I have been spending the better part of my afternoon filling out character sketches for a book I am developing. I won’t give away too many details, but to make it short I am writing a science fiction novel set in the not-too-distant future taking a look at human life on other planets from as scientifically accurate a manner as possible. I am really excited for this book. I’ve been bursting with ideas over it all weekend. But that doesn’t really pertain to the topic at hand. Since I am currently working out the characters for the book I figured that I might as well share some of my observations. Here goes.
Perhaps I should start off by explaining what a character sketch is. It’s like interviewing someone who doesn’t exist and pretending they are real until you know them so well (as a result of asking questions) that they actually do feel real and take on a life of their own. In other words, grab a doll and pretend you are five. No, seriously, I mean it. Do you want your characters to be believable or not? This is a task easier said than done (hence why it has taken most of my afternoon to do). I have no doubt that creating lifelike characters that readers can identify with, fall in love with, and curse at can come quite naturally to some but not to me. No, creating characters that can talk, act, and think in very real ways as opposed to sounding like I’m having a conversation with myself is not easy. It is something that requires a great deal of effort on my part, and in all likelihood, I am not alone in this. So today, I present you with, Character Sketches: Six Elements to Consider
As I have been thinking about my characters and watching them slowly grow alive from disconnected thoughts and images swirling around in a mental goop to steadily solidifying formations I have pieced together a few common themes about this process. My hope is that by listing them here, I may be able to help you make your characters better as well.
I tried (hopefully well) to give these elements at least semi-self-explanatory names. So hopefully, you will have guessed that the behavioral element of character building is determining how characters are likely to behave. Does your character act in a rather silly manner at times? Is he timid and puny? Is she a gossip? Understanding how your character will respond and interact with different situations is one of the first steps to making a realistic character as it builds consistency.
What does your character believe in? Are they religious? Do they believe in Jesus Christ? Are they Hindu? A Relativist? An agnostic? Naturalist? Is he merely superstitious? Understanding how your characters interpret the world around them is crucial to understanding things like how they will behave under different stimulus and what kinds of things they are willing and unwilling to do.
This one is pretty straight forward. What does your character look like? Blond hair? Balding? Does she have long eyelashes or nails bitten down to stubs? Understanding these things are exceptionally important as they will allow your readers to have a very clear view of what the character looks like, and therefore, will make your character bring out stronger emotions in your readers.
What kinds of self-defining moments has your reader had? Was it the classic yet tragic “Parent’s death, superhero origin story?” Or something as simple as the school bully humiliating them? What have they gone through in life that has made them who they are?
It’s all a matter of opinion. Is it not? Does Charles like chocolate or vanilla? Does Beatrice like skirts or jeans? Would Connor rather drive a Harley or a Mustang? Does Francine prefer baseball or track? Questions like these can have a surprising impact on character likability.
Some authors might feel differently on how important this element of character development is, but it is one that I believe shouldn’t be left alone. When you talk to a teacher is it at all different than when you talk to your best friend late at night? Does a Southern girl sound the same as a Midwestern farm boy? Does a four-year-old have the same word usage capabilities as a Harvard Law Professor? What does a speech impediment sound like on paper? Tone, accent, pitch, and vocabulary all play powerful roles in really making your characters leap off the page.
Have no doubt that there are more elements than these listed. In fact, I am sure that list could go on indefinitely, however, I hope I have succeeded in at least capturing the basics. If you have ever read a book where the characters were dull and uninteresting, I hope that what I’ve shared with you today may enable to understand what those characters were missing. The key to writing good characters that make fiction great is making them as real as possible. Remember, readers won’t like worlds and characters that they can’t experience.
Since this post went a lot longer than I intended I am going to make this part one and pick up later with a more in-depth look at how these elements turn out on paper. I will do this by giving you an example of a character I am working on and also doing some analysis on other, famous characters we all know and love. Until then, adios amigos!