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Writer-Talk Tuesday: Becoming a Profiler

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Over Labor Day Weekend, my last weekend of “freedom” (i.e., I was getting ready to go back to work for the first time in three years, and, ever since that weekend, I’ve had something going on seven days a week without fail), I found myself wanting to veg-out in front of the TV. And as I was flipping past A&E, I saw Thomas Gibson on the screen and I thought, He’s hot. So I landed on their holiday Criminal Minds marathon.

I’d tried watching this show before, and it was just too much for me. However, at that time, I was still watching two of the three CSI shows, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and a few other crime/procedural shows. And I just couldn’t add one more to the mix—especially one that dealt with even darker subject matter than those shows usually did.

This time, however, I found myself less concerned about the serial killers and victims and much, much more interested in the characters solving these heinous crimes. And in the methods they’re shown using to figure out who these unsubs (unidentified subjects) are.

Okay, so my reason for initially landing on CM was rather shallow. I have a type, and Thomas Gibson, who plays SSA Aaron Hotchner fits it to a T (though, I was never able to watch him on Dharma & Greg because everyone else on that show annoyed me). However his is one of the most fascinating characters to study on this show. And the writers have done a great job at a “slow burn” character development for each of the main players, revealing only in tiny bits these characters’ backstories . . . even as they spend each week figuring out in the first ten minutes of the show the complete backstory of the unsub—down to the smallest detail.

What these profilers (from the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI) do is figure out where an unsub came from—how they grew up and what made them people who are capable of committing these crimes. Then they determine the trigger—the event in the unsub’s life that flipped the switch and led them to start doing what they’ve done.

In novels, we call this the inciting incident—the event that sets the story on its path. The event that changes the life of our main character(s) irrevocably.

Developing a character is much more than coming up with a name and a job and a place for the character to live and things for the character to do in the course of the story. As storytellers, we need to profile our characters as carefully as the fictional BAU team (and I’m sure the real-life BAU teams on which they’re based) do with the criminals they chase each week.

In fiction writing, we need to know more than just who our characters “are”—we need to know how they became who they are. Age, race, religious/denomination affiliation, economics, parental presence or lack thereof, type of school(s) attended, birth order, number of siblings, family dynamics, introvert vs. extrovert . . . all of these things not only tell us who a character is, but they determine how a character will act/react in different situations.

Each writer profiles his/her characters in different ways. Some do it with extensive character “interviews” or profile sheets that they fill out for each of their viewpoint characters as well as major secondary characters. I, personally, write detailed backstories (in synopsis format) for my main characters—yet I still discover things about them as I write the story, and sometimes even in the revision process. (For example, I didn’t know that William and Julia had seen each other again since the first voyage to Jamaica, when she was ten and he was fifteen, until I got feedback from a publisher asking for a happier opening that brought them together earlier than the end of the third chapter, suggesting I do it with a prologue. And suddenly, I found myself writing a prologue in which not only were they seeing each other again, but Julia was expecting William to propose to her. Never saw it coming, and that was after I’d already completed a rewrite and a couple of revisions on Ransome’s Honor before submitting it.) Some writers figure out their characters’ backstories as they’re writing.

Writers—how do you “profile” your characters?

Readers—can you tell whether or not a writer has done a good job as a profiler? How much backstory do you need to make a character you’re reading compelling?

And if this seems like a thinly veiled excuse to write about Criminal Minds, you’re probably right, but that’s what was on my mind.

P.S., for those who watch the show, who doesn’t love the interplay between Morgan and Garcia?


  1. Tuesday, October 18, 2011 12:03 am

    You’re really going to write about Criminal Minds and not Hawaii Five-0? I may never speak to you again, Kaye.


  2. Lady DragonKeeper permalink
    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 1:35 am

    LOL, I’m about to watch Hawaii 5-0 in about half an hour …

    I’ve never really watched Criminal Minds because it never seemed to be my “cup of tea”.

    In franchises such as “Star Wars” or other multiple author series, it’s annoying to me when an author writes a character “out of his/her character” or gets details wrong such as hair or eye color … that’s when I wish they had “profiled” or researched the character’s backstory better (or asked someone who did). Maybe I’m too much of a fangirl? 😛


  3. Audry permalink
    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 7:24 am

    I can’t think of a specific example off the top of my head, but I’ve definitely read books where the characters’ responses and motivations seemed to shift with every scene to accommodate the plot. In these cases I always find myself frustrated, because I can never get a handle on who the character is. I end up not being able to identify with the character at all, and it keeps me from being drawn into the story.


  4. Tuesday, October 18, 2011 10:03 am

    I loved Thomas in Dharma & Greg; I liked everyone in the show. So far in my first novel I have not profiled my main characters. I learn about them as the story unfolds and am mildly surprised at what comes out as the story goes on. The needed backstory–as I read I want to know about it and am jolted when the backstory suddenly appears chapters after I’ve gotten to know the folks. Then, wham!, I don’t really know the characters I’ve been reading about. This annoys me as I have to add the backstory to the character’s mix as I’ve come to know them (I thought) as I’ve read. Some editors have said don’t use a prologue, some don’t care. But I think that is a great way to present back story if your editor allows. My 2 cents….


  5. Tuesday, October 18, 2011 1:05 pm

    Ugh – I typed something out earlier but then it got lost :(.

    ❤ Criminal Minds. Love Morgan and Garcia! Love Garcia in general! Love Reid's 6-shooter [or has he finally upgraded?]!

    I'm too much of a pantser to do all the pre-writing stuff people talk about. Yes, it means more editing later but ah well. Once, I knew my heroine was upset. It was what led to the inciting incident [this was a sequel; what happened to the h/h in the other book had left her depressed, hence the particular II]. But I didn't realize exactly why she was upset/depressed or how deep it was until it appeared on the screen. Yep. Not right before I typed it, but as I *read* it on the screen. Sat back and said 'wow, now THAT makes a lot more sense!' and I LOVED it! Still do [really need that series to sell so I can finish that particular h/h :D].

    Lady Dragon Keeper – that drives me nuts on TV shows especially. NCIS is REALLY good about that. The only inconsistency I can think of was in the pilot Gibbs [Mark Harmon] and the FBI agent didn't know each other. Later on, they've known each other for years and the FBI agent [Fornell, played by Joe Spano] married Gibbs' ex-wife long before the pilot. Spano appears on several eps a season. I can forgive that kind of error, especially from a pilot.

    Other shows… Friends is a good example, flat out said they didn't necessarily care about continuity [at least sometimes] – they moved the toilet in Joey/Chandler's apartment at one point. Or they never deal with stuff [like Monica saying she wouldn't date Chandler if he was the last guy on earth then marrying him later; or Phoebe saying she'd gotten married in Vegas, never mentioned again, then marries Mike in the last season] Ugh. I hate that.

    Ah well :). Moving on… 😀


    • Lady DragonKeeper permalink
      Wednesday, October 19, 2011 4:04 pm

      That’s a good observation –t.v. shows can have a lot of inconsistency …


  6. Tuesday, October 18, 2011 2:30 pm

    Profiling is fun. I’ve watched Criminal Minds a few times, and liked it – but it’s so darn SERIOUS! 😉 Give me Tony, Ziva, and McGee getting Gibbs-slapped any day!

    My first manuscript wasn’t profiled nearly enough until about the third revision. THAT’S when I realized things about my main characters that I hadn’t noticed before. They really do take on a life, don’t they? For instance, my hero seems “perfect,” and yet he made a decision to take responsibility for an event at a young age for which he was NOT responsible. It colored every other decision and relationship he had. But the thing is, I found out, writing the story, exactly when that decision was made, and to me, it’s the best scene in the story.


  7. Rachel Wilder permalink
    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 7:17 pm

    Morgan and Garcia are just awesome. End of story. I love everything about this show and there are only two, maybe three episodes I haven’t seen. Hotch is without a doubt one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever come across on TV. Season seven is on now and we still don’t know if Hotch even has any siblings! There’s been nothing about his parents so far either.

    Yes, I profile my characters and write out their backstory in synopsis form. As I write, I add more to it because I’m constantly discovering new things. But I have to have that background synopsis in order to figure out their GMC, the lie they believe, and a lot of my internal conflict comes from there. I need to get my next hero’s all written out. I know most of it, but it isn’t in word form yet.


  8. loribenton permalink
    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 8:07 pm

    I’ve never watched that show, crime dramas not being my cup of tea (unless you count Castle :)), but I go about profiling like you do, writing a synopsis of each main and secondary characters’ back story from birth up to the inciting incident (even some history back a generation or two if it’s applicable, since certain patterns of behavior tend to echo down generations), hitting the crucial choices and events that shaped who they are and what’s driving them in the present story. I like to uncover all the secrets the characters are keeping from each other too. There’s always something. When I’ve exhausted every idea that feels right for the characters, I start writing the story, and continue profiling (or character development) during the first draft and beyond. I might think I know who these people are before starting out, and what they’ve done and had done to them and what their hang-ups and hopes are, but I don’t really and truly until I’ve written fairly deep into the book. Sometimes it’s not until I’ve reached the end of the first draft that I finally nail down one or two of the more stubborn characters.


  9. Janet Kerr permalink
    Tuesday, October 25, 2011 1:40 pm

    I have not watched the show however I am interested in profiling. I think that I “profile” my characters by getting right inside their skin. I want to know everything I can about them before I start writing & then I like it when they surprise me. I do an eanagram on them so that their characters are consistent. I even do an astrological chart that gives me more details about their personalities. And I specifically look at Mercury to see how they “talk”.

    I can tell if the characters are not “profiled” in books. I usually just put the book down and don’t go back. The characters are just not interesting enough. As far as backstory, I think that the writer needs to know it so that the characters are true to their nature. And for the reader, the backstory is only necessary when it is important to the development of the story.


  10. Sarah permalink
    Wednesday, October 26, 2011 2:01 pm

    I have can never really get into watching all the crime scene investegation shows. I will watch them if there is really nothing else on T.V. I always want to know more about the characters in the books I’m reading. The more background information given the better and more interesting I find the book.


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