On Writing: How To Use a Character Profile

Lately I’ve been coming across many different character-building worksheets, both online and in how-to-write books, but one point most fail to mention is how to use the biographies you create.

Knowing your characters’ families, friends, education, jobs, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, goals, regrets, fears, desires, needs, might help you define your characters, but the real benefit of character biographies is to help you create the story.

It’s not enough simply to know what your hero believes, for example. If the belief doesn’t add anything important to the development of the story or the development of the hero’s character, it’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s not enough simply to know the hero’s background. If it isn’t important for the reader to know, if nothing is gained by its inclusion, if nothing is lost by its omission, then that, too, is barely worth mentioning.

On the other hand, if your story goes stale halfway through the book, you can mine both the hero’s beliefs and background for additional conflicts.

More than that, though, a well-constructed character biography can tell you what your story is and where it is going.

When you know your hero’s main goal, you will find the beginning of a plot line. When you know what will make the goal’s attainment the most difficult for the hero, you will find the central obstacle in the story. And when you know your hero’s greatest strength, you can figure out how your hero will eventually overcome the obstacle.

By exploiting your character’s greatest fear, you will be able to draw the most depth from your character because, of course, your hero must confront this fear or else you miss the point of your own story.

Through knowing your character’s weaknesses, regrets, needs, desires, vulnerabilities, you will find inner conflicts, subtexts, subplots, and all the bits of drama that pull readers into your world.

As your story progresses, you may find in your hero’s biography untapped wells of strength, previously undisclosed facts that might alter the situation, even characters from the hero’s past who might take unexpected and relevant action.

Most of all, a biography can help keep you focused on your character’s goals. It can help you avoid annoying little inconsistencies such as hazel eyes on page ten and blue or brown on page one hundred and ten. It can help you create a character arc because you will know which traits are static (an intelligent person doesn’t suddenly become stupid for no reason), and you will know which traits can show the character’s growth (perhaps a fear of commitment that becomes a willingness to commit).

But most of all, the biography tells you the story because character is so entwined with plot that it’s impossible to create one without the other.

Click here for a character questionaire to help you create a profile for your character.

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Storytelling and Storytellers

My previous post about goals (my 100th post, by the way) made me consider my goals and how they pertain to my work-in-progress.

I haven’t been adding many new pages to the novel. I realized Chip my hero believed the accounts of the world coming to an end, yet when he came home from work to find his mother gone, he didn’t think anything of it, just assumed she finally went back to her place. I’ve been spending the past few days reworking the first chapters so that he stops believing the accounts long enough to make his blasé attitude believable.

I could have waited until I finished the first draft to do the rewrite, but I need a solid foundation on which to build my story, or I lose my focus. As I get deeper into the story, I will be making other changes, but for the moment I am satisfied that Chip, at least, no longer believes the world is ending. Now when readers get to the place where Chip comes home to find his mother gone, they won’t roll their eyes at his stupidity, or worse: slam the book on my stupidity.

Although we constantly change our minds or act on a whim, we cannot allow our characters the same leeway. Everything they do must be motivated, or else the story falls apart. Because I have a silly premise, I have to be particularly vigilant.

Yesterday I started to read a book where the main character got fired first thing. Besides that beginning being as much of a cliché as a dream or a weather report, it wasn’t believable. Well, the firing was believable, perhaps even the boss suggesting that the woman find herself a rich husband by attending funerals was believable. What wasn’t believable was the fired woman saying no way and then, for no apparent reason, deciding to do it. It wouldn’t have taken much to motivate her; looking for a job and not finding one would have done it for me. But the author, who should have known better, had her acting on a whim. That’s when he lost me, which was okay since it meant I didn’t have to waste any more time plowing through his self-conscious prose.

Many writers today, especially new writers trying to get published, think they don’t have to follow the rules of storytelling. Perhaps not. In the end, who am I to say? All I know is that to keep from jerking their readers out of the reality they are creating, writers must make sure their plots are interesting, characters real, actions motivated.

Even more than being a good writer, I want to be a good storyteller. If I follow those simple rules, maybe someday I will achieve my goal.

We Read Fiction to Make Sense of Life’s Disorder

Life is often disordered, but fiction cannot be. We read fiction to make sense of life’s disorder, and we demand that things make sense. No matter how well ordered the rest of the plot, when a stranger comes and simply hands the hero the one element he needs to complete his mission, we feel cheated. The hero should have to work for his goals.

This same order must be inherent in every bit of the book, characters as well as plot. Foolish and spontaneous actions, arbitrary decisions and behavior make the story unbelievable. A character can’t simply wake up one morning with a desire to change jobs, or go on a quest, or hunt for a murderer. While such whims are a part of our lives, they are not part of fictional characters’ lives. All their decisions must be motivated.

A character can wake up one morning with a desire to change jobs, for example, but the author needs to add a few words to explain why: a quarrel with a boss, a promised promotion that doesn’t materialize, a backbiting co-worker. If a character must quit on a whim, the author has to establish motive from within the character. Perhaps the character always acts on whim, in which case the author needs to show that. Or perhaps it’s June; the scents seeping in the open window remind the character of the long summer days of childhood, and he has an overwhelming need to experience that freedom again.

Readers will believe almost anything an author wants them to believe, as long as it is motivated.

At the beginning of my book, More Deaths Than One, (which can be seen by clicking on the My First Chapters link off to the right) I have Kerry, a graveyard-shift waitress, showing an interest in Bob, the quiet hero, who stopped by the coffee shop every night for a hot chocolate. I always thought it was enough that she was bored and was playing games with him, trying to get him to talk, but a reader told me she found Kerry’s motivation for involving herself with Bob a bit thin.

Because Bob is debilitated by headaches and nightmares, I need Kerry to push him into action when he discovers that the mother he buried twenty years ago is dead again and that he has a doppelganger living what could have been his life. If her motivation for involving herself with Bob isn’t believable, then the whole book falls apart.

I thought I was finished with Bob and Kerry. More Deaths Than One was the first book I wrote, also the third and the fifth, and now it looks like it might be the seventh.

In life, as in fiction, we have to work for our goals, but I wouldn’t mind if a stranger came and simply handed me a publishing contract.