It’s pretty indisputable that your book is going to fall a little flat without vivid, alive characters. So how can you go about writing characters that don’t make readers drop your book in disinterest? A tried and tested technique is to fill out of a character profile.
In this post, we construct a sample character profile for Roald Dahl’s Matilda to show you how you might go about it. Often cited as one of the favorite book characters of all time, and an easy source of inspiration for NaNoWriMo, Matilda is the perfect example of a character who’s easy to hold up to the light.
Hopefully, this will also show you how even a simple character profile can provide you with a springboard. If and when you start writing your book, you’ll have the solid starting point that you need to create a character that your readers will love.
Start with the basics
You won’t get very far if you don’t have these details.
Name: Matilda Wormwood!
Age: Nearly 5 when the action of the book begins.
What do they look like?
Having a firm idea of your character’s appearance will help you (and readers) visualise the character when necessary.
Eye colour: Blue.
Hairstyle: Dark and down, or tied with a ribbon.
What do they sound like?
How a character talks and sounds is as much a part of their personality as their appearance is. Details like this can really flesh out your character and make them feel real, even if you don’t explicitly bring it up in every paragraph.
How do they talk? Articulate, honest, childlike.
Do they have an accent? English.
What about childhood?
Hurts, disappointments, and hopes from childhood may not filter directly into words and actions, but they will certainly color a character’s reactions and attitudes in later life. Since Matilda is a child for the entire novel, this is all the more important.
What type of childhood did they have? Sheltered, but unhappy. Grew up in an unloving environment.
Describe their education? The library and Miss Honey’s class are the most formative influences on her life.
Who were their role models growing up? Fictional characters from the books she read and loved — until she met Miss Honey, her first teacher.
Family (or lack thereof) has a significant impact on a character’s attitude, development, and sensibilities. In Matilda’s case, for instance, her family shapes her worldview and informs many of the actions that she takes over the course of the book. As a writer, you should be completely aware of your character’s background.
Father: Mr. Wormwood is a dishonest car dealer who Matilda hates. He regularly deceives his customers and prefers TV over books.
Mother: Mrs Wormwood has a very distant relationship to Matilda. For five afternoons a week, she goes to bingo 8 miles away and doesn’t do much else.
Siblings: Michael, a brother who’s older than her. He takes after his father’s love of crooked business and picks on her often.
Friendships and relationships
This might be one of the sections that’s more obvious in the actual text of your book. Understanding how your characters function in the context of their relationships will help you nail the rest of your character’s biography.
Who are their closest friends? Miss Honey and Lavender, a girl who Matilda befriends when she finally goes to school.
Enemies? Miss Trunchbull is certainly an antagonist who makes life very difficult for Matilda.
Now it’s time to go deeper inside your character’s mind. While these questions might seem quite simple, they will help you work out their motivations, fears, and general demeanour towards the world. Most importantly, this is the section that will hold the most important part of your character in the context of your story: your character’s story goal and motivation.
What do they do on rainy days? Read in her room with a hot drink like hot chocolate, Horlicks, or Ovaltine.
- Street-smart or book-smart
- An optimist or pessimist
- Introverted or Extroverted
What makes them angry? Injustice and laziness.
If they didn’t have to sleep, what would they do with the extra time? Read even more books!
What’s their story goal? To find a loving family.
As you can see, in a very short space of time we’ve nailed down some key information about Matilda: from her physical appearance to deep cuts into her personality like her primary motivation for being part of a family that cares about her.
This exercise shouldn’t take longer than 15-20 minutes, which isn’t so much considering it’s the starting block for your characters. Character profiles are often for the author’s convenience just as much as the reader’s enjoyment — especially if you’re writing a fantasy novel with complex heritages or even doing a major rewrite — but they don’t have to be overly complex to be effective. If you need additional questions, you can refer to this character profile template or create your own questionnaire for your character. Just remember to probe deep so that you can really get to the heart of who your protagonist is!
Think of this as a springboard with which to really jump into your characterization. One step and you’re on your way to building a solid foundation for a memorable character, which will make for a memorable story.
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Sounds like a great way for one to flesh out their characters indeed. Simple questions adding all the more.
Matilda is certainly an example of torturing your characters.
I do a character profile for my characters before writing the story. It really makes a big difference.
I've used an in-depth character profile sheet for years and even teach kids how to use one when I visit schools. It's a must.
It sounds like I need to get on board with this. I've always been a subscriber to getting to know the character through the writing itself, but character profiles might help things to get to the point more quickly.
Great character profile exercise.
Hi Lee and IWSG posters - this sounds like a really useful tool. Wormwood - great surname for a family ... too horrific to think about - cheers Hilary
It seems like such an obvious thing to do, but I've never fleshed out my characters in this way, so cool.
Thanks for the tips, will be using/tweaking this for some of my needy characters (those that be needing of flesh, but hang on, they're not zombies. Honestly, they're just normal... but then again, what's normal. Oh boy:)
Characters with abilities like the ones you describe electrify stories, which to my mind serves as a true example of what we as writers try to achieve. Its exciting trying to create something from scratch but you have to care enough and hope enough that your readers will too.
After reading this I feel like writing, or rather character writing.
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