6 Necessary Parts to a Character Sketch

Yesterday I blogged about Will Mize’s 10 Commandments of Self-Publishing.  One of the things I didn’t draw out as much in that post was something he said that really stuck with me: your first priority, even if science fiction and fantasy, should be your characters, not world building.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.  Show me a wildly successful fantasy book and I’ll show you well-developed characters.  Whether it’s the well-developed home life of Frodo Baggins or the child abuse victim psyche of Harry Potter, these stories are successful because we care about the characters.  Character sketches are an extremely important part of the writing process.

But how do you write character sketches?  That’s not something that’s talked about a lot.  It seems that book marketing, newsletters, social media, and cover design prices take up more of the Internet space on indie writing than anything else.  There’s a time and a place for those things, but I keep going back to the writing itself.  That is the number one priority.  And in that number one priority, having good characters is paramount.  So how do you go about it?  There’s no one right way, which is the great thing about creative writing, but here are six elements that will give you a solid start.

#1: A Back Story

It doesn’t have to be a tragic back story or even a terribly interesting one.  But there has to be some measure of influence to tell you why the character is the way that they are.  It’s that way with people.  If I was to explain to you some of why I am the way that I am, I would probably begin by telling you that I grew up in a miniscule town in southern Indiana, which I always wanted to get out of.  I might tell you that this desire nurtured in me a sense of adventure, and that’s why I so often went to books.  I might also tell you that I had a secure home life, which has caused me to be more emotionally secure than some of my peers that didn’t have that privilege.

It’s the same thing with characters; after all, characters are people.  There are some personality traits that can be granted as natural or things that are just part of their personality, but other things need explained.  Those explanations can also keep you from firing off things that wind up being inconsistent, which can save a lot of time during the first one or two rounds of editing.

#2: What the Character Wants

According to many writing blogs, this is the most important part of the character sketch.  The thing that moves your story along will be what your main character wants, and how the antagonist’s wants get in the way of that.

Think about your unmotivated cousin living in his mom’s basement (if you don’t have one of those, then just bear with me for a moment).  How exciting is it to hear about his life?  Does it make you want to hear more?  On the contrary, it’s probably rather depressing.  That’s the way your character is if he doesn’t want anything, or if he’s just kind of there and stuff just kind of happens to him.  Your character, whether a good guy, bad guy, or antihero, needs to want something.

This can also be expanded to include little details that will make your character stand out.  Consider not only what their biggest desire is that moves the story forward, but also their hobbies, likes and dislikes, and what they want out of each relationship.

#3: Well-Defined Personality Traits

It seems pretty obvious, but you need to know what your character’s personality is going to be like.  These don’t have to be remarkably original or unique, but they need to be well-defined.  This can be especially helpful if you have a team of characters, because you can create a good balance between them.  The show Leverage is an especially good example of this kind of balance.  Hartisan is funny, Parker is sly, Elliott is tough, and Sophia is smooth.  If you’re crafting a team of characters, they need to be able to stand apart.

Knowing ahead of time what your characters are going to be like also helps you identify potential problems in developing these characters.  For example, if you have two sulking characters with tragic back stories, then you know something is needed to set them apart.  And like the element before it, having well-defined personality traits helps enormously with consistency.  If you already know what the character is like and how they react to certain things, then their behavior will be consistent.  I’d even recommend taking something like the Meyers-Briggs personality test as each of your characters, and use the descriptions to help you craft your characters.

#4: Physical Description

I put this towards the end for a reason.  It’s not as important as the character’s personality, desires, and back story, but it is still important.  Differences in physique can bring with it dynamics of intimidation or protectiveness.  Attractiveness can bring sexual tension.  Even moving beyond relationships between characters, physical descriptions can make your characters stand out, with things such as an abnormally short height or a unique tattoo.

#5: The Way They Talk

I remember a friend of mine describing why she loved Charles Dickens so much.  He was paid by the word, and sometimes it shows, as my sister-in-law likes to say, but the thing this friend of mine loved so much about him was that all of his characters sounded different.  No two people, especially when you include differing backgrounds, talk exactly the same.  Different people use different expressions.  Some have an aggressive conflict style, others are passive-aggressive.  Some use a lot of slang, others try to sound more educated.  If all of your characters sound the same . . . well, it’ll read like most modern YA fiction.  But if you pay more attention to how your character’s talk, the words that they use, the different expressions they like, then your story will be that much better.  You don’t want just as good as everyone else is doing; you want better.

#6: How They Change

Character development is probably the number one thing that you see criticized in book reviews, as well as movie reviews.  There’s a reason for that.  We expect to experience change along with the characters when we go into a story.  Even if that’s not what you look for as a reader, you expect just from the standpoint of realism.  If exciting things are happening in the book, as they should be in any good story, then you can’t reasonably expect that the character wouldn’t change!  So as you’re crafting your characters for your story, you need to be thinking about what changes are going to take place, and then from there look at how they will go through those changes.  As Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”

For the next week, I’ll be blogging about various kinds of story and character development.  This, I believe, is the most important part, so it’s quite fitting that it came first.  If there are any other elements of character sketches that you believe are also important, feel free to leave a comment.

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