As has often been suggested in previous posts, well-developed characters are the lifeblood of any story. Even stories rooted in plot-centered genres such as action adventure, require that we care about the characters we are reading about or are watching on the screen, if we are to care about the story at all. Learning to craft fictional characters is a life-long endeavour; it draws on our personal growth as we journey through life, learning from our actions, both good and bad. There are, however, specific techniques that we, as writers, may immediately use to improve our craft. One such technique is the Character Profile.
A character profile is a grouping of elements that work together to deepen the depth, complexity, and verisimilitude of a character. In this post we shall examine six of the most important ones: Basic traits, want vs. need, opposing elements, secrets, flaws, and uniqueness.
1. Basic Traits
Fictional characters usually have three or four basic traits that help shape their actions. In the movie, Rocky, for example, the protagonist is a hardworking journeyman boxer whose toughness, and relentless determination to take whatever the opponent can throw at him help to propel him to a world heavyweight championship fight.
2. Want vs. Need
As discussed in a previous post, what a character wants is not always what he or she needs. In fact, some of the most interesting characters are forged out of this opposition. A want is usually manifested through the pursuit of an outer goal, while a need is often obfuscated by that very goal. Rocky ostensibly wants to go the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world. What he needs, however, is to defend and bolster his self-respect by taking everything the champion throws at him.
3. Opposing Elements
Inner conflict arising out of waring elements, makes for more interesting characters. In Unforgiven, William Manny (Clint Eastwood), a cold blooded killer in his youth, is reformed by his loving wife, now dead, who still continues to exercise an influence over him beyond the grave. In accepting a job to kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute, Manny repeatedly asserts that his wife has cured him of his evil ways, and he has only agreed to take on the job in an attempt to dispense justice and make a fresh start for his children from the reward money.
4. Keeping Secrets
Someone with a secret makes for a far more engaging character. Secrets sow the seeds of suspense, surprise, and subplot, allowing the writer to craft situations that are inherently more engaging and resonant. In the film, Chinatown, Evelyn Mulwray ‘s (Faye Dunaway) dialogue and actions resonate with a terrible secret—that her daughter is also her sister, a result of an act of incest perpetrated by her own father. It is only when Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, (and the audience) learns of this towards the end of the film that he is able to fully understand the reason for her odd and seemingly deceitful behavior.
5. The Flaw
A character with a flaw seems more human, allowing the writer to play his strengths off against his weaknesses, heightening the inner and outer conflict. In the Shakespearean play, Macbeth, the protagonist is a brave and courageous man who has one damning flaw — overriding ambition. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of others, especially his wife, that he should be king. This flaw drives the story and ultimately determines Macbeth’s fate — his death.
A unique personality doesn’t have to be totally unusual; one or two unique habits or surprising traits are often enough to differentiate a character from the pack. In the novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a wealthy, mysterious man who throws outlandish parties in the hope of attracting Daisy — the great love of his life — to one of them. His unique trait that distinguishes him from everyone else of his ilk is his gift for wonder, his capacity to stay true to his vision of Daisy as the beloved.
A character profile is a way of defining and managing essential aspects of your characters. Keep each character profile close at hand as you write your scenes to ensure that the action and dialogue your characters engage in stay on track.