Let’s Get To Work–Character Sketching

My writing group has a new website, Littleton Writers.  On the site, mostly we’re focused on helping each other figure out how to give good critiques and where we’re going to meet to go over each others’ work.  But our blog post is supposed to showcase our fiction-writing skills.

Lovin' my politics

Where will this woman be in five years?

Unfortunately, as most of our writers are working on novel-length fiction, the 1000 word limit for a blog post is very intimidating.  As Mark Twain (and others) are supposed to have said, “I was going to write you a short letter, but I didn’t have the time, so here’s a long one instead.”

In my desire to keep the blog going, I’ve let up on the idea of “short story” and have asked for sample chapters, book summaries, or character sketches.  Then it occurred to me that a lot of people (myself included) aren’t too comfortable with what a character sketch is all about.  So I looked it up.

What a pleasant surprise!  Turns out, a character sketch is similar to the kind of sketching I do all the time.  Since I was small, and people noticed I was artistically inclined, they encouraged me to sketch everything I saw; to develop my artistic style with doodles and marks meant for my eyes alone.  I needed to learn to forget about the people who would hover over my shoulder and make comments.  I became very comfortable wandering with sketch-book in hand.

Men with motorcycle

What are these guys remembering?

Well, turns out a written character sketch is no different.  It’s a chance to exercise your writing habit with observations of those around you.  Yes, you can write about those you know already (though, to be honest, this feels more like therapy than character sketching), or make up stories about total strangers.  Here’s one from my “Collections” journal:



She was 83 when I last saw her.  It was a bright Saturday morning and she was walking–if walking is what you’d call such a leaned over shuffle–walking to her car from the clubhouse at the Pond View condominiums.

Her name is Agnes and, in her day, she was a prima ballerina for the Cuban National Ballet in Havana.

Then the conflict came. Castro said the greedy U.S. corporations could not break the backs of hard-working Cubans. Castro did not know Agnes . . .

There you have it–87 words of character sketching.  Good writing? Not really.  But I captured a character and jotted her down.  Will she become the center of a novel I wrote? Not likely, but I could see Agnes as a minor character in a bigger novel.

Man buying flowers

What is the dilemma for this man? Is it really about choosing flowers?

Here’s the key: I never met the woman who inspired the thoughts above.  She was just interesting, and I had recently come home from a visit to Cuba, where I’d been lucky enough to see today’s Cuban National Ballet.  I’m not a regular visitor to the theatre, but I know what it means to practice dancing until your body hurts.  I know that my meager effort is nothing compared to those who dance for a profession, and I have heard rumors of the damage done to ballerinas’ bodies with dance.  When I combined all that emotion into the image of the person walking before me, the “sketch” came out.

You can do this too.  Even if you’re not a “writer.” Listen to the stories of people around you, and jot down what you think is cool, revolting, or any other emotion in-between.  Create “real people” from the ones you see on the street, at the store, in the airport.

Here’s a fun exercise:

  • Go to a place you visit frequently (that way you know you’ll be able to find your way back home again)
  • Make extra time to sit in this familiar place, with a small notebook in hand.  I say “small” because that works for me.  You can take whatever size works best for you.
  • Spend 15 extra minutes in this place and jot down snippets of people around you.  Here are some questions to ask yourself:
    … Why did this person attract my attention?
    …What is on their mind today?
    …Who are they going to meet?
    …Do I like this person, even without meeting them? Why?
    …What do they like to eat?
    …What is going to be, or has been their biggest adventure in life?
    …What would be the inciting incident to change them from a total stranger to someone I could care about?
  • You may write many one-line sketches, or focus for 15-minutes on one character alone.  That’s the nice thing about being a writer–you have the power to decide who to focus on in your writing.

There! You’re now an “expert” in character sketching.  It’s that simple.  But few make it a habit to sketch others.  We’re so inwardly focused that building emotion for others is difficult to do.  That’s again why character sketching is such an important part of writing. It loosens the mind to think beyond the self, and makes others that much more interesting.

Family meeting

Choose one person from the photo to write this group’s story

Here’s another exercise.  Use one of the photos in this post and write a quick character sketch of the person or people you see.  These photos are of both people I know and total strangers who just look interesting to me.  Maybe you’ll find yourself connecting to one.

If you do write a sketch and want to share it here, great! I’d love to hear from you and post it on this blog.  Just remember that your sketch will have been “Officially Published,” so editors of magazines may be reluctant to use it a second time.  Most buy North American first rights.  Also, this is the internet.  People don’t consider anything posted as having copyrights. Sad, but true.

But let’s end on a positive note.  Write a character sketch today, and then again tomorrow. Try to get a sketch in a day for a week, and soon you’ll be in the habit of writing about characters, settings, and even conflicts you observe around you (can you say “government shutdown?”).  These sketchbooks of your thoughts will build your novels and stories for years to come.

Dog with reindeer antlers

Okay. Couldn’t resist. This is Trigger. What’s his story?

Good luck, and may today be a great writing day for you!


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