Start Writing Your Book! Method 1: Character Sketches

So, you want to write.  Have a cool idea rattling around in the back of your mind, keeping you up at night?  Trying to start the next book in your series, or is this your first?  Either way, you’re surfing the internet instead of writing, so you’re not sure how to get started, right?

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, how they work, how they edit, and when would they like that chocolate mousse cake delivered?  (Employing the power of wishful thinking, there.)  Ahem.  You’ll find as many answers as questions, and there’s no right or wrong way.  You’ll discover what works for you.  Don’t worry about all that, just get started.  Here’s how.

I found four different approaches for putting that fabulous idea onto paper.  Computer screen.  Whatever.  I’ve tried all of these with mixed success, but each suits the purpose of crossing an idea over from ether-in-your-brain to workable-draft-in-your-hands.  Hard drive.  Whatever.

First, identify why your idea has intrigued you.  What about it has kept you up at night and daydreaming over lunch?  Okay, now decide which method fits your idea:

1.  If you know who stars in your book:  Try character sketches.

2.  If you know the main events in your book:  Outline the plot, plug in characters, fill in motives and conflict.

3.  If you got the idea from a dream:  Start by writing an important, defining scene.

4.  If ideas 1 through 3 make you want to hide under the bed:  Start with chapter one, or, start by writing the end.  Either works.  This method is for the writer who doesn’t want to get painted into a corner, a “pantser” who is comfortable with letting the story develop as it goes.

Start Writing Your Book, Method One:  Character Sketches

Title separate pages with the names of key characters.  Choose tentative names as placeholders if necessary.  Pick the character you’ve thought about the most, and write everything you know about him/her.  Appearance, personality, history, and motives – in that order, for best results.

Describe physical appearance, beginning with the basics such as height, weight, build, and race.  Working on your protagonist?  Break away from the clichéd “six-foot-two, eyes of blue” and think of unique, distinctive traits.  Fill in details that will make him interesting.  Does his hair stick up in back, like it did when he was a little boy?  Is he wearing snakeskin boots?  A beat-up old watch?  How does he walk?  Is he well-groomed or rugged?

Now dig deeper.  What mannerisms set him apart?  What is his attitude like?  How does he talk?  Does he never smile showing his teeth?  Does he smile at all? Perhaps he squints when he’s annoyed.  Does he subconsciously stand at parade rest, out of habit?  Does he always keep his back to the wall and watch the door?  Does he speak in short, cryptic phrases?

Then figure out why he does these.  Describe his childhood, his education, his vocation, and the events which shaped his personality.  What about his behavior shows all that?  What does he want, and what’s stopping him from getting it?  Essentially, what makes him tick?  These are details you’ll need to make a character feel real.

I’m betting once you do all this work with your characters, the plot will manifest itself, because you already know how the characters will interact, how they will conflict, and how they’ll solve it.  Voilà – you have yourself a book.  Now go write it.

Why character sketching works: 

If you understand your characters before you’ve solidified the plot, you’re more likely to choose plot points which fit your characters, meaning you’ll craft the events in the story based on character motive.  (This is good – your book will make sense.)

You’ll add lifelike details from the very beginning, and you’ll be consistently in character throughout the novel.  Authors do a lot of rewriting to fix character mistakes, from inconsistencies in the way he reacts, to his appearance, his dialogue, etc.  Save yourself the headache and begin with a clear picture of the characters.

Fiction should be character-driven.  Readers fall in love (or not) with your characters.  They have to shine.  They have to feel human.  If your characters don’t come alive for the reader, no matter how brilliant your plot or how skilled your writing, you won’t have produced an engaging novel.

Bonus in using the character sketch method:  No worries trying to keep the facts straight, you have a reference of all important character details on hand.

Best of all:  You’ll have the tools you need to be the kind of writer who follows the “SHOW, DON’T TELL” rule.  Don’t tell me your hero is alert, intuitive, spooked, injured and in danger.  You can show the reader this:  “He ducked his head and quickened his pace until he limped, watching the shadows across the sidewalk cast by the pedestrians behind him.  The silhouette at his four o’clock seemed all wrong, and the prickling at the back of his neck agreed.  He ducked into the shadow of an awning and watched the reflections in the window.  His blasted leg started twitching again, and he held his breath, concentrating on standing motionlessly.”

(Don’t worry, I’m not going to attempt a spy-thriller novel.  I’ll leave that to the pros.)

Need an example of how to use the character sketch method?

I title a page “Jim McJimmy.”  He’s the hero.

I describe him physically:  5’10”  165 lbs.  Wheat-colored graying hair, straight, military regulation haircut.  Tanned, weather-beaten skin.  Rangy, wiry build but strong shoulders.  Walks with a limp.  Hardly ever speaks, but his direct gaze is spooky.

Now I give him a personality:  Quiet but observant.  Impeccable manners out of habit.  Stuffs his hands in his pockets when he talks to women.  Says “hmm” when he doesn’t want to answer a question.  Startles at loud noises.  Lifts weights at the gym at five in the morning, every day.  His Rottweiler is trained with the precision of a soldier.  Watches news channels all day and spends his time repairing electronic appliances.  Expert computer hack.

Next, he needs a history, then motives:  Raised on the family farm in Oklahoma.  High school wrestling champion.  Steady girlfriend from freshman year of college until she disappeared from a pharmaceutical lab while he was deployed.  Hasn’t dated since.  Decorated war veteran and POW, a fighter pilot.  Dishonorably discharged, accused of leaking secrets.  Now lives a quiet life in his crappy condo with his dog.  He wants to clear his name, but has no resources other than his skill.  Won’t give up on missing girlfriend, suspects her disappearance is linked to his being framed.  Plans to hack into U.S. Military Intelligence mainframe to find info he needs to exonerate himself and rescue girlfriend.

  • Can you see how I could easily develop the plot for my book this way?  If I repeat the process for the other main characters then the secondary characters, the plot should come together.

Image: Sskennel via Flickr:

Get stuck?

Did you start with a fury, but you’ve hit a snag and now you’re staring at the screen, drooling?  Back to surfing the internet?  Maybe you just needed a break, and now you should get back to work.  Maybe you need inspiration – watch a favorite movie, read a book, indulge in a hobby – it works wonders for relieving stress and recharges your creative energy.  (Yes, if you’re going to be a writer, you’ll find yourself saying mystical crap like “creative energy.”)

Perhaps you’re guilty of letting your brain shift into editing mode, and you’ve started nitpicking before you’ve finished creating, and now you’ve paralyzed yourself.  You’ll need to reboot.  The creative process feels very different from the editing process, and you’ll stay saner if you focus on one at a time.  Those two sides of your brain don’t get along well.

You can edit later.  You can edit until your eyeballs pop out of your head.  Just kidding.  You’ll go cross-eyed first, if you’re not already sobbing, short-circuiting the keyboard with your torrent of tears.  (Not speaking from experience there at all.)  But for now, lock your inner critic in a closet, and don’t worry if your ideas are outrageous, overwrought, or whatever else might be wrong.  Doesn’t matter yet.  Capture your idea, let it spin, and simply get it out – record it – before it’s gone.  Yes, it might not be pretty, but no one has to know.  You’ll fix it, don’t worry.  And then you’ll have something to work with.

> Next:  2.  Outline plot, fill in characters, motive, and conflict.


  1. […] Start Writing Your Book! Method 1: Character Sketches […]

  2. […] characters talking in your head, you could be A) schizophrenic, B) a writer who should start with character sketches, or possibly C) both A and […]

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