Writing Exercise: Character Profile

One of the things that has come about with attempting to write longer form fiction is that my usual style of writing doesn’t really cut it.  With most of my early short stories, I tended to have a cool idea, wing it until most of the story was written, and then go back and rewrite until it came together as a somewhat cohesive tale. Along the way, the characters and main plot points would form around the core idea organically – often in unexpected ways – and I’d eventually find myself with a completed story that was almost certainly very different to where I started.

With my first novel manuscript, I started off this way as well.  Originally writing about 60,000 words for NaNoWriMo a few years ago, I did so with very little planning or idea of what was going to happen beyond wanting to write something in a post-catastrophe Australia and having a main character who was something of a lampooning of the James Bond type, where he thinks he’s a suave, sophisticated, hot shit spy, but is actually kind of a blunt weapon and a bit of a joke to those in the know, but dangerous nonetheless.

Part of the reason this is taking me forever to write is that my usual style is way too cumbersome for a full length novel. This has led to a great deal of rewriting, planning, adding and subtracting, and – crucially – outlining.

I’ve also undertaken some exercises in bringing my characters and world into focus.  One of these is profiling my characters, which has proven really useful for me, especially as I try to walk the line between seriousness and parody the story calls for.

There’s a lot of different ways you can go about this – I’ve used a simple series of headings that hit the core ideas I want to keep in my head as I write.  Below is an example for my protagonist that I hope some of you may find interesting and/or useful – keep in mind this is written as rough notes and isn’t a polished piece of fiction!

Name: Marcus Freeburn

Role in Story: Protagonist

Occupation: Secret Intelligence Service – Operative (TBC)
Previously: Joint NATO SMU (unofficial) (TBC)
British Royal Marines – Special Forces Support Group (TBC)

Physical Description: 6’6”, heavy build, muscular – almost always draws the eyes of everyone around, not an ideal trait. Shoulder-length black hair, raggedly cut post-injury. Neat beard. Dark brown eyes. Hairy. Scarred. Broken nose, but not crooked. Large, perfect teeth (like a cow’s), smiles look false. Has a habit of smirking or smiling with only one side of his mouth.

Personality: Sarcastic, arrogant. Has led a life where almost all of his decisions have been made for the purpose of defying someone or something, with very little thought given to his own goals, morals, or ethics. Has had a tendency to cling to the concept of ‘the greater good’ and serving his country as justification for the bad things he has done, even though he knows deep down this is just a cover. Has the capacity to be caring and decent, but has forced this down for so long that it only manifests unexpectedly. Smart, but thinks he is far smarter than he actually us.  A blunt instrument who thinks he is a scalpel.

Habits/Mannerisms: Internal monologues. Consistently underestimates the intelligence of those around him, but overestimates their capacity for treachery. Tends to act to provoke, but will occasionally be genuinely compassionate, kind, and caring. Can be suave and flirtatious when he wants to be, but the arrogance and falseness comes through to anyone who isn’t fooled by his outward persona. Has a tendency to move suddenly and unexpectedly, sometimes violently, with little indication until it is already done. Enters the zone when in danger, with much of the falseness falling away to reveal a calm, almost sociopathic killer.

Background: Born to wealthy, land-owning parents in Edinburgh, Scotland. Family was loving, but eventually became distant through meddling by his grandparents and some other difficulties. . Played rugby, boxed, played chess but was a middling player and lacked patience. Known for his aggression above all else. Went to university, partied hard, eventually dropped out when parents stopped supporting him. Decided to join the military to punish his liberal mother, and joining as an enlisted man to punish his propriety obsessed father, and ended up immediately being sent to Afghanistan. Adept fighter and showed genuine leadership capacity, but bad soldier – lack of discipline, questions authority, and little care for the rules. Promoted and demoted multiple times in a short period, then eventually arrested. Retrieved from the stockade by Major Llewellyn, who is leading a small team of reprobates from various NATO forces on black ops. Becomes an expert in small arms, infiltration, etc, although is generally used as a blunt instrument when all else has failed. Completes several years in this group and is “Dishonourably Discharged” by the Royal Marines, but immediately brought into the SIS. Struggles to fit in, but passes and becomes an operative, but is immediately punished for recklessness and contrary behaviour and given a series of nothing postings, the last of which is monitoring a listening post / safe house on the isle of Noumea. Finally brought home and given a mission to retrieve a package in Australia as a redemption mission.

Internal Conflicts: Obeying the orders of those he respects and completing the mission assigned to him versus thinking for himself and examining the morality on what he is doing. Hiding behind his job and false identity versus opening up to people who know who he is. Being truthful with others or lying, for purpose or habitually. Betraying people who trust him to meet his own goals or putting others first. Trust versus trusting only himself. Living in the past versus building a new life. Valuing a mentor for who they were versus who they are now or who he perceives them to be.

External Conflicts: REDACTED – here be spoilers.  I’ll just note that this would be conflicts that related to relationships between characters, as well as their place in the world and interaction with the plot (e.g. conflict with the main antagonist, not getting along with a companion, etc).