Character Sketches

So last week I said a writer should never suffer from writer's block. Writers that do, do so because they focus too much on the story and how to advance it. This is the wrong approach. In my first post, I said that stories are about people. This is so true, that writing the characters should come before writing the story.

So put on hold that story idea you've been kicking around in your head, and think of a character. Let's use Claire. I think of her as a college student. Maybe she's in art school, but she has some other secret ambition. Hmm, contradiction can often make very compelling characters. Maybe she's a good person, but her mom drank, and she's scared of ending up like her. Like a lot of young adults, she'd like to change the world for the better, but she's not sure how to start. Ok, we have a basic personality, a little background, and a life long goal.

Now let's make another character. Let's call him Bob. Bob can be a little obnoxious, but he uses it as a defense mechanism. He's a college student too, working towards his MBA. He feels pressured to be a corporate heavy weight just like the old man and he tells everyone, including himself, that he wants that too. He tells people how he's going to take over the world. But deep down inside, what he really wants to do is _______.

These two characters might actually get along if both are patient in getting to know the other, but very likely they won't at first. Now, we can put them in a scene together where there's bound to be some conflict and just write what we think would happen. Can you picture Bob saying something obnoxious and Claire being put off by it? Maybe Claire says something idealistic and Bob rolls his eyes at her. We already have some tension. See how easy that was?

One of the things I found useful, I started writing down unusual physical and behavior traits of real people I knew. It can be fun to mix and match characteristics from people you observe or know in real life.

Next week, I'll talk about tone and point of view styles. In the meantime, it's not a bad idea to make list of character sketches, even if you don't have a story in mind to plop them in yet.


  1. I think you're idea of writers' block is partially informed by your process :P I over plan, but it doesn't give me writers' block. In fact, for most of my life I never had it. But...depression tends to induce a lack of interest in writing, for a period of time. I become over critical, that produces writers' block.

    I agree that stories should be about character, but the interaction between character/world/society provides a much more interesting read. They all need to be developed to full extent. It's really annoying as a reader to spot when an author has paid more attention to character than plot. Such pieces tend to be filled with plot-holes.

    That said, plot needs to agree with character IMO. They inform each other. There is balance between the two. Some of us can't get a story started if we don't know where it's headed. It doesn't seem worth writing if I don't have a (fairly) detailed plot in mind. At least a goal--where the story ends up, with road-markers along the way.

    Your suggestion works well for writing prompts and scene construction. For me, i can only get to scene writing after I know what place it has in the plot. :P otherwise, scene gets scrapped. I'll even restart a project if I have too many (or too long) scenes that are stressing chara/world over plot. :P

  2. I always have trouble STARTING with characters. I like working with characters within a story, and it's always exciting when an interesting character starts to emerge. But if I just sit down and try to begin from scratch on an idea by imaging a character, I find myself usually drawing a blank for some reason.

  3. @drea Plot holes are certainly things to be mindful of.

    @nuclearheadache I do a little of both in the beginning. I get a basic story idea, then plan out the characters that I want in there. But in this case, the story is one character's goals, motivations, and background. So often "starting with the story" really comes back to the characters. I used to always think plot based, then it occurred to me that anyone can think up a great story. What usually makes a creative writer stand out is the ability to make characters memorable. Of course, there are some classic stories I can think of where the personalities and experiences of the characters were unimportant. But that takes a hell of a great, original idea to make that work.

  4. Good advice. I am kicking this around myself lately to see how it goes. So far it seems to be useful, because it is difficult to advance a storyline when you don't know your characters.

  5. Very useful advice, I also like your writing style. Keep it up...I am a follower!