A character sketch is a detailed profile of the character in your book describing both physical traits and personal preferences and/or habits.
When I first started writing, I spent hours filling in five-page character sketches for my main characters, only to find most of that information never came up in the story. I ended up feeling like I’d wasted a lot of time on an arbitrary exercise where I could have been writing the story instead.
Don’t get me wrong, character sketches are important. They help me get to know my characters, to understand how they perceive the world, and why they react the way they do. But since that first book, I’ve changed the way I do them.
But first, let’s get some definitions to make sure we’re on the same page.
Major Versus Minor Characters
Major characters are those who make things happen in the story. They are the stars of your book: protagonist, antagonist, love interest (depending on how heavy their role is), etc.
Minor characters are those who influence the story or the main characters. These characters have a role to play, but they aren’t the stars of the show. They are your main characters’ friends, family, mentors, minions, etc.
Next are the background characters who are throwaway characters or cameo characters. They make an appearance and serve a purpose, but are background characters that aren’t really a part of the story. These are your taxi drivers, random coworker, or a server at the restaurant. Folks you see in real life and need in the story for realism, but aren’t there for the story’s purpose. Cameo characters may or may not have names assigned.
I have two character sketch templates: Major Characters and Minor Characters. Not all minor characters get a sketch, only those whom I need to remember details about. My cameo characters never get a sketch.
Regardless of whether a character gets a sketch, they all go on my Character Cast List. This helps me track the names I’ve used and how many actual people are in my book. (I once unintentionally used the same name for two characters and couldn’t understand why my scene analysis showed this 15-minute cameo character showing up in nine different scenes. Oops.)
Character sketches for my main characters are far more detailed than those for minor characters. With the minor characters, I’m mainly concerned with the basics: name, role in the story, physical description (if needed), background (if relevant), habits and mannerisms, and any other information that applies to the story. The key to minor characters is that I only need to know what’s relevant to the story and only to the extent it will affect the story or my main characters.
Major Character Sketch
I organize my Major Character Sketch into three main sections:
- At-a-Glance Traits
- Desire, Yearning, Resistance, and World Views
- Character Details
The At-a-Glance Traits section contains character-related traits I might need to refer to as I’m writing the story. This is basic character information filled in at a cursory level to remind me of who they are as I write.
Answers in this section may vary from 1-2 words up to full sentences.
- Full Name
- Home Location
- One-sentence Summary (of character’s story line)
- Role in Story (Archetype: Protagonist, Antagonist, Sidekick, Mentor, Love Interest)
- Character Arc (Positive, Negative, or Flat Character Arc)
- Occupation / Education
- Demographic (if relevant): (species, race, nationality, gender, etc.)
- Physical Description
- Habits / Mannerisms
- Personality (MBTI, Love Language, strong and weak character traits, triggers, etc.)
- Background Notes (Relevant background information not found above.)
- Family / Relationships
- Everyday Routines (Morning, Lunch, Afternoon, Dinner, Evening, Bedtime)
Having their “everyday routines” surprised me with how useful it was for making my characters more real.
Desire, Yearning, Resistance, and World Views
This section dives into the story-related traits that drive the theme and plot of the story. Here, we get deeper into the character’s psyche and explore who they are versus who they want/need to be.
Answers to these questions are longer, taking sentences and often paragraphs to explain.
- External Goal / Desire (Drives the plot)
- Yearning (What will make the character complete?)
- Resistance (How the character protects themselves from pain based on past experience.)
- External Conflicts (Prevents the character from reaching the goal.)
- Beginning and End States (Who they are at the beginning and end of the story; And what transformation occurred?)
- Voice / Worldview (How they talk; favorite phrases; primary sense they use; What aspect of the world do they focus on?)
This section contains a myriad of facts about the character. It is a detailed questionnaire that dives deep into personal preferences and information about their life.
Normally, I don’t fill out this section up front, but use it to collect information as I develop the character and need to record something I’ve written. For example, if I write a scene where my lead character states chocolate is his favorite ice cream, I’ll document it in the “favorite foods” section for future reference. Perhaps there’s a scene later where his love interest orders dessert for them and remembers to get his favorite flavor. I better remember what his favorite flavor is, too!
The information in this section is divided into the following subsections, each containing tables for more details:
- Demographics (age, race, gender, nationality, etc.)
- Occupation / Education (job title, how long, income level, degree(s), etc.)
- Physical Description (physical build, height, weight, posture, eyes, hairstyle, clothing style, etc.)
- Personality (MBTI, love language, strongest/weakest traits, vulnerabilities, anger triggers, etc.)
- Outlook on Life (personal demons, optimist/pessimist, confidence level, values, regrets, etc.)
- Skills (skills, hobbies, talents/gifts, languages, things they are particularly unskilled at, etc.)
- Habits / Mannerisms (expressions when happy/sad/angry/etc., idiosyncrasies, accent/dialect, favorite phrases, gestures, etc.)
- Family (marital status, partner, children, mother, father, siblings, etc.)
- Background / History (current location, hometown, happy childhood?, earliest memory, significant childhood event, ever arrested?, etc.)
- Social (friends, enemies, favorite past times, people they hang out with, etc.)
- Interests and Favorites (political leaning, collections, food, drink, music, sports teams, etc.)
- Other Relationships (how others perceive them, how they react to other relationships, etc.)
Remember, you don’t have to fill in every single field in these subsections to fully develop your character. You only need what applies to the story.
But keep in mind, even if you don’t expressly use something you know about this character, it might shape how he responds to events within the story. So think about how relevant the information is and how it helps (or hurts) your character during their transformation from their “before” state to their “after” state.
If you’d like a copy of my Major Character Sketch, you can download the Word document here: Major Character Sketch
If you use Scrivener, you should be able to copy and paste it into a Scrivener document, then drag it into the Templates folder in your Binder.
Pro Scrivener Tip: Add Comments to the Headings/Subheadings to make it easy to jump to that section in the document.
Do you do character sketches? What other prewriting exercises have you done to help develop your characters?
I’d love to know. Drop a comment below and let’s discuss.
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