Developing Characters, Part I: Character Sketches

Developing Your Fiction

Developing characters before they make it to the novel’s page or even while they’re on the page is key to making them believable while furthering conflict and tension. It also makes writing a book easier.

My favorite way to develop characters is to write a scene or short story. These are called character sketches.

So far, my character sketches take place in the character’s past. Sometimes it’s the distant past, sometimes the near past, but always before the novel’s timeline. I write sketches for not only the primary character but the secondary and tertiary characters as well.

In these character sketches, I begin with a simple idea and write intuitively or impromptu. Others call it pantsing, which I assume is an allusion to the saying, “fly by the seat of your pants.” As I’ve said before, for a moment, I thought it may have had something to do with the Greek god Pan, which would also make sense and be a far cooler reference.

When I write a novel, I am not a pantser. I have a detailed, scene-by-scene, three-act structure I follow (more on this in a future post); however, there are chapters that I’ll write outside my plan: Again, that’s a topic for a future post.

Anyway, while I write these scenes or stories, I am a bit less fixated on the perfect phrase, diction, sentence fluency, or metaphor—but I will revise terrible ones. I guess I’m less focused on putting out quality writing because I know I won’t be submitting these sketches to magazines. However, pieces of them inevitably make their way into my novel.

During character sketches, I’m able to explore a character’s story, voice, attitudes, past, beliefs, family, specific words or phrases they might use, and those traumatic events that define them—good or bad. And, once I have the characters clearly defined, the plot no longer drives the novel’s narrative. The characters and their choices control the narrative.

These character sketches aren’t about everyday things. They are the moments that changed them in some significant way. Those moments that come back to them as they’re walking down an alley, those moments that are conjured by a specific smell, song, or sensation. This means I may more naturally incorporate reflections into the narrative and maybe even have a well-timed flashback in the second act that gives the reader greater context (reflections and flashbacks are two separate things, more on that in another future post).

When I begin writing a sketch, I have only a slight clue what will happen and the direction it’ll take. For example, my latest sketch started with a young girl hearing someone knocking on her basement door. That was my inspiration, and it’s based on a moment in my own life. She then flashed back to the first time she heard that same knocking, and the story took off in a burst of inspiration.

The key thing in writing character sketches is that the writer is in complete control. There isn’t any expectation of impressing anyone with the writing: There’s only you and the character. This is why I usually trust and go with the first idea that comes to me while writing a character sketch because those ideas and choices seem honest and more what the character would do. If something ends up being out of whack, I go back and change it when the time is right: now or later or whenever.

Since I mentioned it, here’s a quick note on inspiration: Inspiration is the desire to write, the will to write. These ideas that make it to the page are mine, based on my life experiences. They don’t come from some mystical pool of knowledge or some energy pockets floating around the multiverse or from that perfect layout of the writer’s desk with a tiny toy soldier placed just-so shooting inspiration into me. They come from my brain. Writers write who they are. Once a writer becomes confident, they more easily tap into themselves. If you need that tiny toy soldier in front of you, that’s fine, but don’t let its absence stop you. In fact, take that tiny toy soldier, strap a firecracker to its back and be inspired by its destruction. (Again, more on this in a later post—inspiration, not blowing up toys.)

Author: Chuck Lang

Chuck Lang is a writer of science fiction and horror. Influenced by his years as a carpenter, four years serving in the US Navy, and his fifteen years teaching literature, he holds an MFA in Writing (Fiction) from Lindenwood University. After completing his first manuscript, the supernatural horror novel DEAD GODS, in 2019, he has begun work on its two sequels, DEAD GODS: INHERITANCE and DEAD GODS: RESOLUTION. He is currently developing two additional projects, an urban fantasy horror novel and a military science fiction novel. He lives and writes near the frequently flooded Red River in Fargo, ND with his wife and two redhead sons.

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