Character Sketches for Writers – How to Bring Characters to Life

Why create character sketches before writing stories? To bring your fictional characters to life! These tips for sketching out the personalities, weaknesses, and strengths of the characters in your novel or short story will help you bring those “peeps” alive.

Before the tips, a quip:

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people… people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” ~ Ernest Hemingway.

The first tip for creating fictional character sketches is to make sure they’re actual people. Not just a hollow “caricature” — a real person. To learn more, read a Writer’s Guide to Character Traits.

And, here are five ways to create a character sketch…

Bringing Characters Alive With Character Sketches

There are two basic types of story, character-based and plot-based. One focuses on interesting characters and the interactions between them and the other on the events of the story. Action and murder mysteries are plot-based. Literary fiction and feel good stories are character-based.

Just because a story is plot-based doesn’t mean you don’t need good character development. A well-developed character can add depth to any scene and even help writers create new twists and turns in the story.

Give your characters purpose

Purpose is what gives characters drive and determination to move through the story. We’re all familiar with the cliché of an actor asking what their motivation is for a scene. In reality, a fictional character needs this motivation to feel real to the reader. They need a purpose or an ultimate goal in life. This goal can relate to the plot of the story or be parallel to the plot. Make that purpose grand such as staying alive no matter the cost or small and specific, such as getting a new pair of PF Flyers.

Give your characters quirks

Fictional characters, like real people, are weird. They have dreams and hopes and behaviors which are unique only to them. A quirk adds another layer when you create a character. It makes the character stand out. It gives the character faults or virtues that others don’t have in the story.

In my book, I’ve created a character who is extremely loyal to the bad guy, even though it’s detrimental to his own health and leads to the death of another character. This loyalty is also this character’s flaw and virtue.  I have another character who persistently chews on his fingertips when he’s nervous. These little quirks give the characters life, make them stand out in the reader’s mind and give the writer something to write about during dialogue heavy scenes!

Give your characters shadow and light

The ancient Greeks got it right when they developed the tragic hero, the man larger than life with great virtues and giant flaws. Oedipus in the story of the same name becomes King of Thebes. He is clever, strong-willed and intelligent, but his downfall is the result of repeated stubbornness and arrogance. He tries to change the future after learning it from the Oracle at Delphi. He refuses to yield the road to a chariot, eventually fighting with driver and killing him. He ignores several people’s pleas to leave his past, and the mystery of his father’s death alone.

Everyone has both good and bad sides. So, create fiction characters with minor or major flaws as well as virtues. Flaws as simple as not bathing often enough or being too obsessed with cleaning rounds characters out and makes them more interesting for the reader.

Develop your characters fully

When you are creating a character sketch for your story, don’t neglect to develop the main character. Some writers tend to create generic protagonists, especially in first and second person narratives, because they are too close to the character. Objectivity and distance help a great deal in character development.

Look at your characters objectively

Take a step back and really look at your main character. What is the main character’s motivation? Why is the character going through the motions of the plot? Is the character interesting? Do they have quirks and flaws like everyone else? Are those flaws visible in the story? A well-developed main character also leads to more in-depth interactions and conflicts with other characters. Differences between characters are useful for conflict, arguments, evolution and plot development.

To learn more about about bringing your “peeps” alive, read Got Fiction Characters? How to Use a Character Web to Track Them.

Do you have any questions or tips on character sketches? Comments welcome below…

About the author: Hope Hammond is a freelance writer who specializes in web content creation. She’s also working on her first book, and occasionally posts updates about it at her blog, FEBS.

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6 thoughts on “Character Sketches for Writers – How to Bring Characters to Life”

  1. Do they have quirks and flaws like everyone else? Are those flaws visible in the story? A well-developed main character also leads to more in-depth interactions and conflicts with other characters. Differences between characters are useful for conflict.

  2. Thanks for this helpful article. I hadn’t heard of character webs, but think they are a great way to flesh out your main characters. Must try it out!

  3. Wow, I never really thought of sketching characters out based on their feelings, their goals, thoughts, aspirations, etc. Although I have not tried this yet, I can already envision that this would be the best way to really draw out who your characters really are. I look at it kind of like brainstorming, but putting a real visual into your head, helping you create a better thought out character. Awesome post!

  4. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks for your comment, Delena! It’s good to know that Snoflake Pro is so good for creating character sketches 🙂

  5. I can’t express my love (and obsession) with Snowflake Pro enough! It’s a simple program that helps you slowly but efficiently build your story from tagline all the way through in-depth character sculpting.

    It really helped me with making sure that I had really and truly fleshed-out my characters so they were believable people and not just plot devices.