Personality profiles are often heavy on the “profile” but lack “personality.” The ability to go beyond “So and so is not your typical college student…” takes effort, research and most of all observation.
The goal of a good profile piece is to have your readers able to see the subject in their mind’s eye. The ability to visualize the person both physically and beyond is crucial to understanding the individual and the value this person has as as profile subject.
One of my first professors taught me to work on observing a profile subject through the acronym “SCAM.” I have no idea where he got this or if it was original to him, so if you find the original source, I’d love to know it so I can give credit where credit is due.
Here’s what it means:
SETTING: Good writing appeals to the senses. To make that happen, you need to make sure you can explain what’s going on around you. What do the person’s surroundings look like?
- If it’s a desk worker, how clean is that desk?
- What type of information is on the bulletin board?
- If you’re at a person’s home, what kind of décor are we looking at? Is it high-end quality furniture of antique vintage of is it three beanbags with duct tape on them and a giant wooden spool for a table?
- Does the person have pets running around or is it very cold and empty? If they’ve got pets, what kind of pets are they?
- What does it sound like? (What kind of music does the person listen to? Imagine going to meet the head of your university and all of a sudden that person turns on the radio, and out pours death metal or gangsta rap.) What sounds surround the person? (A drill in a dentist’s office, the clang of a construction crane)
- What does it smell like around this person? (Cigarette smoke? Heavy perfume? Hog farm?)
CHARACTER: Who is this person you’re describing? In society we usually start with the physical.
- What does your source wear? Shirt and tie? High fashion? T-shirt and jeans?
- What is the height, weight, build of the person? Hair neat and simple or wild and stylish or is it utilitarian?
- What do their eyes look like? Bright and engaging or do they look dead?
- What do they drive? What do they own? What do they wear that tells you something important? (An important piece of jewelry?)
The internal stuff is a little harder to get at but is possible. How do they react to people who are important vs. people they view as subordinates? How do they act in public? How do they act in private? What type of language do they use? (prim and proper or cussing that would cause a sailor to blush?) Look for ways to help me understand this person’s inner-self.
ACTION: What does your source do? This can be as simple as tapping a pencil while he or she is talking on the phone or as complicated as explaining the painstaking precision of the bakers on Ace of Cakes.
- How does your source move? Is it frantic or slow or smooth or ragged?
- How does your source physically respond to certain things? (Do they always take things in stride or do they freak out?)
- What kinds of things does your source do when speaking to you? (Do they sit still or are they doing other things? Do they attend solely to you or are you an afterthought?)
- What actions do they take related to who they are? (Athletes who stretch or limp due to injury or action? People who are hunched from years of specific activities?)
MEANING: You need to make sure that these things matter. You mesh the character, action and scene along with quotes and reporting bits and suddenly you’ve got enough to reveal your source’s personality to the reader. Remember, as Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, so don’t overreach for this. Look at what you’ve collected and make an intelligent statement about your source based on what you’ve seen and learned.