Story Bible 4 – Character Sketching


Why are character sketches so important to writers?  How do you go about writing them?  What do you put in a sketch or take out of one?  Who sees these things anyway?

To me, characters (people or animals with personalities) are the heart and soul of any story.  They help us see our own lives with the struggles they endure, their triumphs and their thought processes.  And a beautiful thought is that literally any character can become a protagonist–all it takes is for a writer to care enough to put that person in the protagonist role.

When you’re writing your story bible, you’ll probably focus on your protagonist and antagonist first.  These are the two main forces in your story.  Sometimes an antagonist can be nothing more than a force of nature like a storm (as in The Perfect Storm), or an animal (as in Jaws). Sometimes that antagonist is an evil person like Cruella De Ville from 101 Dalmatians. (If you want to see a fun list of “baddies” check out The Telegraph’s 50 greatest villains in literature post–right there are a bunch of thumbnail sketches of the characters we love to hate).

The protagonist is easier.  We love to imagine being “the good guy” in any gripping book or movie.  But a good protagonist has faults as well as strengths.  It is our job as the reader to examine both, as we determine how we want to live our lives differently after being exposed to the latest protagonist we see.

The thing is, it’s as important to spend pre-writing time getting to know your two main forces as it is to have an idea of what your story is all about.  Without the depth that comes from knowing how your hero or villain will react to situations, your characters can become flat, dull and one-dimensional.  This, more than anything, is a formula for a story that no one wants to read.

In her book, “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel,” Hallie Ephron has 40 to 50 pages devoted to learning about both your major and your minor characters.  Even though she asks you as a writer to go into more depth than may be 100% necessary, her charts are well worth checking out.  I learned a tremendous amount about knowing my own characters from this work.

And that circles me back to “what is a character sketch?”  To me, a character sketch is a small piece of writing that encapsulates the essence of a person, animal or force in a story you’re writing.  Sometimes it is a list of answers to questions you ask, as in Hallie Ephron’s workbook, but more often, it is the recording of a character at a particular point in time.

When you go to a party with someone you know, often you’ll come away and talk about the people you’ve met.  When you do, you don’t talk about “that six-foot-four white male who wore a dark suit.”  You’ll probably say something more like “that tall guy with the lisp who was smashed and talked incessantly about his roofing company.”  The last phrase is a lot more showing of character, and is indeed a micro-character sketch.  As an author, you could write down that one phrase and be on your way to developing a great character sketch.

These little exercises bring life to the characters you want to meet up with for the 250 -700 pages of a novel. If you only know what someone looks like (that six-foot-four white male who wore a dark suit), there’s no way to keep him interesting for that length of writing.  Try harder.  Get to know your characters, write small scenes that test their “humanness” on the page, and collect those sketches in your story bible.

Then you never know, a character sketch may be the perfect addition to a scene in your novel, a synopsis of your work or a part of a press release on your latest publication.

Character sketches–easy? No way.  Important? Beyond a doubt.

Today’s writing prompt: Select a minor character from your current novel, and write a short story about him, her or it.  Give them a purpose or goal beyond what you’ve employed them for. Put this in a 250-500 word document, and save it in your story bible.  You may need it one day–it may even become a totally separate short story.

Write well.  May the muses be with you.

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