Character Profile Sheets
I thought I would write a quick article on this literary tool that may be as helpful to others as it is for me. I often forget about sketching out my characters when I am in the middle of getting a story idea down on paper as quickly as I can. But the character profile sheet is something that I need to make use of from time to time, when I feel like a character is getting lost.
Losing, misplacing, or passing characters by (that feeling where you simply can't get a proper grasp on the character you're trying to write) is not something that necessarily happens to all writers: I know that J.K. Rowling said of Harry Potter that he just walked into her head fully formed. Well, that's lucky for her, but it is not very useful for the rest of us. I did spend a little time, when I first started writing my novel, waiting for my hero/heroine to walk into my head fully formed. I waited. And I waited. I looked at my watch. I waited a little more. After a few weeks of this pointless wondering, I began to realize that he or she was not going to turn up, and that I was going to have to do something about it myself. You can't really have a novel without a hero (unless you're William Makepeace Thackeray, and even he was not really being truthful, because we all know that Becky Sharpe is the hero of Vanity Fair).
So I began to write the story anyway, and decided that the hero could join the party later. I wrote a couple of chapters without him at first. Then I felt ready to open the door to him. I sketched him in, quite roughly at first, gave him some lines to say, moved him around the set a little. He did start to take shape, began to grow some hair and got dressed (you can't have a naked character roaming around for too long, especially in a book that's going to be read by children, it's not right), bought himself a bike, got a job, developed a wishy washy sort of personality. But I always felt that he wasn't quite right. I was guessing at what he was like, allowing him to decide when he was ready to share bits of himself with me. Well, this was just not working - actually, it has not been working for almost three years! This poor hero has had some kind of multiple personality disorder, which would have been fine if that was what I had intended; unfortunately, I did really need him to just have the one persona. He was shy one minute, and cocky the next, knowledgeable about lots of things, but also stupid in the extreme. He really was a very mixed up little fella.
I looked at some of the personality transplants that he had gone through over the chapters, and chose one or two to play with. Firstly I tried on his likeable, confident, handsome, studious and incredibly witty skin; I expect you will be able to tell immediately that these traits could not work at all in anything that has been written by me, such a person just would not fit, being far too annoyingly perfect. No. So I tried an arrogant, obnoxious, know-it-all sort of temperament; fun as that might have been, it did not suit the story at all. Having tried only those two extremes I began to realise that just rewriting and rewriting my principal character was going to result in me taking at least twenty-five years to finish the book, and was rather a hit and miss sort of method.
Yesterday, (honestly, just yesterday) I remembered that I had created some character profile sheets. For some reason I had never completed one for this particular hero, but I knew that I had nothing to lose in filling one out right now. I began. His name. Well, I had thought that I'd chosen the correct name about two and half years ago; however, another name suggested itself to me, and I wrote it down. It fit. And just like that, things became clearer! All this time my hero had been hiding behind the wrong name. I filled in the rest of the sheet, and the categories, though they may present themselves as being dull and irrelevant, did actually make me think about the character I was trying to create more seriously. I had to make decisions as to his clothing, his politics, his education, his love life, his beliefs, and as a result the personality began to coagulate if you like, it all came together in a nice mouldable lump that is more easily workable. Before I filled in the sheet my boy's character had been something like the consistency of a crumble mixture, but post-sheet it held together like a very nice shortcrust pastry. Much better.
I borrowed my categories from several 'How To Write...' books, choosing the items that I thought would reveal the most about my characters. But you can build a character profile sheet to meet your own needs of course. Here is a sample of one of mine:
- Address (this might seem unnecessary, and by all means, leave it out, but for me it helps to build a mental map of towns, streets, etc.)
- Age and DOB (one little detail that you might never mention, but perhaps you, as the author, just need to know this information)
- Physical Appearance (for you, it may not be necessary to know what your characters look like, you may be happy to leave these particulars blank and allow the reader to fill the details of appearance in for themselves - for some characters I leave lots to the imagine, but for others I prefer to be very definite)
- Distinguishing features (you know, like a single long fingernail, such as those sported by Bond baddies - you never know, it might prove to be important)
- Clothing (this might help to find out a bit extra about their personality, their attitudes, their income, etc.)
- Walk (this may be a category that for some characters you will leave blank, but for others you will need to sketch out, for example, if they walk with a limp, or if they are always hunched over and hiding their face from the world)
- Tone of Voice (their voice might never be elaborated on in your book, but it might be necessary for you to think of it when you write dialogue)
- Status and Money
- Marital Status
- Diction/Accent (you might not need this one, which is different from tone of voice, but if, like me, you do read in accents, this point might be essential for you to consider)
- Relationships (this deals with every kind of relationship that your character might already have, and new ones that might develop on their journey through the story)
- Places to be (home/office/school/car/bus - anywhere that you might put them)
- Recreational Interests
- Sexual History (for a children's book, this is hardly relevant, but if you're not writing for children this might be useful)
- Attitudes (Obsessions, beliefs, politics, ambitions, religion, superstitions, fears, might be all lumped together into one heading called 'view of the world', but I find it useful to break them all up and think about them individually)
- Character flaws
- Character strengths
- Pets (you never know, this might be important somewhere down the line!)
- Taste in books, music, etc.
- Food preferences (there's usually food in a story)
- Handwriting (you might not bother with this one, but I like it - I usually do a little sample of what the character's handwriting might be like, and it's surprisingly revealing, though I have no idea why)
This is all very prescriptive, and you can take it or leave it. And indeed, for some of my characters I don't seem to need to do any extra thinking about their personalities or their appearances, because I do already seem to know everything about them. You can add more categories, take some out, have as many as you like; it won't hurt to have plenty of information at your disposal, even if you find that you never use most of it.
Also, incidentally, I find the odd pencil sketch to be useful, if I can manage it. But since I'm not actually very artistic any more (I used to be, but I stopped practising) sketches are not just something I can do whenever I feel like it, I can only do them when I have a specific something in mind. If you have a talented brother, as I do, you might ask him to do some sketches for you.