Your characters are the backbone of your stories, forming an integral part of every scene and therefore the planning of every scene. Not only are they a part of the scene, they are in fact inherently tied to the scene structure. If you know anything about scene structure, you’ll know that your scenes follow a similar structure to your story as a whole, with a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning, the scene establishes the character’s goal. In the middle, conflict is introduced, standing in the way of the character achieving their goal. In the end, there is a definite outcome. The character reaches their goal, or, does not. If you’re interested in reading more about scene structure, take a look at this blog post: Scene Structure
As you can see, each scene is centred around one or more characters and the character’s motivations, desires and goals are what drive events in the scene. Good character sketches are therefore extremely helpful when planning and writing your scenes. Besides being a good reference and reminder of your character’s motivation, character sketches can also help in the following ways:
So character sketches are useful and important, but how do you write a good one?
Good character sketches are going to help you while planning and writing each individual scene as well as planning and writing the greater story plot. So, what makes for a good character sketch? Let’s get the basics out of the way first.
At its simplest, your character sketch can start by simply naming the character and specifying their role in the story. If you like, you can include their alignment: where do they fall on the spectrum between good and evil?
Name and Aliases: Your character is going to need a name and perhaps a few aliases and nicknames.
Select their Role:
Antagonist: The antagonist (often a villain) is the character that works against the protagonist (lead character, sometimes the hero) in the story.
Confidant: A character that the protagonist can turn to for advice and support. It may overlap with other roles.
Deuteragonist: The second-most important person in the story, after the protagonist. This could be the same character as the antagonist, or the sidekick.
Foil: A character who is introduced to draw attention to the traits/qualities of another character, often through exhibiting contrasting traits and qualities.
Love Interest: A character included in the story as a love interest, usually for the protagonist. The love interest serves to reveal certain qualities of the protagonist and can form part of a romantic story arc.
Protagonist: The protagonist is the lead character in the story (often a hero). This is the character that drives the plot forward and is usually opposed by the antagonist. There may be multiple protagonists if there are multiple subplots to the story.
Tertiary: Background characters who don’t necessarily tie strongly into the story. They usually have minor appearances and therefore don’t need backgrounds.
Tritagonist: The third most important character in the story.
Alignment: You can give your character a general alignment.
Check your characters motivation and behaviour against their alignment?
Is their behaviour consistent?
This information is quick to capture and will probably be the first details you write down about your character. The character role will influence the character’s importance and prominence in the story, so consider each character’s role before you go further with the character sketch. Less important characters might not need an in-depth backstory or complicated motives, desires or goals.
Novel Goggles allows you to set a character’s alignment but it is fixed throughout a story. Do you think Novel Goggles should let you adjust alignment on a scene-by-scene basis?
Now that we’ve covered the basics, it is time to take a look at the juicy centre of your character sketches.
The juicy centre of your character sketches is what you will use to create engaging scenes and a coherent impactful plot. As I mentioned before, your scenes and scene structure revolve around your character’s goals. So how do go about setting goals for your characters that will carry the events of the story?
Firstly, you need something to relate your character’s goals to each other throughout the story. To create a cohesive character arc, your characters need to want something that they cannot have: This is their desire. Their desire will tie together their goals and actions throughout the story. They’re not in direct control of achieving their desires but their goals in every scene are in service of achieving it.
Secondly, your character needs a reason for their desire. Why do they want what they want? This is their motive. Depending on the character, their motive could be something quite simple, e.g. greed. For a more complex character, you might need to delve into their backstory to unearth their motive. I’ll cover backstory later in this piece, but for now, know that a compelling motive will make your characters more interesting.
Thirdly, your character needs a specific goal to act upon. Something that they can act upon, related to their desire.
Lastly, there needs to be conflict. Your story wouldn’t be very interesting if your characters immediately achieve what they set out to do and get what they want all the time. Something needs to get in the way. Conflict can arise internally and externally. Other characters can be working against them or their own doubts or beliefs might hold them back.
These four elements make up the core of your character sketch. Their core desires, goals, motives and conflicts. Remember, your characters will also have scene-specific desires, goals, motives and conflicts that stem from this core but are specific to the scene at hand.
In summary, the four elements that form the core of your character sketches are:
Motives: What reasons does the character have for doing what they're doing?
Desires: What does the character want that they don't have control over?
Goals: What does the character want that they DO have control over and can work towards achieving?
Conflict: What conflicts does the character bring to the story? These could be conflicts with other characters or internal conflict.
You can decide if you want to explicitly state each of the above elements in your character sketch or if you want to write a descriptive paragraph or two that covers all four elements.
While considering the questions above and pondering your character sketch, don’t forget your central theme. If you don’t integrate your theme with your character sketches, you will have a difficult time introducing it unobtrusively.
The theme of your story is something that should not be overlooked when creating character sketches, a plot outline or writing your story: It is the thread that ties your story together. The theme can be thought of as the message that you are trying to convey to the reader. This message is usually conveyed indirectly through the actions of the characters in the story and the conflicts that they face, which means that your theme must be integrated into your character sketches.
Including an overall theme into your story without explicitly stating it can be a challenging task. If you want to introduce your theme unobtrusively, then you need to weave it into the backstories, motives, conflicts and goals of your characters. So how do you integrate your theme into your story and how do character sketches help:
Think about how your theme can shape your character’s motives, desires, goals and conflicts.
Base conflicts around your theme by having characters take sides supporting or undermining your message.
Remember to use your theme in the character’s backstory.
Next, to make your characters more believable and to add more depth to your story, add character backstory to your sketches. Remember, focus on the important characters when writing backstories. Don’t create an unnecessary backstory for a supporting character that doesn’t warrant the extra effort. Backstory should tie into your character’s motives, desires, goals and conflicts.
Don’t worry if you initially struggle to fill out the core of your character sketches. You don’t have to get it 100% right the first time. Try to keep all of the important elements in mind, then iterate and evolve your sketches as you work on your plot outline and manuscript.
Most of the details of your character backstory might never be explicitly revealed to the reader. However, it is still an incredibly powerful part of your character sketches and plot outline and can have a large impact on how a reader experiences your story. This impact can be both indirect, with past events and actions forcing your characters to behave in ways that are interesting and engaging, or directly, through hints at past events or actions. To create a powerful backstory, you can ask the following questions about your character:
You can choose how you capture your character’s backstory in the character sketch. If you like, you can explicitly write down the above questions and your answers to them. Alternatively, you can weave the answers to these questions into a descriptive paragraph or two about your character’s past. Just remember, your character sketches are not the place for lengthy prose. Keep it short and to the point so that it is easier to reference while you’re writing.
Remember, you don’t have to finish a character sketch in one go, you can update and expand it as you work on your Plot Outline or Manuscript. Come back to the backstory if you’re struggling.
Finally, let’s consider the visuals of your character sketches. Having a handle on your character’s appearance will let you pepper your scenes with imaginative mind-candy that your readers can use to create a rich mental image of your story.
So far, we have mostly covered how your character sketches can influence your story and plot. However, to immerse the reader in your story, you also need to help them visualise events. Since your characters are central to events in your story, naturally, their appearance will form a central part in how your readers visualise your story. However, you don’t want to dump a lengthy description on the reader. Rather reveal aspects of the character’s appearance throughout the story, as events allow. Your readers will find inconsistencies jarring, and your character sketches will help you to maintain consistency by acting as a reference.
Consider the following helpful questions when writing a description of your character’s appearance:
What notable physical characteristics do they have?
How do their emotions affect them physically?
You can write down a descriptive paragraph and add a few additional notes about specifics. In your character sketch, remember to write down concise descriptions that are easy to reference when writing scenes. This is in contrast to how you convey your character’s appearance to your readers. In the latter case, you want to show them what your characters look like, not tell them.
Remember, you want to show your reader what your character looks like, not tell them. Reveal relevant details from the sketch where appropriate, and work it into your story.
Character Sketch: Erik is tall, with long legs and a tendency to scowl when angry.
In your story: Erik was easy to spot moving through the crowd, Priscilla could see his head sticking out above those around him. Breaking out of the throng, he reached her in three long strides. She could tell he was angry, his eyebrows knitted together in a tight scowl.
If you like, you can add images to your character sketches.
Some ways to get images for your characters:
You can add a section to your character sketches where you make notes for each scene that a character is in. You can use this section when evaluating your scenes, to make notes for changes you think might make the scene better.
You can also note down the character’s goals in that specific scene, and how they tie into the character’s desires and broader goals as an individual. Localised motivations in that scene set the characters into action to achieve the current goal. Scene goals should be consistent with your character's primary goal as stated in the character sketch.
In every scene, characters will have goals that they hope will bring them closer to their central desire. Conflict stands in the way at every turn. Either their internal conflicts will directly oppose their goal, or some external conflict between the character and the world around them will provide resistance.
To take your character sketches even further, you can consider working on additional elements that go beyond a basic character sketch and delve into the creation of character arcs. To assist with creating character arcs, consider adding the following to your character sketches:
If you want to round out your character’s personality, adding a few traits to keep in mind can be useful. Is your character confident? Are they needy? Are they generous? Are they greedy? Noting down a few of their more prominent strengths and weaknesses of your characters and use these notes as a handy reference for how they should behave in different situations.
Another important use of character traits is in character development. How are your characters changing over the course of your story? Are they changing at all? Are they changing for the better or worse? Let’s take a look at how you can use character traits to plan, track and show character arcs.
You can group your characters into two groups: static characters and dynamic characters. Static characters don’t undergo any character development during the course of the story. They start out with a certain set of traits that have varying degrees of dominance and they stay that way for the rest of the story. They’re consistent but they don’t undergo any kind of evolution. Dynamic characters, on the other hand, change over the course of the story.
Often, your secondary characters will have static arcs and your main characters will have dynamic arcs, although this isn’t always the case. There are three types of Character Arc used to describe your characters: Flat Character arcs, Positive Character Arcs and Negative Character Arcs.
Your static characters can be thought of as having a Flat Character Arc. Their character traits don’t evolve over the course of the story and their behaviour remains consistent from start to finish.
By selecting setting a character to Static in Novel Goggles, the influence of the character’s traits will be the same for every scene that they’re in.
In a positive character arc, the character is changing for the better. Over the course of the story, their traits that could be considered strengths will become more dominant and their traits that could be considered weaknesses will start to have diminished influence.
A character with a positive arc doesn’t have to have a strictly positive arc. There may be scenes where the character has a moment of regression, where a weakness comes to the fore once again. Scenes like this can be used to highlight their growth and also how difficult it is for them to change. However, the general trend is in a positive direction.
In a negative character arc, the character is changing for the worse. Their negative traits (weaknesses) will develop a larger influence on them as the story progresses and their strengths may diminish.
Similarly to the positive character arc, a negative character arc may also have specific scenes where the character’s positive traits shine through. The general trend, however, is in a negative direction.
While the Flat, Positive and Negative character arcs are the most common, you can create more complex arcs for your characters. You might have a character who starts off with a positive arc but later regresses completely and reverses course. Similarly, you might have a character on a negative arc who is steered back towards a positive arc by some event or another character in the story.
Regardless of what kind of character arc you have planned for your character, character traits can help you to plan the arc and keep your scenes consistent with it.
As you create your character sketches, think of it as getting to know them. The more you get to know your characters, the better you will be at writing scenes. You will start to know how they will react to challenges or the actions of other characters. When they will assert themselves and when they will back away, what course of action they would take. What they might say.
The more complete your characters are in your sketches and your mind, the more natural they will appear in your stories. There will be reasons behind their actions and words.
When creating your character sketches for your plot outline, remember the following:
Reference your character sketches when writing your manuscript:
To make it easier to manage and reference your character sketches, consider using software tailored to the task. Of course, we recommend that you take a look at Novel Goggles to see if it fits your needs. It has extensive story planning and writing tools that integrate your scene sketches with the manuscript writing process.
Novel Goggles using scene and character sketches to enable powerful character arc traversal orders.
Novel Goggles makes it easier to reference and update your character sketches while you’re writing through the right-click context menu. Simply highlight a character name in the manuscript, right-click and select the relevant character from the list that appears.
Novel Goggles makes it easy to create a character sketch while you’re writing. Simply write the character’s name in the manuscript, highlight it, right-click and select ‘Create a new character..’.
This piece has covered character sketches and their composition comprehensively and gives ideas on how to create them and how to use them. See a brief summary in list form of what makes up a good character sketch and practical tips for using them below.
What makes up a good character sketch:
Practical tips for creating and using your character sketches:
Novel Goggles allows you to plan and evaluate your character arcs by allowing you to adjust the dominance of their traits for each scene. You can view how the characters traits influence them for a specific scene or see how their traits change over the course of their arc.
Novel Goggles allows you to traverse your Plot Outline or Manuscript by character arc.
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