Before anybody sees the word ‘sketch’ and runs for the hills, I’m not talking about drawing. (Sorry.) Although, if you like to draw, that might come in handy—but it’s definitely not necessary.
This is a concept that most writers are familiar with to some degree, even if what they call it varies from person to person. However, I have a few things to add to it that I learned in that Screenwriting class I took last fall.
When you’re character-sketching, the goal is to make sure that you know your character. What does she look like? How old is she? Where is she from? What are her goals? What is her personality? All these things are typically answered as you sketch out your characters, but do you go any farther?
In the sketch, you probably decide about the character’s personal life—how many siblings he has, where or if he works, if he is single, married, or dating, etc. But do you get into the particulars?
What does your character do in his free time? Does he have a favorite food? Does he play an instrument? Did he get into a lot of trouble as a child? Is he an ‘animal person’? Can he balance a cookie on his forehead and work it down to his mouth without dropping it? Okay, now I’m getting ridiculous…
But the point that I’m trying to make is that, while there are stories in which the answers to these questions might be relevant, most stories aren’t going to need to answer them. That doesn’t mean that some of those answers might not be good to know, though. By knowing even the most insignificant details about our characters—details that readers might never see—we ensure that our characters are as three-dimensional as they can possibly be. If we see them as being full, complete characters, it will be more likely to show through in our writing.
I thought it was a bit weird when the Screenwriting professor asked to do this. She had us spend a few minutes and just write anything that came to our heads about each of our main characters, but it yielded interesting results. I definitely felt like I knew Tarphaena better afterwards (See Digging Deeper into Writing Mistakes or Journey to Akhettar, for more) . On a random compulsion, I tried it again with other characters in other stories, and each time I feel like I learn a little more. It probably comes down to that, with practice, I’m starting to be able to just let myself go in it and write whatever comes to mind. I’m not totally bound by what I write about the characters if later I think it doesn’t fit, but overall it works well. The fact that it’s not forced—it’s just ‘word vomit’—has a lot to do with it. I’m thinking about what I know about the character and her personality and then digressing.
If nothing else, from all these posts, you must know by now that I’m pretty good at digressing.
To the point, however, this is just another trick I learned in a writing class that I thought I’d pass on to you. Let me know what you think and/or what variations of this you’ve used. I’d love to hear about it!