Dec 11, 2009

Answer: Character Profiles & The Spark

Dec 11, 2009
Jen, an up and coming film maker and turndown girl, asks:

"Can The Silent Knights do a post on character development? I find I struggle with consistency.
Do you give your characters back stories?
Do you have them on a cork board with a profile?"

Now the first step to consistency is to understand your character. A popular way to start is using a Character Profile.

This is a generic one I made, but over time I find I use it less and less:
Character’s Appearance:
Name, Age, Tics and other Visual/Auditory notes

The Good:
Strengths, Skills or Talents

The Bad:
Weaknesses, Problems or Difficulties

Character’s External Identity:
Hobbies, History, Career, Back-Story, Relationships

Character’s Internal Identity:
Personality, Prejudices, Grudges
Reactionary Devices (Shown as Obsessions, Habits, etc)

Character’s Thematic Identity:
Goals, Arc, ‘The Question to be Answered’
However, these lists come with a warning: They tend to lead towards shallower characters. From top to bottom, my list currently runs from most obvious to least obvious, but in some strange irony it also runs from least useful to most useful.

Knowing a character’s eye colour or blood type is useful only up to a very limited point, but it is fun and easy to choose. When I use the list, I try to force myself to work from the bottom up.

A thing to note is that we’ve found over time that the better the character, the harder to summarise. Some of our best characters became so ‘alive’ that their Profiles ended up looking more like essays. It’s a good sign that you’re ready for the next step: Prediction

If you really understand your character, you should be able to pick exactly what he or she would do in any given situation. I like to pick a variety of situations such as working in a group or being in a stressful or dangerous position, and write a little excerpt of the reaction.

I find these mini-stories summarise a character better than any Character Profile. I know if I’m having trouble writing a particular character of ours, I just recall this hilarious little jailbreak example we came up with for him. Helps me ‘get him’ every time.

One final piece of advice for coming up with a character:
Look at the larger context
That’s what the posts Reactionary Devices and Cast Templates were all about. The character you just created is going to have to spend an entire book or franchise together with the other characters, and (to some degree) serving your plot. Make sure they can earn their screen time by being whatever they need to be.

We had to replace our beloved badger character in Stumped recently, a character who had been there from the start, simply because he didn't add enough to the series. There is nothing worse than that.

Well... except famine.
Or rape.
But you get the idea.

"I want to develop my Ben character but I don't know where to start. I get overwhelmed with all the possibilities of what kind of person he can be."

Nothing crushes creativity like too many possibilities; time to enforce some limits. One concept Luke and I have used before is the idea of 'The Spark'.

What first inspired you to make Ben? Was it his appearance, mindset or some physicality? Was it perhaps an interesting back story? Or even just the name?

This is The Spark and we find it often exerts powerful influence over most of our characters and ideas, even if we didn't realise it was there. Once you have identified it, there are four common (but not definitive) scenarios to move onto:

1. The Spark is a Strong Core Idea - Embrace it
What you want to do is consciously make that your starting point, and let it guide the rest of the ‘fleshing out’ process.

Let’s say our Spark is 'wanting to write a character with little, to no imagination.' Then we can ask questions such as “What kind of job could we give him?”

Now that would lead naturally to making him an accountant or statistician, or you could choose a more contrasting angle and make him an art curator, or a worker at a circus. This doesn't help with everything, but I find that if my Spark ever had legs then I should be able to discern some kind of direction from it.

2. The Spark is a Weak Core Idea - Re-evaluate it
Be harsh. A good idea doesn’t always equal a whole character. Sometimes a Spark can be transplanted to another character, and sometimes a Spark just never had the potential for fire. Sadly this is one thing I am experienced in.

3. The Character is Strong but The Spark is Holding It Back
Sometimes the Spark starts out in one place, then over time the character develops its own momentum and becomes its own thing. Because of this, sometimes it’s The Spark that is holding back the character from developing.

Brad Bird (bless his cotton socks) describes this as an emotional kidney stone that is painful to get rid of, but allows for a healthier finished product. The Incredibles (2004) had changed so much since he first started work on it, that he had to remove the scene ‘Snug’s Death’ which had been with him since the start.

4. The Spark is 'Basing a Character off Someone You Know'
This is a very broad and complicated Spark, just as broad and complicated as an actual human being. Unless they have incredibly forceful and unsubtle attributes this can be hard.

I recommend making a list of the, lets say top 10 things that interest you about them. From that I would try to choose the one or two big things (usually a personality trait) that can sit at the core of the character - then work your way outwards.


Now what I know about Ben from your blog, you have created lots of details and 'moments.' You do this better than most people and it's what makes your work unique and magnificent I think. It's why I can never tell if they're real, or if you just made them up.

The next step is to find that 'core idea', and The Spark is a good place to start looking. From the little I know of him, I would guess it's something to do with his misanthropy, or his mysterious past. Don't forget the larger context - Either let a story come from him, or adapt him to a story.

But then again, you were always able to find a story in things I never could have. Trust your instincts.


I hope that makes sense and helps you in some way. Cheers Jen on inspiring the first Q&A post. I look forward to others.

If you're still struggling with Ben, feel free to post some specifics and maybe we can brainstorm something.


  1. wow, I feel special.
    Also Ive been doing shift work on very little sleep, sorry for the late reply.

    I like that idea 'working from the inside out' that makes sense.
    And also great characters should be harder to summarise.
    Mini - stories! That sounds more easier and fun to do than a profile.
    There's so much gold here.

    'The spark' this method is impressive. It really makes you think why and how our characters come about. I would have never thought of this.
    His character is based on the characteristics of three people, His boyishness and physicality is based on a quite kid who lives with his family on the top floor of the hotel, he brought 'the goblet of fire' to the restaurant, how cute and antisocial is that!

    I have a lot of thinking to do, from fleshing out the spark to other characters to surround him.
    'Either let a story come from him, or adapt him to a story.' And this is very interesting, is this like when people say the 'characters write themselves'?

    Yay! Q&A Im pretty sure I will have many questions. Thank you for doing this very helpful post, and for offering to help me with Ben, I might post development stuff if Im not too embarrassed.
    I'm very touched by your compliments, especially coming from a professional writer.
    Blush blush blush

  2. Yeah... professional...

    *clears throat*

  3. Mini-stories are fun and easy, but I would probably recommend filling in a Character Profile at some point. If you've got a well fleshed out character you should find it easy - and if it isn't, perhaps it will highlight some undeveloped areas of your character.

    "Either let a story come from him, or adapt him to a story."

    What I meant by that is don't just create a character and have him float around without any 'placement.' Either create the character for a story, or create a story for the character.

    I mean it's okay to have a few unattached character ideas, especially if they are only side characters. But if you're serious about developing them, ESPECIALLY as a main character, then you don't want to take the risk of just 'sticking them in any old place.'

    Think about Liar Liar (which is a nice, easy movie to disassemble): Jim Carrey's character is a lying, career-focused lawyer who cares about everyone's opinion except that of his family. The story that he's placed in is perfect for such a character.

    Either the story was created for the character, or the character was created for the story. It's hard to tell which as they gel so well together they form one inextricable whole.

    Now, that is an extreme - and one that only works in a self-contained film. It does, however, illustrate the principal.

    It is an interesting exercise to run through movies, and decipher the relationship of the Main Character to The Story.

    Okay, I'm going to stop rambling now. Glad you found the post useful.

  4. Hey, i found it useful too. just starting to mesh out a casual project, and the work of the silent knights here have really helped me flesh out what i want to do with it.

    thanks, guys.

  5. Wonderful! We're very happy to have helped, Dojang.

    If you would like any help, advice, objectivity, answers or simply a friendly sounding board - please feel free to ask.

    Us creative types got to stick together.


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