There are many ways to write a story, and as a writer, you must find the system that best suits you. You may be a plotter who likes to create an outline before you sit down to write your novel, or you might prefer to leave more room for imagination. Nevertheless, in both cases, it is convenient to know your characters in depth. In this section, you’ll discover how to do this with a character sketch.
Character sketches are, so to speak, the characters’ biography or CV. They can take many forms, but they are usually divided into two groups according to their purpose:
Short Sketches: These contain the most basic information about the character. They are perfect for describing minor characters and can also be used as writing prompts. You can store them in a folder and resort to them when you are in need of inspiration. Georges Simenon use to choose two characters (a man and a woman, for example) and ask himself what would take them to the limit. The answer to that question was the beginning of a story.
Character Bible: This document contains a lot of information about each of the protagonists and their relationships with other characters. It’s used during the prewriting stage.
Thanks to these sketches, your characters will have no secrets. You’ll be clear about their appearance, behavior, past, and above all, about the way they must react under different circumstances.
How to Create a Short Character Sketch
As I stated before, the short character sketches can be used as writing prompts or as a prewriting strategy. Don’t be too exhaustive; it’s enough to just jot down a few general notes on your characters in order to know at a glance what is unique about each of them. To illustrate this, let me show you how I have designed my own character sketches:
1. Sketch Number
To start with, I like to organize my sketches by number and add their creation date. I also like to make note of what story they belong (or could belong) to.
3. Type of Character
This point is easy to complete if your characters are part of a specific story because you already know what role they play in it (protagonist, antagonist, mentor, driver, tempter, etc.). However, when a character isn’t part of any story yet, it is not that easy to assign him (or her) to a role. To solve this problem, ask yourself these questions: Does (s)he meet the requirements to be classified as a protagonist (or antagonist)? Should (s)he play a minor role? Is (s)he a hero or an anti-hero? As you can see, there are many possible combinations.
4. General Information
I usually add data such as the characters’ gender, age, date and place of birth, place of residence, etc.
In this section, it’s not necessary to go into too much detail. You just have to consider the features that make a character different from the everyone else (a scar, a limp, strange physique, speech defect, etc.). I also like to include the characters’ height, eye color, and hair color.
As in the previous point, try to focus on what makes each of your characters special. Is he or she a home-loving introvert or a rather independent and sociable adventurer? Choose the adjectives that best define your characters’ personality. When I fill in this section, I like to take into account their main virtues and shortcomings as well as their hobbies, fears, dreams, and goals (which can be important to define their motivations in the story).
What do your characters do for a living? In this part, there’s also room to explain the characters’ frustrated vocations because I think the things they have given up can also define them. This section is important unless your characters are animals or fantastic creatures.
8. Family, Friends, and Acquaintances
It can be helpful to specify the kind of relationship your characters have with their family, friends, and acquaintances. Who are the most important people in their lives?
9. Personal Motto
A personal motto, slogan, or catchphrase is a sentence or concept that sums up a character’s philosophy and values. It’s not compulsory to invent it. You can always use sayings such as “you live and learn” or “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” etc. You can also use quotes by famous philosophers.
Finally, I tend to leave a blank space for other relevant information such as my characters’ biography, a funny anecdote, etc. Anything that helps you visualize them in more detail will come in handy when you start writing your story.
How to Create a Character Bible
As I told you before, character bibles are used to define the story’s main characters during the pre-writing stage. These sketches must be as detailed as possible. In this way, you’ll be clear about your characters’ appearance, peculiarities, virtues, shortcomings, customs, relationships, etc. Think about actors and actresses who must be very familiar with the characters they play in order to make a good performance. A writer who gathers information about a character faces a similar job.
Feel free to create the type of character sketch that best suits you. If you don’t know where to start, you can use the character sketch outline that I use for my stories. In my opinion, this document covers the most important points of a sketch. Let’s take a closer look at them:
1. General Features
You know that I like to organize my sketches by number and add their creation date. I also make note of what story they belong to. Next, I write the character’s name or nickname with its corresponding origin and meaning. I also like to add the character’s role in the story (protagonist, antagonist, mentor, driver, tempter, etc.) and specify in which part of the plot (s)he participates. In addition, I jot down his/her gender, age, marital status, studies, occupation, and place of residence (rented or owned).
In this section, I write about the character’s appearance: physical features, clothes, gestures, manners, etc. I tend to pay attention to the features that make a character different from everyone else (a scar on the face, whether (s)he wears glasses, etc.).
I think it’s important to include information about their character traits. Search for the adjectives that best define your character and the way (s)he sees himself/herself as well as the way others describe him or her. Remember to reflect on your character’s hobbies, fears, phobias, fixations, dreams, and goals.
4. Family and Friends
It can be very useful to make note of information about the parents of each characters including their names, jobs, ages, and type of relationship with their son or daughter. You can include other relevant data such as hobbies or events that marked them deeply.
In scenarios where your main character has siblings, a partner, children, or other intimate acquaintances, record them as well, and don’t forget about their name, age, and relationship with the main character, etc.
- Past Events – Include a short summary of your character’s most important life experiences before the beginning of the story.
- Present Circumstances – Add an explanation of your character’s situation in life when the story begins
- Future Events – Make a brief explanation of how the storyline will affect your character’s life in the future.
6. Relationships and Other Notes
In this section, include the rest of the characters and state how they met your main character, the type of relationship (s)he has with them, and how it affects their life and their actions.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to leave blank space for random notes and observations.