The Art Of Writing: Character Sketches

In the first two articles of this series we looked at the basics of story structure and how to use that structure to build an effective outline for a story or novel. If you’ve been following along with the advice from those articles you should now have an outline of your story, and may have even completed a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of your novel. Now it’s time to populate your story and to do this we need to work on some character sketches.

A character sketch is a great way to keep track of the finer details of your characters, whether they’re the main players or the supporting cast. In essence, a character sketch is a potted biography of a character, similar to a CV or a résumé. It is a handy reference guide to the character, and helps you keep a tight grip on the character’s personality, background, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. Having a good, strong character sketch for each of your major characters is almost essential if you want to maintain a sense of continuity or want your readers to engage with the characters, though it’s also advisable to build a sketch for the minor characters as well, even if they only end up appearing in one scene of your finished work.

As with writing a story outline, the specific technique you use for creating a character sketch will ultimately depend on which approach you find the easiest and most comfortable. However, for the purposes of this article we’re going to look at a more in-depth approach that allows us to include as much information as possible. This then helps you gain a strong understanding of your characters which in turn helps you make those characters more believable when it comes to writing about them.

An effective character sketch should ideally include as much information about the character as possible. Even if that information never makes it into the final draft of your story it’s still useful to include every little detail you can. The more information you have, the more rounded the character becomes and the more consistent you can be with the way you describe that character’s involvement in the story.

I find that the best approach to creating a character sketch is to start with a few simple questions to identify who the character is and how he/she fits into the setting of the story. Note that you can answer these questions in whichever order you wish.

What does the character look like?

Here we would describe the character’s physical appearance. The more detail that you put into this description the better, but at the very minimum you should include the character’s gender, age, height, ethnicity/skin colour, hair and eye colour, hair style and length, and some indication of his/her preferred clothing style.

While it’s not as important you may also decide to include some lesser information, such as show size, blood type (this might be particularly important if you’re writing a vampire story) and any medical history that might be relevant to the story.

What is your character’s name?

Naming your character can sometimes be one of the hardest parts of writing a character sketch. The right name can make the difference between a serious character that the reader can relate to and a nonsense character the reader passes off as comic relief.

An effective name should say almost as much about the character as the physical description. For example, calling your tough, battle-scarred adventurer called Fimble Jerkwater would probably be a mistake, even if the general tone of your fantasy novel is tongue-in-cheek humour.

The character’s name should also reflect his/her ethnic and geographical background, though ideally you should avoid stereotypical names unless it’s necessary to your story; I’ve lost count of the number of big, hulking Russian thugs called Boris or Ivan that I’ve come across in books and films over the years.

A good place to start your search for an effective name is the internet. There are dozens of sites out there for choosing baby names, and many of those sites will allow you to choose a name based on nationality, and many of those sites will also give you a rough idea of what the name means or what its etymology is (i.e.: where the name comes from). For surnames you may need to do a more specific Google search (i.e.: ‘Russian surnames’, etc.), and if you want to get the name spot on then you may also want to do a search for naming conventions specific to your character’s nationality.

In some forms of fantasy or science fiction there tends to be a proliferation of characters with seemingly random names containing seemingly random occurrences of upper- and lower case letters and random punctuation marks. Personally I’m not a fan of this approach to character naming, as while it may enforce the alien nature of the character in question I find it makes it harder for me as a reader to form a bond with the character, and in more extreme cases can even rip away my suspension of disbelief. Having said that, if it’s done with some level of subtlety or with some form of acknowledgement to the spoken form of the name it can work well; an apostrophe within a name, for example, may be used to indicate a glottal stop.

What is the character like?

This is where we’d describe the character’s personality. Is he/she friendly and outgoing or surly and reserved? Does she go out of her way to help those in need or is she so selfish she’d hold on to her last penny rather than give it to a starving man? What are her likes and dislikes, her fears, her goals? What are her most- and least favourite things (food, colour, music, books, etc.)? What is her most prized possession (if any)? What are her religious or ideological beliefs?

In this section of the character sketch you may also want to include some information about the character’s relationships, particularly with other characters within the story. It may also be helpful to include a brief list of his/her positive and negative traits

It’s also important to describe the way the character talks; is it with short, clipped sentences or does he/she make an effort to be as clear as possible? This last part will be especially useful for when you get around to writing that character’s dialogue; how someone speaks can tell us a lot about that character’s personality, background and social standing, and I will be taking a more in-depth look at how to handle dialogue in the next article.

What are the character’s skills and abilities?

Here we need to describe what skills and abilities the character has. If he’s an ex-special forces soldier then he will almost certainly have a lot of combat skills and related abilities, whereas a university lecturer might be more attuned to research techniques and interpersonal interactions. If your character has skills or abilities that do not fit neatly into his/her background then you also need to include a brief explanation of where those skills came from, such as hobbies or skills picked up as a result of his/her background. This is especially true if the skill in question might be considered unusual for someone with the character’s background; an adult who’s spent his/her entire life in a city could not be expected to know very much about animal husbandry, for example.

If your character has any supernatural or magical abilities the also need to be described here, including the limitations of those abilities. Having a character who can create fireballs from thin air is cool, but it’s useful to put a limit on how big those fireballs can be and stick to it. If you’re basing your character’s supernatural abilities on known mythical creatures (such as vampires or werewolves) then it’s always handy to do plenty of research at this point to see what folklore or tradition says about those creatures, and also to find out how previous authors have interpreted the folklore. It’s also useful to explain where the character got their magical powers from. Were they born with them, were they gifted with them by a benevolent sorcerer, or did they get them as the result of a gypsy curse?

What is the character’s history?

Finally you need to flesh out the character’s backstory. You should already have a few pointers from the previous questions that will help you create a rough outline of the character’s past, and from this you can build up the details and include additional details that may not already have been covered. In effect you should be aiming to write a detailed timeline of the character’s life, covering all of the major events in his/her life prior to the start of the story and if possible also touching on the minor events that may have had an effect on who the character is.

So there we have it, a relatively brief overview of how to create a character sketch. Once you’ve finished writing down all of this information about your characters it’s a good idea to keep it somewhere close by while you’re writing. This will make it easier for you to check on details and will help cut down the number of character-based continuity errors that might creep into your manuscript during the writing process. Whether you write your character sketches on file cards and keep them in a box on your writing desk, or type them up as individual Word files and keep them in a folder on your hard drive it’s always a good idea to refer back to them every now and then. It’s also fine to change some of the details as your story develops, especially if the changes help make the story as a whole make more sense or improve the narrative structure of your work.

In the next article I’ll be looking at how to handle dialogue within the narrative, and discussing various techniques for making your dialogue both believable and engaging.

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