A character sketch is one of those things that comes up a lot in the storytelling world. Novelists and screenwriters talk about them, but in a variety of ways. Sometimes very indy films are even called “character sketches.” So it’s understandable the term could cause confusion, especially when some folks talk about them as vital, necessary things for a writer to have without really explaining what they are.
In a visual-artistic sense, a sketch usually isn’t a finished work. It’s when you use a few quick lines and textures to suggest an image rather than forming a complete image. It’s inherently incomplete, but implies something more than itself.
In a similar sense, a character sketch shouldn’t be an exhaustive list that covers every possible detail. It’s supposed to give you, the writer, a sense of the character you can refer back to as a guideline. It’s notes about how they talk, how they move, what they like, and what they hate.
Like a fair number of the things I pontificate about here on the ranty blog, a character sketch is going to be something that’s unique to each author. Probably to each character, as well. Some characters may need pages of exhaustive notes. Others may only need a line or two. And with a few, you may never need to write a single note because they’re perfectly in your mind.
In the book I’m working on right now, I sketched out a short paragraph about each character. Most of them got two or three lines, and a few of them got five or six. For the most part, though, I let character elements develop as I went, growing off those initial impressions. I didn’t know Xela was a nudist or Clive was a recovering alcoholic, so neither of these fairly defining traits are in their simple character sketches.
However, there are a number of surprises and reveals in this story. The characters end up reacting to a lot of things. By the third draft, it was clear I needed to know just how everybody would react. Debbie and Clive were pretty clean-cut. Nate, Veek, and Roger, on the other hand, would definitely swear. But how would they swear? After all, profanity’s just as much a part of someone’s speech patterns as whether or not they say pop or soda. So I do know precisely how everyone swears.
Now, on the flipside, I got to talk to filmmaker Stephan Elliot a while back about his film adaptation of Easy Virtue. When I asked about how he developed the character of Furber the butler, Elliot laughed and said one word—“Hate.” That’s it. That was the entire character sketch. Furber completely, openly loathes his employers, and his contempt is clear every moment he’s forced to be on screen with them.
So, what is a character sketch? It’s whatever works for you. I’ve found one of the easiest ways to create one, though, is just to ask questions. Not only does this help you get various answers about someone, it also generally leads to other questions about them that develop the character more.
For example... let’s talk about Phoebe.
For the record, I have never, ever in my life met someone named Phoebe (to the best of my knowledge). That’s why it’s my fallback name for things like this (along with the Warners). If I used a name like Tammy, Stephanie, Becky, Colleen, or half a dozen others when I make these examples, I would catch sooooooooooooo much crap from someone, somewhere. It’s the writer’s curse. If I have a character with the same name as someone I know, I must be talking about them. Heaven forbid I give the character my name, because then I’m just a raging egomaniac. Or, at least, I’m finally admitting it openly.
Anyway... we were talking about Phoebe. Let’s ask a couple questions. Answer as you see fit. You don’t need to write them down, but you can if you want to .
Where did she grow up?
Does she get along with her family?
Did she go to college? Did she live at college?
Did she do any “experimenting” during her college years?
Did she finish college?
Republican or Democrat?
What does she do for a living?
What does she want to be doing for a living?
How much does she spend on her hair each month?
Does she brush and floss regularly?
Does she have any hobbies or collections?
Does she go to church? What church?
Where does she live?
Where does she want to live?
Does she have roommates?
How does she swear? Like a sailor? Like a prude?
Phoebe’s five favorite movies? Books? Bands?
How old was she when she had her first drink?
How often does she go out with friends?
Are most of her friends male or female?
Does she smoke?
Has she ever done drugs?
Does she go to the gym?
What kind of car does she drive?
What kind of car does she want to drive?
Does she have pets?
If you answered half of those questions, that’s a ton of information about Phoebe. Plus, as you’ve probably noticed, a lot of it implies other facets of her personality. Even if you don’t use all of it, it’s going to give you much better insight into how she talks and reacts to the world around her and how she might react to a different world (figurative or actual) if she were to suddenly find herself in one.
Now, let me jump back to the artistic analogy of sketches. There’s another term you’ve probably heard called negative space. It’s when you define shapes by the emptiness around them rather than by the shapes themselves. And sometimes, alas, that’s how some writers try to define their characters.
For example, have you watched any of the GOP debates? You’ll notice the one resounding theme among them—among most politicians—is who they are not. They are not Washington insiders. They are not part of those over-educated elitists trying to create socialism. They sure as hell are not President Obama. They’re nothing like him, and they’ll get angry if you dare hint otherwise.
The question is, though, who are they? They’re so busy establishing what they aren’t, they rarely talk about what they are. In the rush to tell you what doesn’t work and what they won’t do, they never get around to what does work and what they will do.
Now, I’m sure there’s a philosophical argument to be had here. Does a hole punch make 1/4” circles of paper or does it make 1/4” holes in paper? Does it make a difference which it does since both are technically correct?
Y’see, Timmy, the problem with defining by negatives is that it’s like trying to prove a negative. That kind of definition leaves too many variables for it to be clear. If I tell you the shirt I’m wearing right now isn’t red, does that really tell you anything about the color of my shirt?
Sure, say some folks—we know it isn’t red. Okay, so what is it? Is it blue? Green? Black? Tan? White? Gray? Striped? Plaid? If I tell you to picture a not-red shirt, everyone here’s going to picture something different. And if all you know about someone is that they’re not Obama... well, that narrows it down to about five billion people. You need positives to define characters—even unlikable characters and flat-out villains.
Finally, one last point I brushed against up above and I also mentioned last week. Just because you come up with stuff for a character sketch doesn’t mean you need to use it in your work. Oh, you’ll use all of it in that greater “grand tapestry” sense, but just because I came up with a background element doesn’t mean I need to use it.
Y’see, Timmy (yep, two Y’see Timmys in one post), an all-too-common mistake is when people come up with lush backstories and then feel the need to shoehorn every single line of them into their manuscript. Again, a character sketch is for the writer, not the reader. It’s good for me to know Malavika’s a third-generation Indian who graduated high school a year early and had her first sexual experience at age twenty... but none of this is really relevant to the story I’m telling now.
So I didn’t bother to put any of it in.
And neither should you.
Next week, we take care of the bad guys once and for all. Hopefully.
Until then, go write.