Anatomy of a Character Sketch

  Clock Tower

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to guest post over on Jill Weatherholt’s – Pursuing a Passion for Writing – blog. I wrote on the topic of character sketches and I choose to illustrate that concept today with building photos. The idea of creating a character shares some commonalities with building – working from the ground up, planning, careful scaffolding and attention to finishing details. 

Lighthouse - Witzel photo

When it comes to writing a novel, if I have any pearls of wisdom to drop, that string of luminescent beauty would be looped over the neck of how writers get to know their characters. A writer’s relationship with the characters has to go as deep as any connection to family members or BFF’s.

Character sketches are the obvious entry point to this knowing and a physical description is a good place to begin. Not necessarily the most important aspect of the undertaking, but one must start somewhere.

Ruins - Witzel photo

A physical description will naturally branch out and run all over the map – age, work, friends, family, hobbies, affectations, disabilities, talents. Dig a bit deeper and a character’s internal and external motivations begin to emerge. What makes the person tick? What drives this particular character’s actions? What makes him laugh? What makes her cry? Where is anger rooted?

Creating character sketches comes early in my writing process and it’s an exercise in wild writing – a regular free-for-all. I let myself go as I imagine everything I can about a particular character. As creator, I need to know far more about my creations than any reader will ever be subjected to.

Arts & Crafts home - Witzel photo

My daily walks become prime time for carrying out lengthy chats with all my characters. The first person the character interacts with is me. Later, when I’m sure I’m on solid ground with the relationships I have developed, I can begin to hear how they talk to one another. If I have brought the character sketch process to its logical conclusion, dialogue becomes an act of transcription.

Character sketches do not get laid to rest once I start writing the novel. Whenever I find that dialogue is not flowing or something a character is doing is not ringing true, I’m back to the drawing board of that sketch. There is obviously the need to strengthen the relationships if I’m going to hear unique voices, capture that slight waver, hesitation or tone that indicates so much.

Biltmore Hotel - Witzel photo

My books, so far, have revolved around the same group of core characters. As it is in real life, characters must grow. A series is dead in the water if this doesn’t happen. With each new book, character sketches have to be fleshed out to adequately represent the ways in which the characters have changed. Izzy can’t sound the same in book four – happily married to Liam and surrounded by family – as she sounded in book one when she was reeling from Caleb’s death and struggling with loneliness and feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Of course, there are aspects of Izzy’s voice that never change – core personality traits, her wry sense of humour and quick wit. I cherish that continuity as I tune my ear to understanding who this woman is becoming.

Downtown Portland, Oregon - Bruce Witzel photo

A writer sets lives in motion to jostle and collide against one another like so many bumper cars at an amusement park. A character sketch is the living, breathing document that keeps track of the results.

9 comments on “Anatomy of a Character Sketch

  1. noelleg44 says:

    Great advice, Francis. Along with wonderful photos!

  2. diannegray says:

    This is wonderful, Francis. There’s nothing I love more than well thought out and ‘real’ characters 😀

    • The ‘real’ factor is the hard part, for sure. The work put in getting to know a character well in advance of writing certainly contributes – in my humble opinion.

  3. Thanks for sharing your process with your characters. Very helpful advise.

  4. Gwen Stephens says:

    Hi Fran, I loved this post and the one you wrote for Jill’s blog. It’s coincidental timing, since I have a post on character in the works at the moment. Mine is more about how I’ve failed to develop characters in early works. Learning how you develop your characters from the ground up has been fascinating and educational. Thanks!

    • I’m looking forward to reading your post, Gwen. This trip I’m on right now makes social media engagement a bit low on the priority list but I’ll have loads of time to catch up when I return to solitary writing days at the lake. It’s all about balance – right? The main thing for me is knowing these people I call my characters as I would hope to know a real person. After all, I’m speaking for them all the time. Too much room to slip up if I don’t.

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