich, the poor, the ignorant?
- Does he have an allegiance to a cause bigger than himself?
- What, if any, are his political affiliations?
- What are his pet peeves?
- BEST QUALITIES: List three or four of his best qualities.
- WORST QUALITIES: Is he a gossip, irredeemably late for every date?
- WEAKNESSES: Does he have trouble getting along with people? Does he struggle with authority? Is he overly submissive? Absent minded
- HOBBIES, FREETIME, ENJOYMENTS, TASTES: What kind of music does he like? Is he a sports fan? Does he read? What does he read? What are his favorite foods? Does he drink, drive fast, do recreational drugs? What does he do when he feels stressed?
- TALENTS: Can he cook? Keep a secret? Throw knives?
- REGRETS: Does he regret a past experience, either something done to him or something done by him? Is he the type to regret a given event or does he believe the past is the past?
- ACCOMPLISHMENTS: What is he most proud of and most ashamed of?
These questions pertain to the character’s life prior to the inciting incident that turns his world on end.
- FUTURE: What is the protagonist’s personal goal or dream?
- MOTIVATION: What fuels the sum of his actions—the need for acceptance, recognition, love, revenge, power, or the desire for control, fame, respect? (See Human Need & Motivation.)
- OBSTACLES: What stands in his way, either internally or externally?
- STAKES: What does he stand to lose if he neglects or fails to achieve his goal?
- FLAW: On a personal level (man against world, not man against plot), what is the source of his potential downfall? Is he aware of it? If he could change one thing about himself, what would it be?
- MASKS: How does he mask his fears, faults, insecurities?
- CRISIS: What his response to crisis? What does he does when he’s angry? How does he deal sadness, conflict, change, jealousy, hurt?
- AFFECTIONS/ LOYALTIES: Who does he love above all others? How does this affection influence his life decisions?
- AVERSIONS: Who does he dislike? How strong is this dislike? Does he hate so-n-so? Does he act against the source of his dislike (take an offensive posturing) or merely steer clear of whomever?
- POSSESSIONS: Is he a hoarder? Does he have a cherished item? How important is money to him? If he came into a windfall, what would he do with the money? Does he derive a sense of self or confidence in the things he owns?
- PERCEPTION OF SELF: How does he view himself? How does he think others view him? Does he have a false self-belief?
- EMOTIONAL DISPOSITION: How does he relate to other characters? Is he reticent, demonstrative, wary, naive? What is his emotional health? His emotional energy level, etc? Does he have any false assumptions regarding the people he comes in contact with? Does he have any inordinate expectations of others? How does he react when his expectations aren’t met?
It isn’t necessary to provide answers to every question, nor is it needful to supply your story with every facet of your characters make up and background. The Character Profile is merely a way to get to know the people you’re planning to write about. Once you’ve filled out a profile for each, you’ll know your major characters well enough to draw them consistently and with enough vitality that they’ll ring true to your readers.