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The Value of Character Sketches

Floyd Largent

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Floyd edits science fiction and fantasy, mainstream fiction, short stories, mysteries, anthropology, history, memoirs. His manuscript submission services include writing and editing book proposals and query letters.


As you’ve no doubt learned by now, writing believable, consistent characters is surprisingly difficult. Like you, I’ve probably read enough about the art to fill a decent-sized dictionary. One of the most interesting observations I’ve encountered on the subject was by Michael Seidman, whose horror story “What Chelsea Said” really sticks in my mind. In an interview, he pointed out that he created extremely detailed characters, then put them together in a specific situation to see what happened. This resonated with me, as both writer and editor, because I’ve always believed that when writing fiction, it’s best to develop your universe and characters far beyond what you’ll ever use.

In previous blog entries, I’ve discussed universe building and developing three-dimensional characters. This time, I’d like to expand on the concept of character sketches—detailed biographies of the main characters in your stories. They can also be useful for non-fiction, where you use historical data to explore your characters’ strengths and weaknesses.

Among other things, detailed character sketches help you better understand the abilities, personalities, histories, and other traits of your characters, often to the point where you discover things about them you didn’t know before. That alone is worth all the work, and work it is; for a novel, a character sketch of fewer than 2,000 words is barely useful. Some writers prefer a minimum of 10,000 words before they can say they really know a character. Some of the novels in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Retrieval Artist universe, for example, began as attempts to understand a character by writing his or her backstory. This was especially true for the eight-book in-series Anniversary Day Saga.

The more you know about the background and motivations of a character, the more you’ll know how they’ll react in a particular situation, or how they’ll interact with other characters.

When you just know how a character will react, you may find yourself guided more by their reactions than by your original plans or outlines for a story. This is usually a good thing, as it results in an organic, more realistic story. Sometimes the story may even seem to write itself, with you just as eager as any reader to discover what happens (Louis L’Amour once recounted just such a story). More than one writer has found it necessary to go back and revise the text or significantly change an outline or plot, due to the actions of highly realized characters who came to life and took over the story as the writer opened up new territory.

That’s the thing about a nice, detailed character sketch. When you know everything about a person you’ve created, they become real in your mind. And I do mean everything, right down to their favorite color and the middle name of their best friend’s father. That’s when it really gets interesting, because suddenly you’re not forcing them to react to specific situations in the ways you want them to; they burst free and force you to write them as they would actually react. For the same reasons, an actor who’s played the same character for a long while may balk when presented with directions that he knows in his heart his character would never say or do.

When a character comes to life, your writing becomes more honest, more likely to connect with your audience. That’s what we all want as writers, and the only real way to do it is to know your characters so well that it’s unavoidable. If they don’t surprise you sometimes, you simply don’t know them well enough. So get serious, and start writing detailed character sketches if you don’t already. Don’t use them as excuses not to write your story, but do provide enough detail to round out the characters enough to let them come off the page and help you tell their story. You don’t have to use everything you know about the character as you write. Just the fact that you know all those things will simplify your work.

Keep writing!

Floyd Largent

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