Notebook Exercises: Character Sketch
As you develop your story, whether it’s a short-short or a novel, there are a few basic pieces of prep work you need to do. For shorter works, many writers find themselves making this preparation mental instead of writing out every step, but sometimes it’s helpful to write things out, even if you’re only going to be with a character or setting for a short time. This character sketch exercise can be used for book length projects or flash fiction, it’s just a matter of the length you give yourself and your commitment to detail.
Build a Dossier
To give yourself a good character sketch, you need to lay out some background information first. Set aside some time, and let yourself just get information out in bullet-point. You’ll worry about organizing your creative writing later. To make sure you have a lot to work with, consider all of the following:
- Family members and their relationship to the character
- Occupation, primary goal, and/or societal role
- Past experience and skill set, including education
- Current major objective or goal
- Possible secondary/tertiary goals (if needed)
- Recognizable physical features or characteristics
Once you have a bunch of character information bullet-pointed, you’ll want to move on to organizing it into a narrative. Whether this is the protagonist of your story or not, you will want to get yourself organized around a story starring this character, one that helps you map out the ways that the six items above interact on a day-to-day basis.
Origin Stories and Other Indulgences
There are a few ways you can organize the information, and since this sketch is for you, let yourself explore. If you can build drama and tension into this exercise, great. It will transfer to your main story. If not? OK. This is just for you. Consider how the following scenarios can help you understand this character from the right angle:
- How did your character get to be in their current job or role? Why do they owe loyalty to the people they do? Give us the place it started.
- Consider the same kind of origin story, but for a code of ethics, honor, or other worldview. Where and how did that begin?
- Write a memoir where the character shows us their most powerful family memory.
- Become Facebook friends with your character. What kind of private gossip do they share about the other people in your story?
No matter what genre you’re working in, these kinds of formative exercises help to build the world your creative writing takes place in. Even when these extra stories live and die their entire lives in your notebook, the extra information they bring to your judgment in your main projects is irreplaceable.