Tag Archives: fictional characters

Character Sketches: How They Bring Fictional Characters to Life

9781270733_e3e28651e6_kCreating fictional characters can be challenging. You might get a glimpse of a character in your head, but when you go to write a story about that character, you discover that he is one-dimensional. Developing a character sketch enables you to purposefully design your character. It gives you the opportunity to brainstorm and then organize physical and non-physical characteristics, such as height, eye color, personality, the character’s backstory, and the character’s inner and outer conflicts.

Character sketches can be written in various ways. One way is in outline form, where you have categories and subcategories. An outline form works well for highly organized people, because it acts as list, like the partial character sketch example below:

Character Name: Marcelo (Marc) Meier

I. Physical Description

   A. Eyes

  1. Color: Caribbean Ocean blue
  2. Glasses or No: No glasses, no contacts; perfect vision
  3. Any striking features: His eyes are blue to the point where they seem inhuman, like he’s wearing colored contacts.

   B. Hair

  1. Color: Dark brown
  2. Style it’s kept in: Cut short and straight
  3. Any striking features: His hair usually smells like chlorine.

Sometimes an outline can seem too rigid. In that case, consider doing a character sketch in paragraph form. By asking questions about your character, you create a quasi mini-story, as if you’re describing your character to the reader. There’s no plot to this mini-story, but you learn in depth about your character and have more room for creative expression, as in the below example:

Character Name: Marcelo (Marc) Meier

What does your character physically look like?

“Water droplets flung free from Marc’s dark brown hair. It always amazed him that no matter how short and straight he kept his hair, chlorine seeped in and refused to budge. Not that he’d express that to any of his teammates. He didn’t want to be called a wuss and get rat tailed. By the time swimmers got to high school, they’d perfected the art of towel snapping.

“He was already nicknamed “pretty boy” because of his eyes. He couldn’t help that they were ridiculously blue. It irritated him anytime some girl mooned over how his eyes reminded her of the Caribbean Ocean.”

A third way to create a character sketch is much more fluid. It’s where the character speaks directly to the reader, and relates his personal story in a conversational manner. This type of sketch usually contains stream of consciousness elements, as in the following partial sketch:

“Hey, I’m Marcelo. (You can call me Marc.) I’m co-captain of the varsity swim team at Mount Crest High School. I’m seventeen. A junior. (Can’t wait to be a senior.)

“My best friend is Ana Arias. Yeah, my best friend’s a girl. Get over it. (And no, we haven’t done it. Have I thought about her naked? Once. It was weird. Like accidentally glimpsing my mom naked when I was ten. Not something that can be unseen.)

“I have this crazy ex-girlfriend. Hot as all get out, but nowhere near hot enough to stay with. My teammates think I’m the insane one for letting Vicky go. They say sex with crazy chicks is the best type. Seeing as how she’s the only girl I’ve done it with, I wouldn’t know. (She was flexible and had a thing for pinching. I always ended up with bruises.) Though there’s this girl Stephanie (Steph) Blake who likes me.

“Steph’s a sophomore. She’s pretty. Got a great butt. She likes wearing shorts that let half of her butt hang out. (Steph is biracial, and without sounding like a complete girl, she has the smoothest skin I’ve ever seen. Don’t think she’s ever had a zit. And to make me sound even more like a wuss, her eyes are beautiful: almond-shaped and hazel. Any guy should jump at the opportunity to get with her. She’s got this demure, Catholic girl thing; it’s like part of her personality is missing, and she lives by a literal interpretation of the Bible. I’m Catholic, but not that Catholic.)”

Character sketches are especially helpful if you have a large cast of characters. Too often it’s too easy to confuse characters or have them all sound the same. When your characters become living, breathing individuals with dreams, fears, and goals, they become unique and relatable. They become people that readers want to invest time with.

Have you created a character sketch? Did it help you visualize your character and his personality?

(Photo courtesy of Danica Saerwen.)

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Watch Out! Getting Your Characters Under Pressure

There are many components to successful stories. Voice, language, and story structure are three examples. However, there are certain aspects that make stories.

Probably fundamentally is the concept that fiction is characters under pressure. Without pressure there would be no story.

Let’s take a look at reality for a moment. In reality, the average person likes living in a comfort zone, where he can minimize risk. And when he does take risks, most times they’re calculated risks. For example, if you decide to go skydiving, you’re going to take classes first or do a buddy dive, where you’re strapped to an expert skydiver. You’re not going to say, “Alright, strap a parachute on me and let’s do this!” At least, not your first time out.

Well, fictional characters like being in comfort zones too. It’s our job as writers to force them out of their comfort zones. We apply the pressure. Because, when characters are under pressure, they reveal who they truly are.

The same applies in real life. When people are under pressure, they don’t have time to pick and choose what and how they want to show themselves to the world. They only have time to react.

Also, pressure makes characters compelling.

There are two types of pressure:

  • External Pressure. External pressure is outside pressure that’s placed on the character. So, if Johnny lost his job and now can’t afford rent, that’s external pressure. Johnny’s forced into a situation where he’s got to make quick decisions, or else he’ll be out on the streets, or will have a landlord threatening him with legal action. Add to that his girlfriend ending up being pregnant, and since she’s Roman Catholic, she devoutly believes she must be married before she gives birth…now Johnny’s really under pressure.
  • Internal Pressure. Internal pressure is pressure from within. It’s pressure you put on yourself. You know doing something will make you uncomfortable, but you do it anyway because you believe the payoff outweighs the anxiety you’ll experience. Love is a great example of this. Sally meets Tommy. Sally really likes Tommy, but she’s afraid of falling in love. Her parents fell in love and got married. Then, they had a very ugly divorce, where her dad ending up trying to poison her mom. Sally doesn’t want to be that vulnerable. Ever. But she’s always wanted to be in love, so she forces herself to go for it because, even though she’s terrified of opening up, she believes love is worth it.

External and internal pressure are both needed in a story. Using them at different times will add to your story, and combining them, letting them complicate each other, will up the ante.

Are you putting enough pressure on your characters?