Character Profiles… or not


There are all sorts of preparatory exercises you can do when planning a novel. As well as drawing up an outline, chapter by chapter, and researching times, dates, places, people and things, you could also come up with a character profile for each of the main characters. This sort of approach is recommended by many teachers of creative writing. The idea is that you write down everything you know about your main characters: where they went to school, their favorite color, what they were like as a child, whom they dated, where they went on vacation, and so on. What this is aiming to achieve is twofold. First, you get to know your characters intimately so that you know how they will react when they meet each other, and that keeps your story plausible. Second, you can use the character profile as a fact-checking mechanism so that if you, for example, refer to something in their past you can keep your facts consistent.
It sounds like a good idea. But there are other people who maintain that nailing down all those fact about your character can make them predictable and one-dimensional. It’s the same argument that is used by proponents of the “no outline” stance and it does have some merit. They also say that it takes all the joy out of writing if everything is predictable. After all, part of the excitement in writing a novel is the thrill you get when your character says or does something that you had not foreseen. In that case, the novel takes on a life of its own and the author is just as surprised as the reader by the direction the character development is taking.
             I can’t really make my mind up about it. I suppose it depends what kind of novel you are writing. If you are writing an action-packed thriller in which the plot speeds along like a freight train, then perhaps deep character development is not necessary. Sure, you need to give some complexity to your characters, but not so much as you would if you were writing a romance novel.
I once tried to draw up a character profile for each of the main players in one of my novels and found it rather difficult to come up with a lot of intricate detail on their backgrounds. One method that has been suggested is to imagine you are in a room together with one of your characters. Then you simply sit down with them and ask them a list of questions. In other words, you let them do the talking. For some people that might work well. Others might find it difficult to imagine sitting down with a fictitious character. And yet others may be so good at it that they have to see psychotherapeutic counseling for multiple personality disorder. I suppose one aspect of interviewing your characters that might work is that the more you get to know them, the more you will end up liking them. But the reverse might be true also. Once you get to know some of your characters well you might just as easily hate their guts. And that would be bad news for your novel, especially if they happened to be the protagonist.
Another aspect militating against character profiles is that characters in a novel can develop and change according to the circumstances they encounter as the plot unfolds. If you have already decided everything about them from their shoe size to when they last had a haircut then you may find yourself with fairly static characters who remain the same no matter what gruesome experiences you force them into in the course of the novel.
            Maybe next time round I’ll take the character profile method for another test drive and see if it helps my next novel or hinders it. Maybe I’ll write a romance novel. And maybe tomorrow the sun will rise in the west and Donald Trump will be bald.

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