Once you’ve gotten to know your character’s gooey metaphorical insides – not the literal ones, you butcher – then you can start developing a profile for them. Later I’ll be writing a post about creating your concordance, which will include these profiles.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m not a fan of the “detail everything that your character has ever done” method. Most of it is irrelevant. Let’s be real, I really don’t care what weird crap your protagonist puts on their hot dog unless that ties into the story later.
Just an aside, every time I make a statement like that, I have to come up with a situation in which that would be relevant. So, you’re allowed to spend brainstorming time on what your character puts on their hot dog if your story is about evil twins or body snatchers, and the only way the other characters know the protagonist has been swapped is that they’re no longer putting maraschino cherries and sriracha sauce on their Chicago dogs. Gross.
(PS – you can brainstorm whatever the heck you want. Just recognize when you’re wasting good creative energy and refocus as appropriate. And random quirks pop up all the time as you write. Just don’t devote all of your pre-writing to filling out endless lists of trivia that won’t make your story any better.)
To put it in social media terms, have you ever stalked – I mean, looked at – a new friend’s profile? Under each year, you can see the significant life events, like when they met a significant other, got married, changed jobs, and so on. This is the important stuff you need to know about a character. Focus less on the things your character Likes and more on their Life Events.
In previous posts, I wrote about finding the character’s primary goals and motivations. In those stages, you may have figured out some parts of your character’s past. None of us live in a vacuum, and we are product of our experiences and environment.
If you have a character who is an outrageous flirt who needs the attention of every person in the room, there is likely a reason, and it’s not just because they are hard-wired to want attention. Maybe the character never got enough positive attention from the adults in their lives, especially when one parent left and the other worked all the time to make ends meet. It was only when they developed into a total bombshell that they started getting validation from others. Their self-esteem may be entirely tied to their appearance, and attention from the opposite (or same) sex fuel their self-worth.
One of my favorite shows is Criminal Minds, and while a great deal of their work is dramatized for good TV, I love the profiling work they do. (I also love sexy, badass Agent Morgan and flawless genius Garcia, but who doesn’t? Great characters!) Sure, some people are probably just straight cray-cray. On the show, they typically look at what happened in their killer’s past, particularly what happened right before they began their pattern of violent behavior. They often refer to a “stressor” which caused them to snap and either start killing or change their pattern.
This is a neat way to approach your characters, even if you’re writing about serial daters and not serial killers! So let’s think about profiling your character. I try to start with where the character is just minutes before the story starts. Then I start rewinding, a chapter at a time on the DVD of their life.
Let’s say we’re writing about Celeste, a superficial and flighty serial dater, who has just sworn off dating for a year on a bet. She’s made a deal with her dot-com wealthy brother, who is tired of seeing her flit from boyfriend to boyfriend. He offers her a one million dollar prize to be awarded at the end of the year if Celeste can go without dating for the whole year. Celeste loves her expensive purses and shoes, so she’s willing to take the challenge of being single if it means a massive shopping spree in three hundred and sixty-five days.
Well, I’m just spitballing here, so forgive the predictability. In typical Hollywood rom-com style, she’s going to meet the perfect guy in this book, and she’ll have to decide if she’s willing to give up on the bet to take a chance on real love. (Which was the intention all along, of course!)
Cue the awwww.
(Whatever. You know if I’m writing it, there is going to be a monster or an alternate dimension in there eventually. I have a hard time writing reality.)
Anyway, I’ve already gotten to know Celeste a bit. Presumably, this story is going to start just before she meets Prince Charming. So I want to back up just a bit before this starts. There are lots of good questions to ask that will help me dig into who Celeste is and how she got that way.
The first question that comes to mind is Why does Celeste never settle down, instead bouncing from boyfriend to boyfriend? As with the previous brainstorming stage, you have the freedom to choose! Remember the power of maybe.
Maybe Celeste is just superficial. Maybe she has impossibly high standards. Maybe she gets bored as soon as she gets to know them beyond the initial excitement of new romance. Maybe she has a deep-rooted fear of commitment. Maybe more than one of these things apply.
People, every one of them, are complex creatures. I guarantee that no matter how neurotic and weird you think your characters are, they’re nowhere near as complex and secretly strange as the most boring person you know in real life. People are marvelously intricate creatures, woven together from decades of experiences, each of them a colorful thread that gets twisted and knotted into a massive tapestry.
Let’s say that on the surface, Celeste gets bored quickly with her boyfriends. She dates exciting, intense people – ultra-marathoners, Special Forces soldiers, reality TV chefs – but moves on quickly when she gets to know them beyond the surface.
(Why and how are the most important questions you can ask yourself in this process.)
Maybe Celeste thinks that love has to be incredibly intense and exciting all the time. Why would she believe this? Well, as she gets to know people, the shiny newness wears off. Maybe they aren’t sending flowers or buying her new jewelry at every date anymore, and she suddenly gets scared that things are about to end. So she moves on before things get too stale. So it’s less about the actual excitement, and more about the obvious gestures that represent excitement to her.
Growing up, Celeste’s parents were very wealthy, and she saw that love came in the form of gifts and grand gestures. Her parents could be cold and detached. Their love language with each other and their children was in tangible gifts, so Celeste has never really experienced the cozy warmth of love. To her, a quiet dinner at home with a movie On Demand is a sure sign that the fire has burned out.
As I develop this, I get some pretty vivid ideas about events in Celeste’s life. A sixteenth birthday where neither parent was present, but she found a brand new car with a huge pink bow on it in the driveway outside an empty, cold house, reinforcing her ideas about love.
In this story, I’d also want to explore the relationship between Celeste and her brother. They need a strong relationship – positive or negative – for her to take his deal. Either she is willing to listen to his opinion (positive) to improve her life, or she wants to prove him wrong about her (negative). How would that relationship develop?
Now, there are two things I want to point out about all of these pre-writing activities. The first is this: just because you know it happened doesn’t mean it has to go into your book. You may write a whole page in your profile about Celeste’s sixteenth birthday, but you may end up going through the entire novel without mentioning it, or just mentioning it in passing. This process is much more about shaping the character in your mind than it is coming up with novel fodder.
The second is that all of these pre-writing processes are organic and intertwined. As you think about Celeste’s past, you’ll be struck with ways to tie it to her future. You might think “whoa, if this happened, wouldn’t it be crazy if _____ happened in the book?”
For instance, if she’s been shaped by the absence of her family at a major life event, then it would be a stark and powerful contrast for the romantic interest to show up for something where she expected to be alone. To someone like Celeste, a boyfriend showing up with a homemade cake on her birthday might actually be the best birthday she’s ever had, simply because someone was present. But you’ll only know the things that will be meaningful in her future once you know the things that shaped her past.
I hope this helps you get to know your characters. Spend some time getting to know their pasts, because we’re about to talk about taking them into the mysterious unknown of the future!
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