Have you been told your characters are one or two-dimensional? Perhaps you’re having trouble weaving your character arc or connecting those characters to your plot. The answer could be as simple as that you don’t know your main character well enough.
Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle of your story, and all of a sudden, you’re stuck. You don’t know where to go next. Something isn’t working, but you aren’t quite sure what. Maybe the plotline you thought was genius isn’t coming together as you planned. Maybe your character arc has flat-lined.
Perhaps you want to blame it on writer’s block, but that’s not your problem. If you’re experiencing any of these issues, stop where you are! Open to a blank page and create a character profile.
If you don’t know who your character is inside and out, how can you expect your readers to believe that character could walk off the page and into their lives? And if you can’t do that, how can you expect your readers to get fully immersed in your story?
And if you can’t bring your readers into the world you’ve created, a good story will never become a great one.
Answer the following questions about your main character and by the time your character profile is complete, you’ll more than likely be sprinting back to your WIP (work in progress) with a multitude of new ideas.
1. The first thing to decide is what role your character will play in your story. In other words, what type of character are they? Antagonist or protagonist? Family member, friend, love interest?
2. Is your character male or female? Or is the line blurred there? Perhaps they’re neither or both. Another species as in an alien? Human, animal, or artificial intelligence? Elf, fairy, vampire, werewolf...?
3. What is the character’s full name? If they are a major character, and human-based, don’t expect to get by with a first name only. Of course, there’s an exception to this for some genres, like a children’s book, for example.
4. What does your character look like? And don’t think you can skip this one! Your readers want to know hair color, eye color, height, body type? Give your reader a physical description, at least enough for your readers to get that visual. I know I harp on this, but that’s only because it’s so damn important.
The majority of readers are what I call visual readers. They need to be able to visualize the characters and the scene in order to truly become immersed in the story. So even if you are of the minority, don’t short the most substantial part of your audience. For those few readers who don’t care about descriptions, they’ll simply skip over those parts, and as long as you don’t slow your pacing while giving the rest of us what we need, those few readers won’t mind a bit. However, if you fail to provide those descriptions altogether, or fail to give us visual readers enough, we won’t get the connection we need. Which means we probably won’t become fully invested in the characters, and may very likely stop reading. So, do yourself a favor and your readers too. Spend just a little page time and make an effort.
5. Does your character have any physical limitations? Disabilities? Medical or mental issues? Are they health conscious, and do they exercise daily? Perhaps they’re a runner or swimmer. Couch potato?
6. How old is your character? The importance of this question really goes without saying. And when is their birthday? Even if you don’t believe in the whole sun sign thing, a character’s birth date could possibly end up playing a role in the story. It could have something to do with their personality in some way, like always feeling cheated because their birthday coincides with a major holiday. Or perhaps a birthday celebration plays into a scene.
7. Does the character have any siblings, and if so, what is their birth order? Are they the oldest, youngest, middle child? Speaking as a middle child myself, I can attest to this definitely playing a role in personality. And is the character married or in a committed relationship? Does the character have children of their own?
8. Where is your character from—where did they grow up? Locale plays a huge part in creating who we are. Somewhere other than the United States, for instance? Or if we’re talking the U.S., are they from the East Coast, West Coast, or Middle America? City, country, or rural? Beach, mountains or somewhere in between? Again, this can play a huge role in determining personality, morals, values, etc.
9. What’s your character’s religion, or don’t that have one? And once you decide the answer to this question, ask yourself, why?
10. Does the character have any pets? Are they a dog person, cat person, or both? Farmer or rancher? Maybe none of the above. Whatever the answer, this is another simple question that can determine a large part of a character’s personality and play a massive role in character arc and/or plot.
11. Is your character vegetarian or vegan? Meat or plant-eater? Do they have any allergies? Any particular foods they dislike or ones they favor?
12. What does your character do for a living, or do they work at all? And what is their income and education level? If they’ve had higher education, where did they go to school? Are they considered rich, poor, or somewhere in between? Blue-collar or white-collar? Answering these questions may also dictate their mode of transportation. Do they own a vehicle, and if so, what kind?
13. All of the above brings us to, what is your character’s real backstory? You’ve just built a good portion of their backstory by answering one through twelve. The character’s backstory may not necessarily come out in the actual story itself, or perhaps only a little of it will. But you as the author should know that backstory regardless. If you understand what makes the character who they are today, it will be much easier to get that across to your reader. And that backstory will be needed to answer many of the following questions. So ask yourself, what kind of life has your character experienced so far?
14. What is your character’s motive? Now that you know their backstory, you should be able to answer this question. A character’s motivation is key to your plot. For instance, is the character trying to find love or carry out a successful jewelry heist? Or foil one?
15. What is your character’s greatest desire? What do they want—what matters to them? The character’s greatest desire can dictate internal or external conflicts in the story. Will they ever find that love of their life, or will they end up heartbroken and alone? Will they pull off the greatest con job this world has ever seen, or will they end up in prison? A character’s desire is key to the character arc. Going after that desire creates change or growth.
16. What are your character’s values? Is it family? A successful career? Again, look at their backstory.
17. What does your character most value in others? And what do they least like about others? The answers to these questions can play into their desires or motivation. Think plot.
18. What does your character most like about themselves, and what do they least like about themselves? Think character arc here. Again, growth and change.
19. What are your character’s flaws? No one is perfect, and your characters shouldn’t be either. Give your readers some way to identify with your character—make the character real. And don’t just think physical flaws. Consider emotional or psychological flaws as well.
20. Lastly, what are your character’s fears? And how do they react when faced with those fears? Consider both plot and character arc here.
If you’ve successfully addressed all of the above, congratulations! You’ve got a fully-rounded, three-dimensional character, and I’m willing to bet you’ve also got dozens of new ideas!