Sketching For Writers Who Can't Draw...

Character Sketches – For Writers Who Can’t Draw

            I can draw – stick figures. Simple smiley faces. A house with clouds, like a five-year-old. When it comes to writing, I have to use anything other than drawing to sketch my characters. Many authors use the method below to help them get to know their characters. I find this also works great when I’m stuck on a plot point, or a dialogue scene or simply if my character would like sushi.
            The first thing I do when a character has introduced them self to me (in my head), is ask what they look like. Currently, I’m working on a horror short story where there’s a female doctor. She told me she’s Pacific Islander, so I hunted through Google Images for Pacific Islander people. I found a person whom I feel Dr. Sefina Mai looks like. (I add the pic to my sketch, but I can’t reproduce here without paying a royalty fee.)
            Now that I see her face, I can describe her wavy dark tresses, her eyes as brown as sable, and the wide set of noble cheekbones, but is that a small scar I see across her forehead from a rock thrown by a friend?
            Next, I ask her a few personal questions. What’s her favorite hobby? Is she interested in someone? Does she hate snakes like me? What’s her favorite food? Color? Movie? What is her biggest wish- and her greatest fear?
            While she talks, I make notes on her not-so-nice features and what’s she’s not telling me. She’s impatient. I know that from the one-word answers to the jiggling foot. Her eyes constantly seek out the clock. Apparently fashion isn’t a must for her; she’s wearing basic black pants, a white shirt that’s slightly gray and worn in the elbows, and black shoes that are too scuffed. Is that a bit of toe peeking out? Not really the professional outfit a doctor on the cusp of a revolutionary medical breakthrough should be seen wearing. She’s terribly blunt, too- “I have to get back to my lab. Hurry up.” I joke that I’m her Creator and can take as much time as I like. She snorts; she has no sense of humor, either.
            The last info I need from her are age, place of birth, education, where does she live now, any friends? Enemies?
            Having all the basics, I make what they call in the business a One Sheet (authors use this a a basic this-is-who-I-am). I am now ready to write my story because I know Dr. Mai. Oh, she’ll still surprise me by making an unexpected joke, showing interest in someone when she should be focusing on her patient, or thinking about a regret she hasn’t shared with me. I know she will do something shocking, but she’s keeping her own counsel about it.
            This ‘sketch’ is like an illustrator's rough draft because it’s not complete and is subject to change, works well for all characters. Minor characters don’t have to be so detailed, like people in the background of a picture. I glance at each sketch before I start writing and refresh my memory of our little chat. By the time the story is polished and off to an editor, this sketch may be several pages long. Or her picture could change. Just remember to keep it short and punchy- no need to write a proper novel on your character. Here’s what Dr. Mai’s initial sketch looks like:

            Dr. Sefina Mai
·         Born on island of Guam (Pacific Islander).
·         38 years old.
·         Single.
·         Medical doctor specializing in reconstructive surgery. Researching regeneration. Works out of own private lab which is funded by small surgical practice.
·         Lives in a small stone cottage outside the city.
·         No pets, no children, no husband or partner.
·         Her work, her research, is her passion. It consumes all her money, time, and attention. If she could just perfect her serum, she’d change millions of lives, but she refuses to be chained to a university, a pharmaceutical company, or the medical board. She will not be hindered by bureaucracy, politics, money, or her hypocritically moral colleagues.
·         She dresses basically; black pants, white shirt, to avoid wasting time thinking about what to wear. Her shoes are scuffed and she will have to take the time to replace them. There’s a hole in the left one, near her big toe, which will allow snow in.
·         Food is food, whatever is available and doesn’t take time away from her work, but that take-out in the fridge is green-and growing. Probably not good to eat, it must be old.
·         Her surgical practice is small, and not very fancy, but it’s steady. She tries to help those who are most desperate, those needing a facial or body reconstruction because of accident, illness, or injury.
·         Meeting Mr. Stein will change the course of her life- and death.
            A sketch supplies authors with a firm base to start from. Whether you’re writing middle grade or young adult (instead of job, list school, sports played, clubs/religion a part of, etc.) or even adult, fiction or non-fic, it’s a quick reference when you stop to think, ‘What would my character do?’ Refer to the sketch and you’ll likely get the answer. And with NaNoWriMo coming up (National Novel Writing Month in November), this is a good way to get a handle on the characters before you get stuck because you don’t know how they would react, or you have to think what color eyes you gave them, etc. You don't have to use all the information, but it's there in case you need it.

            So happy sketching! 


  1. This sounds as though it might pair well with an exercise I've seen in workshop before, and loved. What you have here seems to be about getting a character going. This is for somewhere farther down the line, mid- or post- first draft: Write a letter to yourself from the character, telling you what you're getting right and wrong about him/her. I've tried it a few times and always come up with something I wasn't thinking about up to that point.

  2. Chris and Char, I really like both of your character suggestions.

  3. My favorite phrase: "She told me she's a Pacific Islander." Love it when characters talk to you...


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