by John McCall

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By John D. McCall

Can Facebook help writers draw fictional characters? It might be worth investigating.  It’s easy to join. *  Most writers who are already members joined (like others) to keep up with friends and relations. Some of these writers may not have considered what the profiles in Facebook can do for fiction and scripts. (The benefits to historians are too obvious to mention.)

Some gifted writers need no help with characterization. They may be like Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Microft. His memory was one vast filing cabinet with a systematic dossier on each individual. This article is for the rest of us with memories liable to flicker and dim – and whose notes on characters can be scanty or disheveled. (The notes about characters can trouble even well organized writers that give distinctive and descriptive titles to their files and folders -- and update them regularly.) So could Facebook really help us? – Even though …

Facebook is not for the convenience of fiction writers. It aims to promote camaraderie unbound by geography. It brings families and friends together, mainly through photos and messages. And Facebook rightly attacks one kind of “fiction.” In rare cases some malicious and pathetic jokers put a “person” on line that does not exist. For a snide giggle or two, they’d undermine the trust of people just seeking companionship, or even a “beautiful friendship.”

For writers, Facebook can be beautiful, but not in the obvious parts of the website – the chatty tidbits. They’re a waste of time. You can get more interesting ideas from Wikipedia and juicier notions from fanzines. Besides, most members want to seem lively but “nice” – hardly useful to that spirit of conflict called fiction.

For fiction writers, the real beauty of Facebook lies in the “profile.”  It lies beneath the surface of facts, fables, and photos that usually cover the screen. Yet the profile is not hard to get to. * 

So what is a profile? (Members know, but they may not know the uses described here.) When members join they fill out a form called a profile. It’s a standardized form. It doesn’t ask anything. Instead it lists topics (or more precisely “categories of information” like “date of birth”).  Members can supply information or not as they like.

Some items are a matter of record. They include the individual’s hometown, schooling, work experience, and current location. Other topics are more personal – such as activities and interests, including favorite books, music, and movies. Some topics are contentious like politics and religion. And some members add their own comments to the profile.

Writers instinctively draw characters with these traits. So exactly how can profiles help?

Since the format is standardized, each topic appears in the same sequence for each   individual. Writers can simply insert descriptions of a character under each topic. Of course, writers would insert more detail for major characters. But even for minor characters, writers need to know details like these: Did Mary Sue go to Princeton or Yale? Was it Mike or Jim who played the oboe? Unimportant? Minor inconsistencies can damage a reader’s or a viewer’s trust.

Many writers might agree that profiles could make a handy reference. But can profiles provide insights into character?

The number of topics in a profile can encourage detailed descriptions. Ordinarily, a plus, they might add more complexity to a manuscript than needed, especially to minor characters, who just might upstage the lead. The multiple aspects of a personality might lead some writers to radically alter a character or even create a new one. But should a profile be expected to deepen a character in any way? There are pro’s and con’s.

Why bother? For centuries, authors have made notes to suit themselves -- without any help from Facebook. Can a standardized form ever replace insight and empathy? Can a mere form cover the many facets of a major character’s mind? Can it connect the flesh of the character to the bones of the plot and to the spirit of the theme? A sketch is not a character.           

There is some truth in the “Con’s.” While a profile can introduce characters in short scenes, it can seldom describe a round character in sufficient detail. But, in a general way, it can point to contradictory impulses that determine a plot.  (Characters with a number of contrasting impulses are called “round”; those with few are “flat.”)

Take an old story reminiscent of Hemmingway. (Most modern writers would depart radically from the Hemmingway slant.) This story begins with Ray Burke.

Guilt shadows Ray Burke. In the Depression of the 1930’s, on a modest income, he’s lucky enough to have a congenial job as a language instructor at Chapel Hill. Yet cursed with a strong sense of justice, he fears that fascists may topple the free Republic in Spain. Will he join the fight? It’s not certain.

On the one hand, he respects the cautious commonsense in “Poor Richards Almanac,” delights in Voltaire’s Candide (which debunks heroism and war), and half worships the peace-loving Gandhi. On the other hand, he is impassioned by martial music, loves danger (speeding down the Carolina back roads with ten-year-old breaks), wins awards on the firing range, and loathes “fascist pigs.” (But, according to his comment, he detests the epithet “fascist hyena” because the Communists shout it without variation – and phrase itself feels alien.)

Given a writer sensitive to nuance and dramatic potential, could the skimpy description above become the embryo of a novel? Possibly. But is it wise to concoct (or drastically revise) a major character with only a two-page sketch in hand?

Why not begin with a brief scene from the viewpoint of a flat character? Though few traits are needed, flat characters can be important. Simplicity can impart impact – instantly evoking, say, humor or horror. Even with little inner life, characters can play the lead in action yarns, satires, entertaining mysteries, and other genres.

Most important is the character’s reaction to the lead (and often the converse) especially in scenes that introduce them. Here’s an example. Warning: the following scene is at its most ridiculous in making a Facebook profile the main character.

With two pages in hand, a portly bureaucrat fidgets anxiously on the first floor of a rooming house on Baker Street thinking: “How could he possibly … possibly have known the location of Naval secrets? That Professor … that Moriarity, he’s just what they say he is – ‘the evil genius.’

Can this Sherlock Holmes stand up to him? News clippings show nothing – he never takes credit. Fortunately – his brother told me in a whisper -- Holmes has filled out a Facebook profile (under a pseudonym). Thank God the tobacconist has that vulgar brass “printer.” Let’s see … let’s see: born January 6, 1854? The last digit smeared. Youngish. Mature enough for the job? Well, young enough to be bold and agile -- but bookish, I see. Arcane subjects in respected journals. Could be useful; the job needs brilliance and a wide-ranging mind. Hmm.

Holmes writes: ‘I base my conclusions on apparent trivialities.’ Not good. Unsound. Too clever by half. Activities? Martial arts, but also disguise – a bit off. Hmm, what’s this? According to his own comment, he has ‘a complete mastery of the violin.’ The violin! Ah! A kindred spirit!”


“Mr. Holmes, will you take my case?”

This scene may discourage most writers from ever using a profile! Others may see beyond the failings of scene, and employ some of its techniques.


The Facebook profile is handy and can stretch to suit many needs. But no technique should be permitted to interrupt or divert the creative flow. One great aim of fiction technique is to liberate writers from secondary concerns – like noting and keeping track of character traits. When freed, writers can more fully focus on endowing a character with a life behind the face.


To get to a Facebook profile: 1) Go to 2) Join Facebook, if you haven’t – it’s free. 3) A “profile” comes up:  It’s on two pages. 4) Print them out. 5) If you are already a member, press “Info” under your photo or silhouette for a profile. Writers concerned about privacy can simply copy the topics from this article, which covers most of them. Whatever source the writer uses, the trick for ready reference, is too stick to one sequence of topics for every significant character.


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Rev 2010-1.