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How to Write a Character Sketch

Ms. Carroll is an avid researcher & freelance writer who writes on a myriad of topics with which she has experience and knowledge.

What is a Character Sketch?

A good character sketch is more than an overview. It gives you more than a snapshot or synopsis of an individual. Instead, it paints a picture that defines a person, both inside and out. It provides elements of personality and physical appearance. It provides a look inside their mind and gives you a sense of the character's values. When thoughtfully presented, a character sketch should give you some idea of how the character will react to a given situation. It is not a biography or a narrative —though when a character sketch is artfully crafted, it could certainly stand alone.

Elements of a character provided in a writer's sketch are left to the writer's imagination and range from the character's hair color to the character's choice of religion. However, the elements of a character sketch must ultimately be woven together to form the fabric of the individual written about. After 2-3 short paragraphs of deliberate word choices by the author, a reader should feel as though they know the person being written about or at the very lest, have recently met them. A sketch is merely a framework for a broader and more deliberate work that ultimately defines the entirety of the character in numerous settings.

How to Write a Character Sketch

There is no right way or wrong way to write a character sketch. Likewise, there's no right place to begin one or end one. The best novels or literature are not events built with words — they are characters built with words. Characters bring events to life.

To write a good character sketch, think of someone you would like to write about, perhaps even yourself. Then ascribe characteristics to this person that help define them as a being. The largest percent of the population has dark hair, but very few have dark hair laced with rainbow colored dyes. Find those qualities about your character that set him or her apart and focus on bringing them to life through your character. You can do this by embellishing the character's reaction to an event, explaining something from their past, or letting the reader inside their mind but in the process of doing so, you must reveal physical traits, personality, and motivations. The reader must be allowed to get to know the character.

Common Elements of a Character Sketch

There are many potential elements to characterizing someone. While some are more common than others, the writer should not shy away from using creativity in place of conformity. Characters can be built quickly or slowly. Characters can be revealed through dialogue or story building. Character's can be described with adjectives or stories. Old characters can help develop new characters. Characters can have more physical attributes than personality where needed in the story and vice versa. Characters can be benign or colorful.

Among some of the more common elements of character development are the following instruments:

Physical Description - A writer wants to guard against the ordinary physical traits of a person unless the character being developed is intentionally ordinary. Find traits that are unique to the character or that in some way offer a glimpse into their psyche despite being physical. For instance, a character might always have a cigarette hanging out of their mouth and drive a beat up Camaro which always manages to catch his pair of zip-up ankle boots when he gets in the car because he is bow-legged from years of roping calves. Use your imagination but the goal is to tightly weave together the physical and non-physical characteristics for the reader. You want your reader to see and feel the character.

Background or Motivations - Nothing is as powerful as a background in understanding a person's motivations. Where folks come from affects their outlook on life, the mistakes they make or avoid, as well as their dreams and aspirations or lack thereof. Find ways to weave your character's upbringing or past experiences into your sketch. This gives a sense of 'realness' to the character that a reader can relate to.

Personality or Traits - Physical descriptions have severe limitations. Nothing speaks to a reader like personality traits. Is the character demanding or timid? Forgiving or spiteful? Happy or depressed? There are a litany of adjectives to describe emotions, well being, outlook, preferences, and so on. Find ways to adulterate your character with traits rather than just listing traits. For example, Susan might be tall for her age, always wear red lip stick, and cop an attitude but find a way to lace that into a conversation or an event versus saying it point blank:

  • Susan towered over the realtor which made him uncomfortable. Her demanding demeanor was no contest for the realtor's inexperience. As she finished her coffee, she reapplied her bright red lipstick and then quipped, "well, let's see this one; it can't be any worse than the last one."

Thoughts, Words & Deeds - One of the most difficult things for a writer to do is inflect tones into thoughts, words or deeds. While words often speak for themselves, more often they rely on embellishments from the writer that create a tone. Saying, "I love you," is different than saying, "No, you don't understand how much I love you — I would die for you." Saying "I hate you" is a far cry from saying "I would not piss on you if you were on fire." Both give meaning but the latter gives an extra meaning and tone that explains something to the reader. Be explicit in communicating the thoughts, words and deeds of your character. Generalizations leave too much to the imagination and water down a character to the point of anonymity. Bold characters with unique features are frequently remembered and often become the centerpiece of the writing despite events.

Relationships (whether consensual or conflicted) - Like backgrounds explain motivations, relationships reveal a lot about a character. Are there a lot of ups and downs and if so, why? Bad luck? Bad judgment? Bad timing? Has the character been miserable in a 30 year marriage and afraid to break free from it for financial or other reasons? Does he or she get along with the children but not the spouse? What are work relationships like compared with home? Is there some element of split personality? Find ways to reveal relationships that are necessary to the plot but that also fully develop your character.

Past, Present & Future Behavior (Change) - All people change and characters are no exception. Don't feel as though your character can't look in the mirror and see the need for change or that some event doesn't radically alter the character's outlook on life. Characters are dynamic and any good character undergoes changes that either improve or destroy something critical to the plot.

Famous Characters to Learn From

Fortunately for writers, there is no set manner to bring a character to life. There are hundreds of famous fictional characters to learn from and in every instance, you can see that a variety of ways were used by the author to help the reader get to know and understand their characters.

The Beast in Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve - The "Beast" is a character with no real name. We know that he was a young prince transformed into a beast when he refused to be seduced by an evil queen. We know that he lost his parents and lived alone in a castle and that it took the love of Bella to transform him back into a prince. Everything in between the two events — losing and regaining his status as prince — is character building. He had a hot temper but a soft, loving heart buried beneath his hard exterior. He could be angry and irrational and often felt it necessary to frighten people with his horrid physical appearance. There is probably no better example of a character that slowly changes allowing the reader to see the Beast develop into a loving, feeling man being despite being trapped inside the body of a hideous creature.

Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery - In this worldwide bestseller, Anne is a young orphan with braided pigtails and a straw hat who is adopted by an older couple. As she grows up on their farm, she makes a lot of blunders as she learns social etiquette. In fact, she finds it difficult to integrate social customs with her own sense of self revealing that she is stubborn yet passionate. She aspires to be a good person and to please her adoptive parents but her ultimate dream is to be a writer. She is a most engaging character and quickly endears every reader.

Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Holmes is private investigator who encompasses all the traits you would expect from a detective (keen observation, healthy skepticism, strong logic and deductive reasoning). However, the reader also learns that he is an introvert with few friends who he keeps secrets from and that he is always connecting dots because his mind never stops. Holmes is the classic untidy, trench coat detective in many ways, yet he is the leader among the mystery genre'. Why? Because his character development was impeccable. He was very self-effacing yet dropped profound one-liners that are still quoted today. Holmes' character became larger than life and in fact, Doyle tried to write him out of future scripts but public outcry necessitated the return of Sherlock Holmes (20,000 readers cancelled subscriptions to a Holmes-based magazine) and he hasn't left since.


Example of a Brief Character Sketch

Deborah sat staring at the painting and I asked if I could take her picture. It is a beauty, though I don’t know what she sees in it, I thought. She explained she purchased the painting after a great deal of study and now it sits in her office hallway because she is not allowed to hang anything on the brick wall inside of her office. It occurred to me that much of Deborah's life was lived in a foyer when she would've preferred a grand ballroom and wore it well.

Deborah had an admiration for art, but an even greater admiration for all things wonderful. She adored small animals, talked of miracles and snowflakes, relished spring flowers, and loved Paris any time of the year though she'd only been there once. She was a fanciful romantic and though she was reluctant to share her musings, she never appeared to regret it when she did. If I heard two I heard twenty sentences start with, " I will tell you if …. ." Every thing was conditional but worth the condition.

Her Jersey upbringing was disguised by her timidity, but Deborah still had a noticeable passion hiding within her waiting for a spark. Once when the office manager quizzed her about being ten minutes late, she responded, "If I told you I had a flat tire, would you believe me?" The office manager said no more leaving me to wonder if Deborah was believable.

She was pale, probably from her vegan diet rather than a lack of sun, though she suffered from both. Her eyes were going bad, but her spirit was still very much alive despite the fact she battled feeling downtrodden. She hung on to praise like a clutch purse filled with raw cut diamonds. She was sufficient at small talk and her eccentric nature came through in conversation. She dared to be different in a kind and admirable way.

I learned the most about Deborah when she asked me to read her journal. Shocked by the prospect, I read with trepidation. I was genuinely surprised to learn that her journal was laced with wonderful stories about inanimate objects. Wonderful - that was one of her favorite words. In it, I found delightful explanations of her life. Page after page, I found nothing negative about anyone or anything. Those who put her down were never mentioned there though she verbalized their attempts to bring her down many times in the hallway. Instead, her journal showed that she looked for the glory in life like Anne Frank and she wrote just as well. It was as though Anne Frank had embodied her. Among the pages of her life's story, flowers bloomed beyond her window sill taking on a life that obviously gave meaning to hers. They became ubiquitous. She hid nuggets of wonderful prose in each page and they were like finding painted eggs in the tall blades of spring. Deborah could catch you in the hallway and tell a story, but her writing drew you in.

Deborah sat staring at the painting and I asked if I could take her picture. She was flattered and suggested another hat. Deborah filled the brim of a straw hat with her own flowers, albeit imagined.

"No, I like this one," I said. "It’s distinctly you."


SusieQ42 on September 07, 2012:

Beautifully worded! I loved it!!!

Vicki Carroll (author) from Greater Birmingham Area on November 02, 2011:

Thanks, Meg. Deborah liked it too. That along with your comment, made it VERY wortwhile.

Pearlmacb from Switzerland on November 02, 2011:

Thanx for sharing. This is so beautiful, an enjoyable read! Meg:)

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