A character—generally a psychologist—who has the ability to discern the characteristics of a criminal from the attributes of the crime. In some cases, The Profiler uses a special form of Applied Phlebotinum by way of Writer on Board, taking unerringly correct leaps of reasoning. In others, the phlebotinum is more literal, with the character having psychic abilities that let them see into the past or read the minds of criminals.
Profiling is a real discipline within criminology, and it really does sometimes seem like magic, but in the real world, accurate profiling is one of the hardest things in all of criminal science, and almost never produces a particularly specific result. In fact, at least one study has shown that profilers are no better at picking out guilty suspects than any random intelligent person.
Real-life profilers try to stress that profiling will never be a replacement for old-fashioned police work, and their work is better used as a tool to exclude suspects who don't fit the profile as opposed to fingering the guilty party by describing them to a "T" right down to the color of his/her shoes. It doesn't help that the very first profiler—Dr. James Brussel, an eminent psychologist who consulted on the New York City "Mad Bomber" case in the 1950s -- did correctly predict what kind of suit the bomber would be wearing when arrested (and almost nothing else).
Naturally, the public hasn't listened for the most part. Thus Profilers in TV-land are far more effecient, accurate and almost never wrong.
Side note: The official title for this occupation isn't "Profiler". It is "Forensic/Criminal/Legal Psychologist", depending on the region, but that doesn't sound as cool, so TV land has ignored it. It might also have something to do with all the other branches of Criminal Psychology.
The stereotype of the profiler comes with an auxiliary stereotype that profilers are prone to stress and mental exhaustion, causing anything from nervous breakdowns to to actually becoming psychotic criminals like the ones they've been analyzing. A personalization of the old joke: "Q: What's the difference between a psychologist and a coal miner? A: The psychologist goes down deeper and comes up dirtier."
Not to be confused with Profiler.
Anime and Manga
- Snow, preternaturally so, in Tista.
- In Death Note. L performs a remarkable feat of profiling early in the series, but credits it to his ability to recognize a personality similar to his own. His sketch of the Second Kira is less complete, and he's completely beaten to the punch on the Third, though it's implied that he could've done better if he weren't so depressed and distracted. To be fair, they are all using a supernatural method of murder, which makes them much harder to predict or track down.
- Rogue profiler Hunter Zolomon. And his wife, Ashley after his Face Heel Turn.
- The Profile from Moon Knight is a mutant who can look at various "tells" and instantly profile people to such an amazing degree that it's basically telepathy. He can predict what people will do to the "ninety ninth percentile". This is a less heroic example, as The Profile is a Jerkass who will work for anyone.
- In Bookhunter, "ALA's top profiler" shows up briefly, and identifies the book thief as a loner... and as a childhood bed-wetter with a speech impediment. The readers never find out how accurate or inaccurate this profile actually is.
Films -- Live-Action
- Paul Giamatti's character in Shoot 'em Up is a Profiler. Criminal retired pussy with a gun profiles, but still a profiler.
- Will Graham in Manhunter and its remake, Red Dragon. This is the man who captured Hannibal Lecter.
- Of course we would be remiss if we didn't mention the original novel. It's so much easier to get into a character's head that way.
- Both played straight and inverted in Mindhunters - every person on the island is a profiler, and the murderer seems to know his victims quite well, enabling some particularly karmic deaths for the flawed criminologists.
- Outlaw Private Detective Burke has this ability, based on his studying such people while he was an inmate in prison.
- Cassie Maddox, secondary main character of Tana French's In the Woods, is a murder-squad detective who is unofficially consulted as a profiler by the rest of the squad because she studied a bit of psychology in college. Despite her lack of training, her observations help pinpoint an important aspect of the killer's psychology.
- Amateur Sleuth example: Hercule Poirot's personal favourite method of solving murders is the use of "the psychology". Even more so than order, method and the little grey cells. Cards on the Table provides a good example of this.
- Sherlock Holmes is always profiling both clients and adversaries, usually based on tiny details he observes with the Sherlock Scan.
- Vincent D'Onofrio's character in Law and Order: Criminal Intent would fit here.
- Ally Walker as "Dr. Sam Waters", the title character of Profiler.
- Lance Henriksen as "Frank Black" in Millennium.
- In The X-Files, Mulder's original forte before he found the title case files and went onto the supernatural tangent that made up his career from then on.
- In one episode, he found himself up against his own former boss, who had gone off the deep end and started imitating the criminal he was after.
- The entire main cast of Criminal Minds, except for JJ, who is the media liaison, and Garcia, who is the technical analyst (read: computer person), though JJ becomes one in the 7th season and Garcia in the 6th inherited some of her media work.
- They, at least, are more or less realistic about what is possible.
- One first-season episode had them get suspicious when the profile hit the mark too closely. It turned out the real killer was playing them.
- Several episodes have also shown them to be wrong with their profiles because of a critical factor they overlooked/weren't aware of.
- Some of their leaps of logic are still quite far-fetched though, especially in later seasons and especially when they accurately profile unique or bizarre psychoses.
- Also notable, most of the team are not psychologists- Hotch studied Law and used to be a prosecutor, Pretniss is ex-CIA, JJ as mentioned was media liason, Rossi (a co-founder of the unit) has a military background, and Reid does have a psychology degree, but its only one in his collection, and is only a B.A., even though he has three doctorates in hard sciences.
- They, at least, are more or less realistic about what is possible.
- Emil Skoda, George Huang, and Rebecca Hendrix of Law and Order Special Victims Unit.
- Before he was known as Hagrid from Harry Potter, Robbie Coltrane was best known for playing the criminal psychologist Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald in the TV show Cracker. A US remake starring Robert Pastorelli was known as Fitz in territories who had already seen the original.
- Tony Hill in Wire in The Blood functions in this capacity, though he has often made a point of correcting people who refer to him as a "profiler".
- Megan Reeves on Numb3rs.
- Played for laughs: On The Wire, McNulty goes to the FBI to have a profile made of a serial killer (whom McNulty has fabricated in order to increase police funding), only to have the FBI develop of profile of the killer which matches McNulty himself to a T. It's a perfect sum-up of every character trait that we saw in McNulty for the past five seasons.
- A rather ridiculously accurate profiling is done on Angel, which not only describes the killer, but Angel himself.
- Dutch from The Shield wasn't officially a profiler but a Homicide Detective, but this didn't stop him from categorizing the killers he was looking for by psych profile based on the evidence he saw at the scenes.
- Rebecca Locke in the Too Good to Last series The Inside, along with most of the main cast.
- Anne Fortier in Fortier does profile serial killers but does so without the supernatural prescience of many fictional profilers. Instead her greatest strength is her ability to talk and to get other people to talk.
- In the first episode of Life On Mars, Sam brings in psychologically-trained Annie to play this role on a stalled murder investigation; naturally, Gene Hunt is a tad skeptical of its merits.
- Dr. Sweets on Bones is initially brought on to mediate the Brennan/Booth relationship, but also works with them as a occasional forensic psychologist. In one episode he details his extensive education, including multiple doctorates, one of which probably gave him the training for this kind of work.
- In the first season of Dexter, the Miami PD finds a woman's corpse and Debra (believing it the work of a serial killer) attempts to write up a profile of the killer. When she shows it to Dexter, he says it seems rather basic and uninformative to hide the fact that the profile does contain a few accurate assumptions about the killer, who is himself. Dexter also occasionally shows degrees of this (even though his actual job is forensic blood splatter analysis) when he adds his opinion of what was motivating a killer based off the types of wounds caused by the blood splatter.
- In the second season, when the corpses of Dexter's victims are discovered, FBI special agent Lundy is brought in to locate the killer, and repeatedly shows insights into Dexter himself.
- Sam Nixon in The Bill took a profiling course. The show had another profiler brought in for one case, who then proceeded to sleep with, then later kidnap Sam's daughter.
- Subverted in Monk, where a group of investigators use advanced technology to profile a killer and come up with a completely incorrect solution.
- Will of Sanctuary is a Criminal Psychologist, and uses this knowledge of the mind to assist him in his work in the Sanctuary, in fact, it's exactly this skill which interested Magnus.
- It's implied that Watson had this as a psychic ability and Will has it to a lesser degree as a normal person.
- Lightman from Lie to Me takes this role, thought he's actually a social psychologist by training.
- Most of the team in Flashpoint fit this to an extent, though Parker is the most proficient and is the best at doing it.
- Pathologist Ducky Mallard in NCIS adds profiling to his extensive list of other talents in later seasons.
- Norman Jayden from Heavy Rain fits this trope to a T. He even gets his initial profile right.
- Psycho Mantis took it up a notch in his backstory by being a criminologist psychic. Unfortunately he looked into a few too many evil minds and it turned him psychopathic himself.
- Of course, if his story about burning down his village as a child is true, he was probably fairly unhinged beforehand.
- Francis York Morgan of Deadly Premonition does this often, which is shown as him digging around for sufficient evidence, at which point a mini-movie of the scene plays in his head as a Eureka Moment.
- One of these does quite well during his first and last appearance in The Unspeakable Vault of Doom. He determines that a Serial Killer is old, but physically strong and mentally sharp, a habitual cannibal and self-considered god, and wants his victims to worship him. However, he believes the killer forces his victims to write out a particular phrase, and fails to realize that this phrase summons the killer (who is, in fact, Cthulhu.)
- Shadow Unit: the majority of the main cast.
- Frank Bishop from Fillmore!, a retired profiler brought on to find a serial shredder.
- John E. Douglas, founder of the FBI's Criminal Profiling Program and inspiration for several of the trope examples listed above, has written several professional and true-crime books about profiling and his personal experiences with its use. His near-fatal bout of viral encephalitis, while pursuing the Green River Killer case, surely contributed to this trope's assumption that a profiler's work is both emotionally and physically exhausting.
- Robert Ressler is a contemporary of John Douglas, and another veteran of the Behavior Science Unit. He has written both fictional and real-life accounts of profiling work, and is credited with coining the term "serial killer". Ressler is responsible, in whole or part, for the foundation of the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime, and the Violent Crime Apprehension Program.
- Judson Ray. Badass Chicago cop brought onboard as a profiler by the aforementioned John Douglas. Notable for helping to solve his own attempted murder (it was his wife).
- Dayle Hinman as seen on TruTV's (formerly known as CourtTV) "Body Of Evidence".
- Paul Britton, one of Britain's leading forensic psychologist who (according to his books anyway) effectively kickstarted and setup the forensic psychology field in Britain and worked on several high profile cases such as Fred and Rosemary West and the Jamie Bulger Case.
- There is a new area of Psychology called Investigative Psychology lead by David Canter (A famed profiler himself) that intents to find a way to use Offender Profiling outside the more horrific types of crimes and even in non-forensic fields. It's far from being as exact as other fields in Psychology, and that's saying something, but it has had some success using Geographical Profiling (normally only used with serial offenders) in nonrelated areas such as Marketing. So it was recently upgraded from "Most likely to end up being nothing but a footnote in some textbook." too "Ambitious new field."
- A form of what might be called profiling today was used to catch a serial killer in France in the late 1800s, according to Douglas Starr's book The Killer of Little Shepherds."
- Roy Hazelwood gave us the official labels of "organized" and "disorganized" murderers, as well as the six categories of rapists (power reassurance, power assertive, anger retaliatory, anger excitation, opportunistic, and gang if you're curious) during his F.B.I. career. Much of his profiling work was specific to sexual predators. While retired since the 90s, he still consults occasionally, has co-authored two books, and does the occasional lecture tour.
- Note also that Brussel's profile had been made public, so it's possible that the bomber's choice of clothing had been unconsciously influenced by it.