Friday, June 19, 2015

Sex, Lies and Character Traits

by Paul D. Marks

Those in the writing know often suggest that writers prepare character profiles for each of their major characters. If you follow this approach, what do you tend to highlight? And if not, how do you keep track of your characters as the story progresses?

Before I respond to the question, from the Official Department of BSP:

Macavity logo d2

This blog post was done a couple days ago, ready to be scheduled. So I’m happy I waited on that since I have to add something additional to it: Macavity Award finalists were announced yesterday. I’m thrilled and honored that my short story, “Howling at the Moon,” from Ellery Queen, is one of the nominees in the short story category. And honored to be in the company of Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, Travis Richardson and our own Art Taylor. Yea, Art!  But the good news doesn’t stop there, fellow Criminal Mind Catriona McPherson’s novel “A Deadly Measure of Brimstone” is nominated in the Best Historical Novel category and she’s also nominated in the Best Mystery Novel category for “The Day She Died”. Yea, Catriona!

I want to thank Janet Rudolph and everyone who voted. I hope you’ll all read all the nominated stories and books. I believe most of the short stories are online. Here’s a link to the Anthony Award short story nominees, of which four, Art, Craig, Barb and I are also nominated. So if you scroll down to the short story awards, there will be links to our four stories that are also Macavity finalists:  And you can find Travis’ story in ThugLit issue #13.

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And now to the question at hand:

Mostly I just try to keep it in my head these days. So, of course, my head is about ready to explode.

When I first started writing, I often made a character profile chart. It had all the usual stuff, background, eye color, favorite foods, cars, etc. And I would diligently fill it out. But these days I really do keep most of it in my head. I might make a few notes about the various characters, either in a computer file or on a piece of paper, but I don’t fill out any forms anymore.

By the time I sit down to write, I’ve usually been thinking about the characters and major plot points in my head for some time. And since many of my characters are, at least in part (composites), based on people I know or know of, it’s sort of easy to keep it together. The problem is when you’re working on more than one thing at a time they can all run together.

The main concern with characters is to be consistent. What’s important is to keep track of what you’ve actually said in a work or series so the characters remain true to themselves/consistent. On a very simplistic level if a character likes chocolate at the beginning and hates it at the end, people will be taken out of the moment, out of the “reality” of your story. Unless that’s your character arc, how and why he comes to hate chocolate by the end.

Remember, too, that you don’t have to use every bit of background in your character profile. It’s good for the writer to know all these things, because these traits will make the character act or react in various situations. But maybe it’s not necessary for the reader to know everything – just enough to buy any actions on the part of the character.

Character Profiles collage

That said, when I occasionally teach a writing seminar or class, I do tell the students about character profiles and even hand one out. I think it’s a good thing for people who are starting out because it does make you think about these things.

Another good tool is Proust’s Questionnaire. Change ‘you’ in the questions to your character’s name and it will really get you thinking about who your character is.

Proust’s Questionnaire:
1.    What is your idea of perfect happiness?
2.    What is your greatest fear?
3.    What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
4.    What is the trait you most deplore in others?
5.    Which living person do you most admire?
6.    What is your greatest extravagance?
7.    What is your current state of mind?
8.    What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
9.    On what occasion do you lie?
10.    What do you most dislike about your appearance?
11.    Which living person do you most despise?
12.    What is the quality you most like in a man?
13.    What is the quality you most like in a woman?
14.    Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
15.    What or who is the greatest love of your life?
16.    When and where were you happiest?
17.    Which talent would you most like to have?
18.    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
19.    What do you consider your greatest achievement?
20.    If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
21.    Where would you most like to live?
22.    What is your most treasured possession?
23.    What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
24.    What is your favorite occupation?
25.    What is your most marked characteristic?
26.    What do you most value in your friends?
27.    Who are your favorite writers?
28.    Who is your hero of fiction?
29.    Which historical figure do you most identify with?
30.    Who are your heroes in real life?
31.    What are your favorite names?
32.    What is it that you most dislike?
33.    What is your greatest regret?
34.    How would you like to die?
35.    What is your motto?

Some of these questions hit on a deeper level than what’s your character’s favorite food which, no doubt, you can find on Facebook, as they post one pic after another of their daily cuisine.

For those who are interested, there are many variations of character profile forms online. Just search “character profile”.

There are more things one can ask about their character or put in their character’s “profile”, but I think this is a good start.

More great news:

My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was just picked up by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Not sure when it will be published yet. Set on today’s Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, not that other one back East. But the ghosts of Chandler, Fante and Cain are there in force.

And my noir mystery-thriller novella, Vortex, will be out soon. Advance Reader Copies are available if anyone’s interested. Hardcopy. E-version, stone tablets, hieroglyphics, Cuneiform, written on sand, any format. Choose your poison. Contact me at if you’re interested.

And please join me on Facebook: and check out my updated website  

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Meredith Cole said...

Congrats Paul and Catriona! Great news!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Meredith!

Susan C Shea said...


Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Susan!

Art Taylor said...

Hey, Paul -- Just catching up on everything while Dash sleeps in a little this morning. Congrats again on the nomination—-and so thrilled to see such good representation across the board from our Criminal Minds contributors!

Enjoyed the post here too. I've used character inventories before (teaching) but have never thought of the Proust questionnaire—-a good one!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Art. This is a great blog with some terrific people. And congratulations to you, too.

Yeah, the Proust thing works pretty well. I've used many of the questions when teaching and writing.

Enjoy your quiet time!