Fiction Writers: Use the Character Profile to Engage Readers Like an Award-winning Screenwriter

Character Profile

Like a top screenwriter, you can use the character profile to engage your readers.

The Character Profile

Award-winning screenwriter Chris Lang knows how to develop characters.

Lang wrote Unforgotten, an English crime drama television series. He continued to develop the lead character throughout the series, giving viewers an in-depth look into her life. As the story unfolded, subtle details helped viewers relate to the lead character.

Lang’s superb writing and dynamic character development allowed the audience to dive below the surface of DCI Cassie Stuart’s daily activities to discover her true nature.

Creating an Engaging Character

Chris Lang’s Unforgotten is a masterwork of character development.

  • According to Lang, he enjoys the creative revelations that come from developing characters.
  • In the series, he puts and an ordinary person into the role of investigating an extraordinary crime while pulling back the veneer of her daily life.
  • The lead character’s ordinary events at home and work contrast with the drama’s extraordinary crime.
  • Relatable conflicts take real-life tolls on several characters, showing how people navigate through life.
  • The common interactions between characters reveal uncommon insights.
  • Layer by layer, Lang reveals how characters who at first seem decent can do indecent things.
  • Each discovery serves as an emotional reminder that, but by the grace of God, we could become criminals, too.
  • The story also shows a level of respect for those who do what needs to be done despite the obstacles and emotional tolls.
  • Through the characters, Lang makes the case:
    • We never truly know well those around us.
    • People have secrets that drive bizarre behaviors.
    • Those concealed facts can remain hidden for years until something pushes those dark secrets to the surface.

The Unseen Details Below the Surface

Use your below-the-surface backstory to engage readers.

Character Profile
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Character Development Types

The study of human nature can seem overwhelming.

Fortunately, writers have a proven way to tackle this challenge. The Enneagram of Personality groups character into nine types. Each type gives you a rich source of positive and negative traits, including what happens (i.e., shifts in traits and behaviors) when a person is subjected to stress-producing conflicts.

Here’s an illustration of the nine types.

Character Types
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Character Type Descriptions

There’s a large body of Enneagram theory available to study.

Several books explain the Enneagram of Personality. The authors describe how people show a wide range of traits and behaviors dependent on whether the person feels secure or stressed. Some authors give examples of Enneagram types by citing public personalities and film characters.

I summarized each Enneagram type, like my example below, turning theory into a useful character profiling tool.

Type 1: The Perfectionist

Synopsis:

Ethical and dedicated, desires to live right, but avoids being faulted or blamed, and struggles with the inner conflict of anger vs. serenity.

Public Personalities:

Joan of Arc, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, William F. Buckley, Sandra Day O’Connor, Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, George Harrison, Martha Stewart, Al Gore.

Film Characters:

Gregory Peck in Moby Dick, Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy, Kevin Costner in The Untouchables, Helen Mirren in The Queen, Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast.

Overview:

The Perfectionist has a “sense of mission” that leads to a strong desire to improve the world in various ways, using the individual’s personal influence.

A Type 1 strives to overcome adversity — especially moral adversity — so that the human spirit can shine through and make a difference. The Perfectionist strives after higher values, even at the cost of great personal sacrifice. This character wants to be useful in the best sense. On some level of consciousness, the Perfectionist senses a mission to fulfill in life, if only to give the individual’s best try to reduce the disorder the person sees in the environment.

Typically, the Perfectionist feels the need to justify actions to self, and often to others, spending a lot of time thinking about the consequences of actions, as well as about how to keep from acting contrary to those convictions.

Positive Traits:

Conscientious and ethical, the Perfectionist maintains a strong sense of right and wrong, and this type includes teachers, crusaders, and change advocates who strive to improve.

Negative Traits:

The Perfectionist is afraid of making mistakes, tries to maintain high standards, but can slip into being critical and perfectionistic.

At Best:

While operating at their best, people perceive the Perfectionist as wise, discerning, realistic, and noble — even morally heroic.

At Worst:

When operating at their worst, the Perfectionist becomes condemnatory toward others, punitive and cruel to rid themselves of wrongdoers.

Basic Fear:

The Perfectionist fears being corrupt, evil, or defective.

Basic Desire:

The Perfectionist wants to be good, to have integrity, and live a balanced
life.

Key Motivations:

The Perfectionist wants to be right, to strive higher and improve everything, to be consistent with their ideals, to justify themselves, and to be beyond criticism so as not to be condemned by anyone.

Under Stress:

While facing stressful situations, the Perfectionist becomes moody and irrational, like the sub-optimal development levels of the Type 4: The Individualist.

Feeling Secure:

When feeling secure, the Perfectionist becomes spontaneous and joyful, behaving like the optimal development levels of the Type 7: The Enthusiast.

Addictions:

Excessive use of diets, vitamins, and cleansing techniques (fasts, diet pills, enemas). In extreme cases, the person may suffer from eating disorders. The individual may self medicate with alcohol to relieve tension.

Optimal Development Levels:

  1. At Best: Extraordinarily wise and discerning. By accepting what is, becomes transcendentally realistic, knowing the best action to take in each moment. Others perceive the person as humane, inspiring, and hopeful — one who speaks the truth.
  2. Conscientious, with strong personal convictions and an intense sense of right and wrong, often with personal religious and moral values. The person wishes to be rational, reasonable, self-disciplined, mature, and moderate in all things.
  3. Extremely principled, seeking to always be fair, objective, and ethical, with truth and justice serving as the person’s primary values. The person has a sense of responsibility, personal integrity, and of having a higher purpose — to teach and witness to the truth.

Mid-optimal Development Levels:

  1. Dissatisfied with reality, the person adopts high-minded idealistic beliefs and behaviors, feeling that it is up to the individual to improve everything while serving as a crusader, an advocate, or a critic. The person follows causes and explains to others how things ought to be.
  2. Afraid of making a mistake, the person believes everything must be consistent with personal ideals. The individual is orderly and well-organized, but impersonal, puritanical, emotionally constricted, rigidly keeping their feelings and impulses in check. Often workaholics, people perceive the person as punctual, pedantic, and fastidious.
  3. Highly critical both of self and others — picky and judgmental — a perfectionistic. The individual is very opinionated about everything, correcting people and badgering them to do the right thing according to a strict view of the world. People perceive the person as impatient, never satisfied with anything unless it is done their way, and worse, the individual moralizes and scolds with abrasive and indignantly angry behaviors.

Sub-optimal Development Levels:

  1. Highly dogmatic, self-righteous, intolerant, and inflexible. The person deals with absolutes, feeling and acting as if they alone know the truth about an individual or a situation. The individual rationalizes severe judgmental actions by believing everyone else is wrong.
  2. Obsessive about imperfection and the wrongdoing of others, although they may fall into contradictory actions, hypocritically doing the opposite of what the person preaches.
  3. At Worst: Condemnatory toward others, acting punitive and cruel toward others to rid themselves of wrongdoers. The person may suffer from severe depression, nervous breakdown, and suicide attempts.

Develop Realistic Character Reactions

A story’s plot events force characters into conflicts, and their emotions cause shifts in traits and behaviors.

The Enneagram of Personality recognizes how people react when exposed to conflicts. Each of the nine types also has nine character development levels. When people feel secure, they shift toward optimal behaviors. When they’re feeling stress, they shift toward sub-optimal behaviors.

This illustration shows the progression of traits and behaviors.

Character Development Levels
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A Character Profile Identifies Reactions

This matrix lists an array of high-level character reactions.

Character Development Matrix
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Each summary sheet provides more details for showing shifts in the character’s development levels.

Your Story Will Shape the Character Arc

The storyline plus the character profile helps you decide how much change the chief protagonist will undergo from the beginning to the end of the story.

For example, your chosen genres may suggest a positive change in the lead character’s traits and behaviors. Some storylines will hint at a flat character arc, while others will suggest a negative ending. And that’s the fun of fiction writing because it’s your story and you control the outcome.

This illustration shows typical character arcs based on the 8 beats of the Story Spine.

Character Arc
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What’s in Your Writer’s Toolbox?

The Unforgotten series reminds me of how much effort Chris Lang puts into developing characters.

His characters converted me from a casual viewer into a loyal fan. The cast’s nuanced emotions, based on their reactions to plot events, captured my interest for hours. That’s why I use a character profile.

If you want a copy of the character profile I use, check out the Character Template.

Leave a Reply

Do you use a character profile, and if no, why not? If yes, describe how you dive below the surface to supply the descriptions and emotions readers crave.

5 responses to “Fiction Writers: Use the Character Profile to Engage Readers Like an Award-winning Screenwriter”

  1. Jacqui Murray Avatar

    Well done. I am looking forward to watching this, based on your discussion, though I have never been a fan of Nicola Walker.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      In the series, you have not only the chief protagonist (“Nicola Walker”) but also a co-protagonist/sidekick. In a similar fashion, there is a chief antagonist for each of the four stories, and Lang develops those characters as well. The scripts are available, if that’s of interest.

  2. wordsfromanneli Avatar

    I love that series (Unforgotten) and I agree that it’s a great example of characters making the story so wonderful.

  3. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

    This is excellent, Grant. I have a two-page list of prompts that I use for character building before I begin writing, but they’re not as nicely organized as yours here. The Enneagram is interesting and familiar, but what I really liked about this method is the way you linked character reactions to the plot. I hope I do that organically, but having it laid out thoughtfully is a great tool for contemplation and editing. You’re a wealth of information! Thanks.

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Thanks, Diana. Now I’m finishing the updates to the website in anticipation of rolling out The Trellis Method. I appreciate your many contributions!

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