Character Sketch

Writers use character sketches as quick references for their stories. The sketch is a guide the writer uses as a reference for adding more detail to character descriptions and for adding depth to a character’s personality, motivations, or circumstances. Learning how to write a character sketch helps authors keep their characters consistent and interesting, even if the character only occupies a minor role in a story.
 

Character Sketches, Character Bibles, and Backstory

Character sketches are part of a larger set of writing tools that include character bibles and backstory information. They differ in length and complexity. A character bible—or detailed backstory—includes significant information about the character and his or her history and relationships with other characters. Much of this information will never be revealed in the story, but it helps you visualize and understand the character. J. K. Rowling, for instance, created extensive character backstories not only for the characters in the Harry Potter series but also for Hogwarts and its history. This wealth of information helped her create the sense that her characters inhabited a living world.
 

What Is a Brief Character Sketch?

Character sketches are much shorter than backstory bibles. They summarize basic information about the character and can be used for quick reference or as writing prompts. Some writers create character sketches without a story in mind and use them as creative starting points for stories.

How to make a character sketch depends on the writer’s preferences. Some create summaries using bullet points while others prefer to write paragraphs. Still others use a premade character sketch template to ensure each sketch includes consistent information. We’ll give you examples of how to use both bullets and paragraphs in this post. Without further ado, here’s how to write a character sketch from start to finish.
 

How Do You Develop a Character’s Name and Appearance?

Most character sketches begin with the character’s name and a brief description of his or her appearance, including age, gender, and any distinguishing features. At this point the sketch may include a short description of the character’s role in the story: Is she the hero, a mentor, a friend of the protagonist, or an antagonist?

Details are important when deciding how to create a good character for a story. Without going into too much detail, the character sketch should note any physical traits that influence the character’s thoughts or actions, such as strength, height, or disabilities.

how to sketch a character

How to Make a Character Sketch: Name and Appearance Examples

John Felson

  • Male, twenty-three years old, average build
  • Sandy-brown hair, already receding
  • Does not smile much due to yellowing teeth
  • Coworker of main character

Jimmy Rivers

Jimmy’s in his midfifties, his once-solid body now running to flab. He has a nasty scar running down his left cheek, a mop of unruly brown hair, and a slight limp. Despite his middle-age spread, he’s deceptively quick and strong.

Betsy Miller

Eighteen years old, Betsy has a 1950s pinup girl physique. Her hair is auburn, her eyes are a deep brown, and the corners of her mouth constantly turn up, as if she’s smothering a secret laugh. She’s the protagonist’s best friend, despite their long-standing rivalry.
 

How to Make a Character Sketch: Developing Personality

While physical descriptions are important, it’s a character’s personality that drives his or her role in a story. Your character sketch should include the character’s usual emotional state and any personality quirks. If he has strong, defining personality traits, did something happen in his past to make him this way?

How to Make a Character Sketch: Personalities Examples

John Felson

  • Frequent bullying as a child left John suspicious of others and suffering from low self-esteem
  • Prefers to work alone, tends to agree with the strongest or most influential personality in the room

Jimmy Rivers

A man of extremes, Jimmy wears his heart on his sleeve. Growing up in a large, loud family made him into an extrovert—quick to laugh but equally quick to give in to anger.

Betsy Miller

Betsy’s humor and optimism make many people mistake her for a good-natured party girl. This is a calculated ploy on her part. She’s extremely perceptive and quick to identify hypocrisy and other people’s weaknesses.
 

How to Make a Character Sketch: Settings

Where does your character live? Where does she work? Where does she spend her free time? Any of these questions can change your perception of a character. Equally importantly, note where the reader first encounters the character. You can, of course, change this information later, but right now, what situation will shape the reader’s impression of the character?

Character Sketches and Physical Settings Examples

John Felson

  • First seen slightly drunk at protagonist’s graduation party
  • Works in the same cubicle farm as hero
  • Lives in a dingy one-room apartment over a convenience store

Jimmy Rivers

First seen in a restaurant the protagonist frequents, Jimmy lives in an old brownstone in a quiet area of town. He spends each Sunday at the local park, playing chess.

Betsy Miller

Betsy and the hero are college roommates. She works nights as a waitress and studies biology and genetics at the local university.
 

How Do You Develop a Character’s Emotional State?

The emotional state a character experiences when the reader meets him can be very different from his usual personality and mood. How is the character feeling when he first makes his appearance? Is there a reason?

How to Make a Character Sketch: Character Mood Examples

John Felson

  • Too much alcohol has made John seem friendlier and more extroverted than usual

Jimmy Rivers

News of his uncle’s death has left Jimmy saddened and angry. As is usual for him when upset, he’s looking to make others feel miserable as well.

Betsy Miller

Betsy is ecstatic when we first see her, having just received a grant to study the genetics of Argentinian fire beetles.
 

How Do You Develop a Character’s Relationships with Other People?

No one exists in a vacuum, and this should be taken into account when considering how to make a character sketch. Who influences your character’s life?

How to Make a Character Sketch: Relationship Examples

John Felson

  • Aside from his mother and the hero, John has little in the way of friends and family
  • Belle, who occupies the cubicle next to John, has a crush on him

Jimmy Rivers

Aside from his now-dead uncle, Jimmy is closest to his three sisters and a cousin with whom he toured Europe when they were in their twenties.

Betsy Miller

Other than the hero, Betsy is closest to her genetics professor and Mr. Sparkly, her pet Argentinian fire beetle. Her last few relationships have ended badly, including one where her lover vanished the day Betsy came home with Mr. Sparkly.

Polishing the Character Sketch

Once you’ve jotted down the information you want to include in your character sketch, it’s time to record it in a format you find easy to access when writing. Depending on your preferences, you can do this through either short paragraphs, bulleted lists, or a character sketch template. At this point in the process, you can polish your sketch a little, adding or changing information as you see fit.

Final Character Sketches Examples

John Felson

  • Male, twenty-three years old, average build, with receding sandy-brown hair
  • Does not smile much due to yellowing teeth and a nervous disposition
  • Coworker of main character at a technical support cubicle farm
  • Frequent bullying as a child has left John suspicious of others; prefers to work alone and tends to agree with the strongest or most influential personality in the room
  • First seen slightly drunk at protagonist’s graduation party; too much alcohol has made John seem friendlier and more extroverted than usual
  • Lives in a dingy one-room apartment over a convenience store
  • Aside from his mother and the hero, John has little in the way of friends and family
  • Belle, who occupies the cubicle next to John, has a crush on him; he has no idea and would be surprised anyone could find him attractive

Jimmy Rivers

Jimmy River is a bluff New Yorker in his midfifties, his once-solid body now running to flab. He has a nasty scar running down his left cheek, a mop of unruly brown hair, and a slight limp. Despite his middle-age spread, he’s deceptively quick and strong.

A man of extremes, Jimmy wears his heart on his sleeve. Growing up in a large, loud, and argumentative family made him into an extrovert with quickly changing moods—quick to laugh but equally quick to give in to an anger he doesn’t bother to control.

News of a beloved uncle’s death has left Jimmy saddened and angry. As is usual for him when upset, he’s subconsciously looking to make others feel miserable as well, and his target of choice is the waitress also serving the protagonist.

Aside from his now-dead uncle, Jimmy is closest to his three sisters and a cousin with whom he toured Europe when they were in their twenties.

Betsy Miller

Eighteen years old, Betsy has a 1950s pinup girl physique. Her hair is auburn, her eyes are a deep brown, and the corners of her mouth constantly turn up, as if she’s smothering a secret laugh. She’s the protagonist’s best friend, despite their long-standing academic rivalry.

Betsy’s humor and optimism make many people mistake her for a good-natured party girl. This is a calculated ploy on her part. She’s extremely perceptive and quick to identify hypocrisy or other people’s weaknesses. She’s known to bear grudges and has a “take no prisoners” attitude to those who wrong her.

Betsy and the hero are platonic roommates. She works nights as a librarian’s assistant and attends the local college, where she studies genetics and biology. She’s ecstatic when we first see her, having just received a grant to study the genetics of Argentinian fire beetles.

Other than the hero, Betsy is closest to her genetics professor and Mr. Sparkly, her pet Argentinian fire beetle. Her last few relationships have ended badly, including one where her lover vanished the same day Betsy came home with Mr. Sparkly.
 

What Is a Brief Character Sketch For?

Writers rarely use all the details they add to brief character sketches. Instead, the sketch serves as both a creative starting point and an anchor to maintain character consistency while hinting at a deeper level to characters than the reader sees. Jimmy, for instance, might only show up for a moment in a story, when the protagonist steps in as Jimmy loudly insults the waitress, but by knowing what’s bothering Jimmy and a little about his backstory, the writer can make his reactions more believable.

Similarly, John’s character sketch reminds the writer the character is an introverted, damaged young man who is unlikely to suddenly become a social gadfly. And as for Betsy, well, let’s just say Mr. Sparkly has some very interesting genetics…

Congratulations! Now you know how to write a character sketch. Need more writing advice? Learn how to catch your reader’s attention right from the get-go with three ways to hook readers in the first chapter.

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