Practical Character Sketches

If the character who dominates your novel is a cardboard cutout, you are forced to resort to action on every page. Your readers won’t form much emotional connection to him—because the mind we are inhabiting is one-dimensional and we are not. What you end up with is a gang of vigorous children with adult attitudes.

After a first review of a manuscript, I will ask an author with this problem to stop any further writing on the story. Instead I request a 5-10 page character sketch that focuses not on what he does, but who interacts with him. That is the heart of the matter: the connections between characters. 

No person is an island, even though an inexperienced author may write as though this is the case. She has issues with her father, whether he is around or not. You need to think through the different stages of how her feelings toward him evolved. You should be able to capture at least 2-3 significant events that define her growing-up with him. The same goes for her mother.

If the character is a guy, sketch out his partner. What is she (or he) like, and why did he fall in with someone like that? What are the three things she does that really annoy him? Does he have a group of male friends, or does he spend most of his time just with her? What are the 2-3 most significant events in this relationship? I’ll point out, in this instance, that these don’t have to be background stories. They might be placed within the present-day story line. Then they would add to the novel’s mounting tension.

How about a particular sibling? Did she have a profound effect on the heroine as a child? Whether someone is the oldest or second-oldest child can have a profound impact on how she tried to get the attention of her parents—and how she still acts today. Again, try to sketch out 2-3 major events between them. 

What’s happening throughout this process is that you’re touching off sparks from your own past. Angry words that were flung at you by your mother 20 years ago may still smolder in your mind today. An observation by your best friend as to what you’re really like may be a beacon that guides your actions today—even if you haven’t seen him in 10 years. This is how we really act: as social creatures. So, don’t you want to define your characters that way? 

Exercise: Don’t forget to write down striking encounters with strangers. Sometimes in a conversation with someone we have never met, we make profound observations about where we are in our lives or where others are. You didn’t know you were that smart until you confessed to someone you will never meet again.

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