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.
From the name of the specialty in law enforcement. Also a series of the same name, with a profiler as its main character, naturally enough.
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). note
Naturally, the public hasn't listened for the most part. Thus Profilers in TV-land are far more efficient, 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 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."
- 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. Not helping matters is they are all using a supernatural method of murder, which makes them much harder to predict or track down.
- Kogami of Psycho-Pass, who learned from Saiga, a criminology professor that also gives Akane a crash-course. In the setting, profiling (rather than using Psycho Pass data and constant surveillance) is considered outdated because studying these cases or even criminology tends to increase your Psycho Pass, but it still proves remarkably effective.
- The Flash: Rogue profiler Hunter Zolomon. And his wife, Ashley after his FaceHeel 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.
- Bloodhound was a DC miniseries about Travis "the Bloodhound" Clevenger, the best profiler in the business when it came to metahuman offenders. His skills are so invaluable that police regularly consult him even as he does time for murder.
- Bedlam features Fillmore Press, alias Madder Red, a former mass-murdering supervillain who reformed after a stay in a psychiatric institution. He knows exactly how the criminally insane mind operates, and offers his services to the local police when they're stumped by a string of serial murders. The police, especially detective Ramira Acevedo, have no idea what to make of him — since Madder Red is believed dead and Press has no actual criminal record, he comes across as a weird guy with bizarrely in-depth knowledge of how crazy killers think. Eventually he's hired on as a paid consultant.
- Paul Giamatti's character in Shoot 'em Up is a Profiler. Criminal retired coward with a gun profiler, but still a profiler.
- Hannibal Lecter:
- Will Graham in Manhunter and its remake, Red Dragon. This is the man who captured Hannibal Lecter.
- Hannibal Lecter offers his services as a profiler in exchange for a Luxury Prison Suite in The Silence of the Lambs. However, Lecter subverts the trope: He is able to offer an extremely accurate profile of Buffalo Bill because he'd met him and knew his personal history, not because of his own insight.
- 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. This makes sense, since the trainees figure out quite early on that the killer has to be one of their own.
- Although While the City Sleeps was made in the late-fifties when profiling was just in its infancy, it has a former cop perfectly estimate the age, habits, and attitudes of a killer through the evidence left behind by the killer.
- In Ripper: Letter from Hell, Professor Kane used to a profiler with the FBI. After a near-fatal encounter with a Serial Killer, he quit and dropped out of sight. He wrote a best-selling book and serial killers before becoming a lecturer in criminology.
- Dr. James G. Kent, the police psychiatrist in The Sniper, may represent one of the earliest examples on film. The film was one of the first to focus on the psychology of a serial killer as a major plot point.
- 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.
- Hercule Poirot deduces the truth behind the murders by matching the psychology of the crime to the psychology of the criminal/suspects.
- Sherlock Holmes is always profiling both clients and adversaries, usually based on tiny details he observes with the Sherlock Scan.
- John Wayne Cleaver of I Am Not a Serial Killer and the subsequent books tries to use profiling to track down the demons. He keeps coming back to a fundamental principle of trying to figure out "What does the killer do that he doesn't have to do?". His accuracy varies, but the police that he talks to over the course of the series tend to be impressed by his insights.
- Agent Foreman from Mr. Monster is a more straightforward example, but is actually the killer he's "tracking"
- Variant from the Star Wars Expanded Universe: the ever-popular Grand Admiral Thrawn is able to profile a given species' psychological makeup (and from there, their tactical vulnerabilities) by looking at, of all things, their art. He's also seen using the technique on individuals, including his rival Garm bel Iblis, from time to time. While not infallible (he once referred to a Noodle Incident where he was unable to read a particular species, and had to wipe them out by brute force), it was highly reliable and absolutely unique; no other character, past or present, Chiss or otherwise, not even Jedi, has displayed such a knack for understanding their enemies from so little. It's actually treated fairly realistically; race x is so orderly an unstructured attack makes them react stupidly, race y panics when seeing something "impossible" which makes them great targets for a trickery aided bluff, that kind of thing.
- The first literary detective who professionally worked as a profiler - or at least something like it - may be Helen McCloy's Dr. Basil Willing, a forensic psychologist who worked with the New York Police Department. The first novel in the series appeared in 1938.
- Dexter: Dexter Morgan is pretty good at understanding the minds of serial killers, mainly because he is one, but also because his "Dark Passenger" (a spirit with whom he shares his body) clues him in when he's on the right track.
- Several appear in the Michael Connelly universe, most notably FBI Agents Terry McCaleb, featured in Blood Work, and Rachel Walling, introduced in The Poet.
- Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore play this in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, making liberal use of the Pensieve Flashback to build a profile of Tom Riddle/Voldemort. This allows them to start figuring out what his horcruxes are and where they're hidden so they can then destroy them.
- In one episode of The Wire, Detectives McNulty and Greggs consult the FBI's profiling unit at Quantico to try and catch "The Red-Ribbon Killer", who has been preying on the homeless of Baltimore. Since the "killer" is in fact an invention of McNulty, who has been taking the bodies of homeless people who hadn't actually been murdered, and dressing them up to look like they had been killed by a serial killer, all as part of a scheme he had cooked up to get funding for a major drugs/corruption investigation, the profile ends up describing him perfectly:
"The suspect is likely a white male in his late twenties to late thirties, he likely is not a college graduate but feels superior to those with advanced education, and he is likely employed in a bureacratic entity, possibly civil service or quasi-public service from which he feels alienated. He has a problem with authority, and a deep-seated resentment of those he feels have impeded his progress professionally. The minimized sexual activity suggests this is not a primary motive for the killings, in fact the lack of DNA or saliva in the bite-marks of the last-found victim indicate to us possible post-mortem staging. The suspect has trouble with lasting relationships, and is possibly a high-functioning alcoholic, with alcohol being used as a trigger in his crimes. His resentment of the homeless may stem from a personal relationship with someone who was in that cohort, or his victimization of them may simply provide an opportunity for him to assert his superiority and/or intellectual prowess."
- Vincent D'Onofrio's character in Law & Order: Criminal Intent would fit here. From the main Law & Order series, one of the early seasons had the NYPD work up a profile of a suspect who was randomly targeting and shooting African-Americans. The profile seems to net them their killer, but the suspect's attorney uses all the ways his client doesn't match it, along with the lack of non-circumstantial evidence, to get a Judge to release him. Turns out, the police were right, he was the killer, and he manages to strike again after his release. Fortunately, his would-be victim guns him down instead.
- Ally Walker as "Dr. Sam Waters", the title character of Profiler, was able to reconstruct killer flashbacks in her head. One of Walker's rare non-evil blonde roles.
- Millennium: Lance Henriksen stars as ex-FBI agent turned FBI consultant Frank Black, who would frequently share his thoughts on elusive killers with his old colleagues. The first season was ambiguous whether Frank's insights were just a keen sense of intuition or were actually supernatural in origin. Later seasons make these visions unambiguously psychic, however.
- 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. 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. They also go on arrests and conduct interrogations, which real life profilers do not do. Profiles is more or less used to rule out suspects as well as find them, although they can advise detectives and prosecutors how to conduct interrogations. They can, however, testify in court, although they were originally barred from doing so.
- Emil Skoda, George Huang, and Rebecca Hendrix of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
- One episode has the rare case of noting how profiling can be wrong. When a TV producer is stalked, she argues about a suspect and is told he doesn't "fit the profile." She fires back by noting how the Washington State Snipers were supposed to be one middle-aged angry white man when it was a pair of young black men or how the BTK Killer was "a quiet, reserved loner" when he was actually a happily married family man.
- 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.
- Terry Lake was this in Season 1, before being replaced by Megan in Season 2.
- A rather ridiculously accurate profiling is done on Angel, which not only describes the killer, but Angel himself (mind you, he's a vampire that Angel sired).
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Willow tries this in a couple of episodes where the Monster of the Week is human. It never works out.
Willow: There is one name that keeps getting spit out. Aggressive behavior, run-ins with authorities, about a screenful of violent incidents.
Buffy: Okay, most of those were not my fault. Somebody else started 'em. I was just standing up for myself.
- 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 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.
- From the sequel series Ashes to Ashes (2008), Alex Drake herself is this and she's adamant about using her skills in investigations, to Hunt's dismay.
- Dr. Sweets on 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. Unlike a typical TV profiler, Sweets also almost never goes in the field. He also doesn't usually question suspects but merely stands on the other side of the one-way mirror to give suggestions to Booth in the interrogation room via an earpiece. In his first episode as a profiler, he visits the Jeffersonian forensic anthropology lab and is excited to be "in the field". When they point out that this isn't "the field", he tells them that it is for him, since he spends most of his time in an office.
- In the first season, Agent Booth asks Dr. Goodman, an anthropologist, to look over a series of crime scene photographs and photos of their suspect's home to help the FBI figure out where to focus their search for evidence on a short timeline. Goodman is notably hesitant to do this, since his speciality is studying the remains of people to learn about how they lived, rather than the still-living. That said, rather than trying to identify the suspect based on forensic evidence and hunches, he used the suspect as a starting point to help the FBI figure out how he would have done something, working in reverse of the typical trope.
- In the first season, 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. One of these is his analysis of a letter secretly sent by Dexter to throw off the investigation ends up Lundy correctly deducing that the Bay Harbor Butcher (as the media calls Dexter) has connections to the police to know how detectives typically look at evidence.
- 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 (the killer knew their methods and was playing them). Another episode had a criminal profile come in and Captain Stottlemeyer rattled the whole thing off from memory without looking at it; they give the same profile for every case.
"Let me guess. The killer is: between thirty and forty-five years old, white, male, does not work in an office, probably spent time in the military, and definitely hates his mother."
- 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.
- 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. In season 15 the Navy Yard gets a permanent on-staff forensic psychologist in the form of Jacqueline "Jack" Sloane, who transferred in from the San Diego office at Director Vance's request.
- Will Graham again in Hannibal, the TV adaptation of the Hannibal Lecter series. Notably, Graham was already emotionally unstable before he started profiling work, which is why he's only a Special Investigator instead of a fully-fledged FBI Special Agent, and he's already quit field work and become a lecturer on forensic psychology at Quantico at the beginning of the series. Furthermore, Graham has a condition that's described as "pure empathy" and caused by an imbalance of mirror neurons, making him a rare non-psychic example of The Empath: when he reconstructs crime scenes, he sees himself committing the murders and thinks and feels how the killer did. Much of the first season revolves around Graham becoming unhinged when he can't shake off his reconstruction of a particularly nasty serial killer's pathology, not helped by a case of encephalitis (a la John Edward Douglas) and the manipulations of Dr. Lecter.
- Although never described as one, Patrick Jane of The Mentalist uses profiling tactics routinely to play criminals- and everyone else, for that matter- into his hands.
- Elizabeth Keen of The Blacklist is explicitly described as this, although she doesn't seem to use her talents as often as she should. It could be understandable since she's still new to the job in Season One.
- Anson Fullerton in Burn Notice is a psychologist employed by the CIA to help agents deal with their job. He's also one of the founders of the organization that burned Michael, using his knowledge of the spies' innermost secrets to his advantage. In one episode, Michael asks Anson to help him with a case by becoming this trope. Anson is reluctant (because Michael is supposed to be working for him, not the other way around) but eventually agrees just so that he can see how Michael handles himself in the field.
- Murdoch Mysteries:
- Dr. Roberts is a psychiatrist who runs an insane asylum in Toronto. Murdoch sometimes consults him when he needs to know about the psychology of a killer
- Later in the series, Dr. Ogden studies psychiatry and provides Murdoch with psychological perspective on criminals and witnesses.
- Prodigal Son:
- Malcolm Bright (née Whitly) is a gifted criminal psychologist, using his twisted genius to help the NYPD solve crimes and stop killers. Dr. Martin Whitly, also known as the Surgeon, was a serial killer who invited Malcolm to find out why.
- Weyoun from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine claims to be this — except he sucks at it, especially when it comes to The Sisko. Highlights include failing to pick up on Sisko's hatred for him and his Affably Evil act and acting like Sisko would accept an offer to be installed as absolute ruler of The Federation, even though this is the same man who months earlier saved President Jaresh-Inyo from a coup-d'état by an Insane Admiral. And it's not just Sisko that he screws up with — he also fails to predict that Cardassia's Puppet King Damar would get fed up with the Dominion and form La Résistance.
- Frasier's mother Hester, whom he followed into psychiatry, occasionally did forensic psychology consultations for the Seattle Police Department, which is where she met Martin.
- In the Elementary episode "The Deductionist", a profiler being brought in to revisit a serial killer leads to Sherlock spending much of the episode articulating a distaste for a "snake oil" science, "super geniuses" relative to screwed-up people he claims they'll have you believe are themselves geniuses... but this turns out to be motivated by a personal history where she got into his head and, following an actual romantic relationship, wrote an extremely unflattering article about an anonymous "deductionist" on a fast track to substance abuse and other dooms he worries she'll be proven right about. In the case at hand, her skill is portrayed as legitimate, but the book she wrote about him ruined his family with what he insists were false allegations concerning his father.
- Norman Jayden from Heavy Rain fits this trope to a T. He even gets his initial profile right.
- Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid 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.
- In the Pacific Bay arc of Criminal Case, psychological evidences are handled by criminal psychologist Dr. Russell Crane, who would sometimes assist the coroner, Roxie, and the forensics expert, Yann, in some of their analysis if psychological aspects of the killer is involved. He is also responsible of giving reports on certain killers' mental health to the Judge to help him assign sentences.
- Kazusa Hanai in Metro PD: Close to You is the 2nd Unit's profiler, although in his case it's more of a side talent than his main role in the unit, and - much as in real life - it's only occasionally helpful.
- 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 Edward 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. If there is a profiler in fiction, chances are he is one of the inspirations for it.
- Wildly infamous in Canada for persuading a jury to convict the wrong man for the rape/murder of a child only because the accused was a nerd (the famous wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin). When DNA evidence showed the accused to have been wrongly convicted it came out that he'd also persuaded the police to dismiss the accused's iron-clad alibi because "he's a weirdo, we got the right guy, don't overthink things". After the accused was freed, he doubled down by claiming that he'd still murdered the child; he just hadnt left DNA, and that the child had been raped by someone else. He permanently tainted the profession in Canada by his antics.
- 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." to "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.