How To Write a Character Sketch – A Step By Step Guide
So you want pen a story that is as captivating as it is believable? That is a great intention for your story. But while great intentions are a good way to get started on your story, whichever genre it is you are working on, you might be doing your story more harm than good if you are not familiar with your characters.
Captivating stories are mostly character-driven. Successful writers know this. Stories are rarely ever interesting if the characters are not in charge. It should not be the story telling the characters what to do; it is the characters that should drive the story.
But you can only make your characters grip your readers’ attention only if you know your character to the depth of their persons. A good way to ensure the development of consistent, realistic characters that make your story compelling enough for readers is to start out with a character sketch.
But first, what is a character sketch?
A character sketch is a description made for the purpose of guiding the writer on such assignments as introducing a particular character to the reader in such a way that both the writer and readers can have a quick overview of a character’s attributes; including, but not limited to physical appearance, idiosyncratic tendencies in different circumstances, state of mind as shaped by former experiences and how these will affect their future actions.
Okay, we admit that was a lengthy sentence aimed at explaining the simple idea of “describing your character.” There you have it. You want to describe your characters in ways that are necessary to the successful delivery of your story. You want to create an impression of your character so that your audience can know the characters as enough as is necessary for the story.
Your character description should answer all the questions that your audience wants answers to: What are the physical attributes of the character? What is their background story? What is their psychological state – their dominant emotions, goals and fears? How do they talk? What is their general view of life? How will these pieces of information contribute to the story?
The questions are not exhaustible, just as the answers. You should know your characters well enough. And while there is no one-way approach to writing a good character sketch, you should consider following the procedures explained in subsequent paragraphs. The idea is to answer a number of questions on your characters. Let’s get started, shall we?
What are the Physical Attribute of Your Character
Although it is possible that physical appearance is not the first thing that pops into your head when thinking about your character, you’d better know who they are physically. What are the first things you notice about a person you are meeting for the first time? You probably will remember someone you met at the supermarket by their face (if they are not wearing a mask, anyways), height, their beard, complexion and their attire.
If you want to relay your supermarket experience to family member, how do you start?
Hey Tom, I met a young lady at the mall today. You should see how attractive she looks in her gown. She’s somewhat petite, and blonde-haired like Aunty Sarah. And I think she’s also a fresh student of the university because she held a brown file. You know, one of those things needed for registration.
In those few sentences, you have told Tom, (your brother, maybe) about the lady’s age, her stature, color, occupation and you have connected her look to Aunty Sarah’s. The point is you can remember the lady’s physical attribute, although you don’t even know her name (perhaps you could talk to her because she frowned in all those seconds you spent taking in other details), you can remember her physical attributes. Now, next time you see her in the university library, you can easily chat her up;
‘hey lady, I must have met you last week at the mall. You put on this flowery gown, and held a brown file…’
Now you see that physical attributes create the larger part of the first impression of your character. And while you might be tempted to drop this part of your character for the purpose of exploring their in-depth psychological state, remember that these physical details propel your story in ways that contribute immensely to the plot. In fact, in some cases, the physical attributes of a character might help you bring their psychological state to the fore.
Take, for example, a woman in front of a cemetery; she’s likely dressed in black, and she probably looks sad if she had gone to drop a bouquet at a relative’s grave. Another example is a young, muscular man in joggers; he is sweating and drinking from a bottle of water. If you come across him in the morning that way, he is likely someone who pays attention to physical fitness and so exercises daily.
Describing the physicality of your character is one of the early steps in writing your character sketch.
What is your Character up to?
Unless your character is dead in their first appearance, the audience will be interested in knowing what your character is doing. You must have taken the hint from the previous point. Your readers need to know what your character is doing when you introduce them. Knowing what your character is up to reveal to readers, some other aspects of your work, e.g. the setting and time, and even more.
For example, if it is only 11.00am and your character is asleep in the office; the inference could be that he had a terrible night at home, he is exhausted, or even lazy (of course, you want to tell us why he is asleep that early, and in the office! Especially if he is just an employee.) We want to know if he gets a query for sleeping on duty, and whatever follows this. You see, your story is getting some flesh.
Now, your sketch should reflect your knowledge of your character’s actions (or inactions) and how these affect the plot. A sleepy employ will definitely not be in the good books of the boss. If your character is runs across a crowd or struggles to hold together several files as he saunters up to the secretary, he is probably late for an appointment.
Your sketch should detail the actions of your character. That is how your plot develops. Why should your character look distracted at the movies if they really want to be there? Why is your character keeping late night on the computer? Your sketch has to highlight specific details about your character’s actions – that way, your character is getting defined, and you would understand how to spread their person across the larger story.
Have They Got Emotions?
In writing you character sketch, you have to define your character’s emotional state. While it is possible that your character has a range of emotions, even then, the emotional switch is usually triggered by their experiences.
So the fact still remains that your character (like any other human) has a few dominant emotions. You character should have a general view of life. Are they optimistic about their ventures? What makes them happy? Are they scared of what tomorrow would be? Are they free-spirited? Are they possessive, jealous, angry or kind? Would they rather survive by their wits or play by the rule?
Your character sketch should list these dominant emotions of the character so that you can refer to the sketch when your character needs to react to a situation in the course of your story. If your character cares about physical fitness, they are most likely going to like buying some fitness kit every now and then. If your character has fears colored by sad, terrible divorce of their parents, they most likely wouldn’t want to commit to a long term romantic affair.
Delving into your character’s emotional state can link you to their history. Have they just lost a loved one? If yes, they might be withdrawn from rather exciting activities. If your character loves someone who doesn’t love them back, they are likely lovesick and they can be sulky.
Now when your sketch is about your character’s emotional state (or any other features), you have to make sure that the pieces of information you supply are those relevant to the context of your story you are telling, or showing (which is better – because explicit stating of your character’s emotional can render your story quite flat). Your character’s actions and conversations with other characters should show their state of mind.
If a person is generally happen about life, he doesn’t just begin to scoff when a friend gets promoted at work. He is happy and all celebratory and he wants to congratulate that friend. This is a rather implicit way of showing your character’s feelings – and it makes your story more interesting.
Do They Need a Name?
Even if it is a cameo role, your character needs a name. If you have to write a sketch about any character, they must be important to you (and the story). So they need a name. Your readers might need to refer to a particular character. In that case, they would need their name. If your character is important enough to appear in the story, consider giving them a name on your sketch, although you may end up changing the name later. Naming your character should come easy.
But if you find it any tough to name your character, you can search the internet for such catalogs. Some websites will group names with tokens such as gender and ethnic origin or even history. You might also want the name to suggest something in the story, although this is not so in vogue. But who says you can’t do something different? And yes, you can give your character a nickname that describes them. It will make your story interesting. Some nicknames can suggest your character’s proclivities or even their past background.
If a bottle was once broken on your character’s head and there is now a scar on that head, or hair has refused to grow in the region since the incident, you might want to nickname your character something like ‘Broken Bottle,’ or ‘Bottle Head.’ It might be funny, but who says fun is a turn-off?
What about Their Backstory?
Since your character sketch is to guide your larger story, you should think about details that take your audience down the memory lane. They might come a time in your story when you need to answer questions such as the place of your character’s childhood, their experiences, and how these shape them into who they are right now.
You might not use the information for more than once in your story, but it will help you write a rather believable one. As a writer, you would only have done a complete (and of course, good) job if you leave no questions unanswered (except the questions of inference at the end of your story).
If you find it any difficult to develop a backstory for your character, consider thinking about a friend, relative or an acquaintance that may be similar to your character. Their story can inspire you. The aim is to sound believable. A man doesn’t just go misogynist all of a sudden, something must have happened. This is the backstory. We want to know how your character got to where they are – even if you are telling us once.
What other Important Pieces of Information can you remember?
Even you think you are done with your character sketch, some tiny (but important) details can pop up while writing the larger story. When these details come up, remember to add them to your character sketch. Most of the time, because stories always write themselves, you may not able to keep up with the pace. Now if you remember something that would help develop an interesting story while writing, you should pen it down. Because you can forget!
Such details may include how you’re a character is different from another, and how these differences might lead to a conflict. You may also want to include the similarities that a character shares with another. And if you not end up using these tiny details, it should only be because they must have been implied from other circumstances. The point is to include as much information as is necessary for the understanding of your story.
What to Remember
You character sketch is only a guideline to your story. It is to help you get to know and define your character so that you can in turn introduce them to your readers. Although it is usually not all the items on your sketch that will make it to the story, ensure that your sketch has enough information; age, gender, height, weight, ethnicity, emotional state and so on.
Also bear in mind that the pieces of information in your character sketch can be spread across your story through character’s actions. Instead of just stating that your character likes basketball, show him playing basketball with others or show him postponing his dinner because of a basketball match on the TV.
Through your character sketch, you should be able to develop a character that drives the story – because you know who they are, what they would do, why they would take such actions and so on. Your character sketch is for the purpose of creating a compelling, believable character-driven story.