As I’ve delved into various blogs and writer’s resources, I’ve seen a lot of commentary on the character sketch.
Some writers just jot notes down on their characters’ personality and appearance as thoughts hit them. Others create whole mini-stories involving their characters – pieces that are never intended for publication but designed just to help them get to know these dudes and dudettes in their fiction. Some take advantage of the personality typing systems used in psychology, counseling and career centers. They think about whether their character would be Type A or a slacker, an introvert or an extrovert. Some even complete mile-long questionnaires that would put any job application or security clearance process to shame, all from the perspective of their characters.
I had never done any of the above. I’ve always let my characters decide who they are as I scribble them off on their adventures. But I’ve been trying to build the arsenal in my writer’s toolbox, so I decided to give character sketching a try as part of the process of writing “The Man-Whore Chronicles.”
So far, I’ve completed sketches of the two main characters, Jay (the dead Man-Whore) and Jill. I went about this in my own way, with no preconceived notions or format in mind. I just started describing them, pouring out their histories and their appearances, their quirks and their endearing traits. Well, as endearing as I could get for Jay, anyway.
I started my character sketches after I had written the first chapter of the novel. I felt like I needed to backtrack a little and spend some time with this odd twosome before I went any further.
The result? Character sketching is a tool I’ll keep in my toolbox, and one I won’t let grow rusty. I expected it to help me get a better vision of my characters, to actually hear their voices, and to maybe answer some of the questions I had about them. It did all of that, but also gave me some unexpected help in writing the novel.
Jay’s character sketch made me realize he needed at least one male friend to offset all his man-whoring. But what kind of guy would hang out with Jay? I didn’t want to put the book on man-whore overload and make his buddy another player, so I had to spend some time mulling over who else might hang out him. This led to the creation of Kevin, his sometimes wing-man and the closest thing he had to a confidante in life. Kevin has gone from a minor character to a major part of the story, and he helped me wrap my head around what it is about Jay that keeps him from being entirely despicable. In the soft spot Jay has for Kevin, you see his own saving grace.
Surprisingly, Jill was much easier to sketch. I think that’s because Jay’s overwhelming personality trait was his man-whoreness, so I was struggling to indentify the other sides of his personality. Jill, on the other hand, was already fairly versatile as she existed in my head. However, her sketch also ended up majorly contributing to the story. I had her working in an animal shelter from the get-go, but hadn’t thought about her taking home the “unplaceables” and filling the house where’s she’s crashing with a menagerie of critters. That just sort of came out as I was writing her sketch. This new facet of her has ended up a major part of the story. The dog, two cats and ferret she has brought home will have a big and often humorous impact on the outcome of things between her and Jay. They also bring out yet another likeable side to him.
So for me, this exercise didn’t just help solidify my characters. It actually sparked the creation of some missing but needed elements of the story. I highly recommend it to those who haven’t given it a whirl in their fiction writing.
In fact, I think I’ll be doing sketches of some of the secondary characters too – Mark (Jill’s ex), Kevin and Jill’s closest friend Stacey. I’m going to try some scene sketching, too.
If you’ve done this before, I’d love to hear about the impact it had on your writing!