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Character Development
August 31, 2021

How to Create a Character Profile: A Step-by-Step Guide

Creating a character profile doesn't have to be complicated.

A character profile is simply a list of facts about a character. Building one allows you to get to know your characters to such a degree that it helps your writing stand out with nuance and color.

The better you understand your characters, the better you can write your story and artfully color the world of your screenplay. Great characters are forged in deep-seated drama and compelling conflict. Yet before the curtains are drawn, they are pieced together by a writer using a character profile.

What is a Character Profile?

A profile is made up of a range of descriptors. This can include details such as the physical matter-of-fact (height, weight, eye color) to the character’s place in the world (profession, point of view, relationship to others).

It’s like the foundation on which every other brick is laid and it is intentionally simple. It is a strong concrete surface that supports layers upon layers of character design. You can write one profile for each of your main and supporting characters.

Why Do You Need a Character Profile?

Character profiles get you unstuck before you even start writing. They provide a framework to easily go from a blank page to fully formed characters. This prevents common screenwriting issues like meandering, overwriting, and a lack of proper development.

Character profiles also help propel you through act 2. They help clarify your character’s wants or needs and their wounds. Character profiles also inform you on how to advance the plot by testing your character’s dramatic theme.

The better the profile, the deeper the character. Remember the screenwriting adage “tell simple stories with complex characters”?

Well, profiles help you enrich characters with multiple layers while making sure they are serviced by the story and not the other way around.

Additionally, since drama is birthed in the minutiae they help you get super clear about those juicy details that make up the complex character world of your story.

A 5 Step Guide

The following five steps will help you craft an in-depth and compelling character profile. In this exercise, simplicity is key.

PRO TIP: Answer these questions in the Arc Studio Pro Story-Elements Character sidebar to keep ideas top of mind as you write and streamline your characters.

Step 1: The Visuals Make or Break It

Think of your favorite character. Do you immediately draw an image in your head?

From Dick Tracy to Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil to Braveheart’s William Wallace, can you visualize what they look like? Film is a visual medium so it’s all the more critical to describe your character in a compelling, memorable way.

To help you identify your character’s physical appearance, answer the following questions.

  1. What do they look like?
  2. What is their hair style?
  3. What color are their eyes?
  4. Do they wear glasses, hats, etc?
  5. Are they pristine or disheveled? Or somewhere in between?
  6. Do they have any distinguishing characteristics?

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Step 2: A Day in the Life

In this step we’ll build on the truths about your character by focusing on how they exist in the world. This helps you hone in on that critical “world as is” before the inciting incident in Act 1. It can also assist you in devising relationship maps later on.

For this exercise, consider an average day in your character’s life.

Answer the following questions to help you flush this out:

  1. What is their profession?
  2. What are their hobbies?
  3. What is their marital status?
  4. What are their relationships with strangers like?
  5. What is their relationship with their family?
  6. What was their schooling like?

Step 3: Hitting the Feels

Now, working your way from the outer to the inner world of your character, you’re going to focus on their emotional core. Screenwriters are often told to “show don’t tell” while also “not indicating” to actors how to express emotional truths. But, emotion is what drives storytelling. You can leave room for an actor’s skill while still giving your character a complex emotional core.

Remember that scene in A Few Good Men? Can you identify the main emotional truth about Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee?

The following questions will help you clarify the emotional core of your character:

  1. How do they feel about themself?
  2. What makes them angry?
  3. What makes them sad?
  4. What’s their constant underlying emotion?
  5. What keeps them motivated?

Step 4: The Deep End

Working our way from the surface to the deep end, this last step helps you craft an outstanding, complex character. A complex character is all about layers. Think of your character profile then, as a circle with outer rings. Each ring represents a rendering of your character.

  1. What is their core wound or key trauma?
  2. What was their childhood like?
  3. What are their goals?
  4. Why do they have these goals?
  5. What are their flaws?
  6. How do their flaws keep them from reaching their goals?

Bonus Step 5: Picking the Best Parts

Character profiles are amazing tools for character design. Sometimes, however, they can be far too extensive or “out of scope” for screenwriting, where concise economical storytelling is key. In this bonus step, we’re going to hone in on those elements of your character profile that will directly affect your character and their fascinating arc within the context of your narrative.

Answer these questions to help determine your character’s fascinating arc:

  1. What elements of the character are the most pivotal to your story?
  2. What aspects of your character can inform the first, second, and third acts (in that order)?
  3. How does your character exist in the climax of your story?
  4. What is the profile of your character before and after their arc?
  5. How does your character affect other supporting characters in the story?  

Write Memorably

When writing about characters, TV writer and writing teacher Pamela Douglas says that in screenwriting, “instead of developing horizontally toward a goal, the character develops vertically, exploring internal conflicts that create tension.”

This type of “vertical writing” creates deeply resonant and rich characters with meaty interior lives. And it is all made possible by the in-depth character profile.

Answer the questions above and get started writing a compelling character profile for your narrative!

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How to Create a Character Profile: A Step-by-Step Guide
Rice Omary

Rice is a professional screenwriter. She has a Bachelor's in Cinema Studies and Production and 15 years of experience in screenwriting for film and TV.

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