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How to Write a Character Sketch – And How it Will Improve Your Fiction

by BLH on October 5th, 2010


 How to give the impression of a real person
with just a few strokes.

Many a high school student has been given an assignment of writing a character sketch. But what exactly is one, and how does a writer create a vivid piece of writing without using a complete story structure? Today I’m going to tell you how to write a character sketch.

1. Fill out a brief character questionnaire.

To give a thorough portrait of your character, you’ve got to know a great deal about why your character does what she does and what her life has been like so far. Not all of this detail should go into the final piece of writing, but it’s essential that you know it to give your writing richness. Try taking notes to answer a few questions like these:

Name, age:
Socioeconomic class:
Religion:
Education:
Relationship status:
Past important relationships:
Children:
Career/career goals:
Fears/anxieties:
Deep desires:
Hobbies:

Once you’ve filled out a questionnaire like this, you’ll be ready to start showing how this character lives on the page.

After the jump: showing your character strutting his stuff.

2. Show character in action.

The best way to show character is to show it in action. As people, we aren’t defined by the way we were born or the titles we hold; we’re defined by the choices we make, the things we do. As you begin to write your character sketch, show a character by the way he does things, whether it’s work, chores around the house, or by the way he talks and interacts with people. Show him doing things. Each action you show is an opportunity to portray him a certain way, an opportunity to show him making choices. This is what a vivid character is made of.

3. Show character in conflict.

A character sketch is not a complete story, but it needs the sense of tension and engagingness that make a story worth reading. So don’t just show your character in his most typical moment. Instead, show him when something is at stake. Show him under duress, when something about his world is being challenged. Don’t show him brushing his teeth — that hardly distinguishes him. Show him when that bad deal blows up in his face, or at the funeral of a loved one. Let the conflict define your character.

4. Show character in context.

Finally, it’s important to give a sense of the larger world within which the character operates. Does he live in a limited world, limited perhaps by poverty and the nation in which he was born? Or does he live in a large and limitless world, where isolation might be a greater problem than finding his next meal? What are the stakes in his world, and what has shaped him? What are the imperatives of his world? Put your character in the world that he lives in, and we’ll have a strong sense of who he is.

Follow these steps, and you’ll not only have a realistic character on your hands — you’ll have a compelling one. Now that your character sketch is done, why not write a story about him?

From → The Writing Life

4 Comments
  1. Thanks for the good advice. This is how I start when I’m looking for an interesting character to feature. The strange thing is, once you start to fill in the questionnaire, it often brings to mind someone you Know! If this happens, I base my character on this person, exaggerating the more extreme qualities. Thank you for a very useful post.

  2. Character creation is definitely one of my areas for growth, so to speak. I’m a very plot drive writer. The exercises here are awesome though…should help me drag characters out. They’re so stubborn. LOL
    Thanks!

  3. lucille gonzales de torres permalink

    thank you for posting these techniques on how to write a character sketch.these will surely empower the minds of my students and motivate them more to create one without experiencing any difficulty in writing.

  4. Aislinn permalink

    This site really helps me with writing skills, especially as a refresher! Thanks WriterlyLife!

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