Recently came across someone having trouble finding the boundaries when creating character profiles. They were working on a superhero story and weren’t sure how specific they should get with the science behind their character’s super powers.
This is a sister-issue I often see with world building.
Lots of times people don’t know how far down the rabbit hole they should go during the discovery process on their story, when it comes to fleshing out their worlds.
Do you write up a half-page synopsis of the Klingon empire, or thirty page treatise?
Of course with a character profile, it’s not just about the science behind the hero’s powers… Humans are complex creatures that encompass everything from physical stats, personality, history and a million other details.
So how much is required when fleshing out the characters to your story?
Let’s answer this question in two parts.
First; a little abstract; the key word in the question, is required.
There isn’t a rule of how much detail must go into in a character profile. What you need, are well thought out concepts and characters, that connect and support a solid narrative.
Keep in mind, details ARE the writer’s ammunition.
The deeper, more complex the character, the more details you capture, the more options you have in your basket of tools to call on when writing.
When Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, it’s unlikely (speculating here) that Lee included in his dossier the number of Rads the spider gave off, or the exact process of apoptosis on Peter’s cells, or specific mutagenic effects on his adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine DNA bases. That information wasn’t required to understand the narrative that the radioactive spider, changed his DNA and made him spider man.
However, you can see that knowing all that as the writer, becomes ammunition… it creates doors and opportunities to open, if you so choose at some point down the line.
For example, if you set that Peter received 1 millisievert of radiation from the spider bite, well what would happen if he was exposed to higher doses of radiation somehow? What if his body rose to 10 rads, what effects would that have on him and his powers? What if Peter’s tissue was actually absorbant to radiation–could he overload? Could this create new powers? Conversely, what if his body auto-regulated the amount of radiation in his body, capping it off at a certain point–he’d then become radioactive immune! What arcs could that create?
Second; we turn to the mantra I work hard to drill into your head at every opportunity.
“At any given moment, at any level of the writing, (act, sequence, scene, page, panel, bubble); you’ve got to know what you’re trying to say.”
So let’s stick with Peter Parker for a minute.
If you were developing and discovering Spider Man for the first time, how much detail would you go into Peter’s character profile? Well, what do you want to say about Peter in the story?
In an effort to save time, let’s just grab two qualities.
Ok, Peter is nerdy… and he’s got a really strong work ethic.
So how would we capture this in his character profile, the nerdy part is easy. It leads to a bunch of physical attributes: he wears glasses, has a bad hair cut, no style in clothes. We could add he’s always distracted by some math or science problem and is a ferocious reader. For strong work ethic, we could jump into his history, Peter’s a student, so he can’t have much of a real world work history, but maybe he’s interned at Oscorp. Maybe he had an after-hours part time gig doing some sort of cheesy manual labor to help his Aunt and Uncle pay the bills. Mopping floors for hours while doing school during the day, all while getting good grades and being responsible–smells like a good work ethic to me.
If you let what you want to say and express guide your character profile development, you won’t nail every detail possible… but you’ll get the big ones that count and there’s always room for more development if your IP is successful.
Express Structural Elements First
You may have a bunch of things you want to express about a character. In case you don’t get around to detailing them all, start with your structural elements first. These are primarily the character’s arc components; weaknesses, flaws, new beliefs, etc.
Supporting the character arc will develop a stronger narrative, than supporting characterization alone.
One thing to avoid is a thin or hollow character.
It’s totally fine to develop a complex, rich character, then withhold details from the reader to generate mystery and suspense. But it’s not ok to develop an important character where you simply haven’t put any thought into him, because you’re a lazy ass and figure you can always square away the details later.
If a character is hollow, he won’t engage the reader and if in some miraculous way he does, when you go to flesh out the details, it can be tricky. You’ll suddenly find yourself walking a fine line of having to live up to readers expectations without contradicting or gravitating away from what little you’ve already established.
At the end of the day, how much detail you want to go into in your character profiles really is a matter of personal preference. Focus on the more important elements you want to express. Keep the overall concept and narrative in mind as you discover your character and strive for balance. If you find yourself getting bogged down, or overwhelmed, you’re probably in overwritten territory. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.