Image: Matthew Loffhagen
How do you introduce a character? With an action, with dialogue, via someone else, before they’re even in the scene? The ideal approach depends on the story, but a character sketch – a short passage that focuses on an immediate, extensive description of who the character is and what they look like – is perhaps the most common choice.
There’s good reason for that, but while character sketches get the job done, they also have drawbacks that you should consider before settling on them in the final form of your story. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at the benefits of a character sketch, the drawbacks, the alternatives, and the things you can do to write the best character sketch possible.
The benefits of a character sketch
A character sketch is the quick, easy, no-fail way to fix a character in the reader’s head. You get to be direct, describing everything you want them to see and taking your time doing so. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces begins with a character sketch of its main character for this reason. The reader instantly learns exactly who this person is; Toole takes his time, describing physical appearance, emotion, expression, and even personal philosophy. By the end of the paragraph, the reader knows Ignatius J. Reilly, and everything that follows can be built on the bedrock of that knowledge.
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.
– John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
Character sketches aren’t just descriptions of characters in the moment; they convey the essential spirit of the character. This means that, if you can paint a vivid, emotive picture, you’re able to convey some of the most vital information in your story to the reader with a minimum of effort.
An effective character sketch can be the bedrock of a deep and realistic character.Click To Tweet
The drawbacks of a character sketch
Character sketches are able to have such a lasting effect because they’re a blunt tool. An extensive character sketch grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck, pulls them away from the moment they were just reading about, and presents them with a lengthy account of who someone is.
The Toole quote above begins A Confederacy of Dunces; that’s effective, but it’s also necessary, because dropping a character sketch into an ongoing scene is artificial, separating the reader from a sense that they’re witnessing things for themselves. In many ways, a really effective character sketch (effective in terms of information imparted) is also poor writing; it tells rather than showing, sacrificing a naturalistic experience for maximum absorption of information. This is why, when it comes to writing your own character sketches, ‘good’ isn’t really worth doing.
Writing a great character sketch
One of the most common ways character sketches are misused is for pure physical description. An author will identify a character and then work down them, describing hair color, eye color, what they’re wearing, what they’re holding, in the manner of the example below.
“Hey!” called a woman’s voice.
Eddie looked after it, spotting the person who had called. She had raven-black hair accentuated by green eyes and pale skin. Her shirt was a stunning red, frilled at the top, complemented by dark blue jeans and a small, black clutch. She wore sandals which now skipped across the grass towards him.
If that reads as bad writing, and it does, it’s because it has all the negatives of a character sketch and none of the positives. None of it really fixes a picture of the character in the reader’s head; there’s physical description, sure, but the outfit is pointless unless the author leads the reader to draw some wider conclusion from it. Trying to make a ‘moment’ of this type of sketch leads writers into clumsy writing. If bare physical description gets its own sentence, the writer is forced to try and drum up some artistry. That’s why ‘raven-black’ is there and why the sandals are depicted as if they’re sentient. It doesn’t work, though, because there’s no meaning backing up the description.If all you’re doing is relating basic appearance and attire, don’t bother.Click To Tweet
Yes, character sketches include physical characteristics, but they use those characteristics to paint a picture of who the character is. Your reader is not going to remember what a character is wearing unless it says something, and that means it has to say something, or you drew them out of the story for no reward. Instead, as you’re writing a character sketch, consider these three elements:
In other words: where is this character, how do they look (including expression, stance, body language), and what can you share about who they are? The first ingredient keeps the character located in the scene and promotes actual visualization. This is more important than you might think, since one of the big drawbacks of character sketches is that they tend to maroon the reader in a place of description.
Breaking away from the moment to describe someone is inherently problematic because there was no real narrative reason to break from the scene. Yes, the reader was probably experiencing what a character was experiencing, but the character didn’t experience it in a vacuum like the reader. Sometimes, if a description is short, you can get away with this: someone says something, or the next thing happens, and the narrative basically comes to fetch the reader out of the strange, paused moment of description. In longer character sketches, this jars more, especially if the reader doesn’t exactly remember what was happening before the description started.
Ed McBain is probably the master of the character sketch. His 87th Precinct series is a collection of more than fifty stories, detailing the cases and lives of a police precinct. Character description is tricky in McBain’s 87th Precinct stories because it has to do three jobs:
- Reacquaint longterm readers with familiar characters (on the understanding that they may have been away for a while),
- Introduce new readers to characters in a way that sets up who they are (quite a task in a series which varies in focus, with characters changing from main to secondary importance depending on the book),
- Do both these things without irritating hardcore fans who don’t need a character sketch to know who they’re dealing with.
Over more than fifty stories, these requirements build in importance: imagine having to find fifty ways to introduce the same character, or else to make fifty of the same description engaging to readers who just read an 87th Precinct mystery and might be intending to pick up another as their next read. McBain’s answer is to create stock descriptions of characters that are then altered by the situation, ensuring they’re always familiar to longterm readers without feeling like they’ve been copied and pasted from elsewhere. At the same time, McBain (the pen-name of author Evan Hunter) doesn’t belabor the point – he designs characters who have a few defining features that he can communicate quickly, often interlinking them so the reader can’t help but remember one when they remember the others: Meyer Meyer is a bald cop whose unusual name resulted in childhood teasing that left him with endless patience but cost him his hair to stress. Here, prosaic details link to deeper observations of character; Meyer’s patience and his baldness have a shared cause, itself his name; remember one thing about him and you remember it all.Good character sketches link appearance with attitude to make both memorable. Click To Tweet
McBain is also good at minimizing the extent to which his character sketches feel like asides. Often, he’ll have one character regard another, framing a physical description as their assessment. With police characters who are explicitly memorizing personal details, this can feel particularly natural. McBain is also good at returning to the moment. In the extract above, he sets Detective Steve Carella up with a question so that once he’s finished a character sketch he has an immediate route back to the scene.
‘What is it?’ Detective Steve Carella asked… A tall, wiry man with wide shoulders and narrow hips, he gave the impression of being an athlete in training, even though the last time he’d engaged in any sportlike activity was the snorkelling he’d done in Puerto Rico on his last vacation. Unless one wished to count the various foot-races he had run with criminals of every stripe and persuasion. Carella did not like to count those. A man could get winded just counting those. He brushed a strand of longish brown hair off his forehead now, squinted his brown eyes at the photo scrap, and wondered if he needed glasses.
– Ed McBain, Jigsaw
Something else McBain does in this scene is give a purpose to the body parts being described. Another aspect of character sketches that can make them feel artificial is that there’s no real reason to focus on different parts of the body: nobody asked about the character’s hair, so when the author says, ‘his hair was blond’, it’s a direct message from author to reader. If, instead, the author says something like, ‘he ran one hand through his blond hair’, there’s at least a reason the narrative has focused on that part of the body; a physical action took place. In the extract above, Carella moves his hair and squints his eyes, even thinking about whether he needs glasses. It’s a small touch, but it makes the moment feel less forensic.
One final thing that can improve a character sketch is some kind of contradiction. A string of description gives the reader information, but as I said above, it’s telling over showing. Showing is so effective in writing because it makes the reader work for their information, and that makes the information more personal, adding value and ensuring it sticks. If you can include some kind of contradiction, dichotomy, or struggle in your character sketch, it at least gives the reader a small puzzle to solve, tickling that part of the brain that tells them there’s something to figure out.
In the McBain quote, Carella gives the impression of an athlete, but he isn’t. Again, it’s a very gentle form of the device, but it’s there. It says to the reader ‘this is true, but it’s at odds with this, what’s your conclusion?’ It’s a fake question, the answer’s right there, but it makes the experience more personal. Tell the reader that Carella looks like an athlete and there’s no hook to get them to remember that, but clarify that he isn’t and the moment changes shape, lodging more easily in their head. You can see this technique at work in the extract below.
A black shadow dropped down into the circle. It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.
– Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Books
Here, the character traits that define Bagheera aren’t truly at odds with the sound of his voice; if anything, having a voice like honey seems like a natural corollary to cunning, but Kipling slips wildness and recklessness in the middle to create the appearance of contradiction. It isn’t a puzzle, but it looks enough like one to up the reader’s engagement.
As I mentioned earlier, try to justify physical description by having it mean something. Kipling genuinely renders Bagheera’s coloring beautiful, but our character with the ‘raven-black hair’ from earlier is a far cry from that. What can that hair say about who she is or how she experiences life? Does its contrast to the red shirt suggest she’s aware of her appearance in a way another character might not be? Is the hairstyle making a statement, or, if not, can it be contrasted with someone nearby whose haircut is, just to make it noteworthy? Is it dyed, and if so, why? If there’s just nothing to be said about the character, can something be said about the person looking at them? And, finally, if not, can you use physicality to give the narrative a reason to fall on this detail? Hair’s pretty essential in terms of physical description, but if your character’s outfit or what they’re holding or doing says nothing about them, it’s likely you’re not putting enough attention into how you dress your characters.
The alternatives to a character sketch
One alternative to a character sketch is to take more time about sharing the same kind of information. If using physicality and circumstance to make physical descriptors relevant is a good way to punch up a character sketch, it’s also a great way to share that information completely naturally. It’s easy enough to spread the work of a character sketch paragraph over a few paragraphs, even a few chapters, especially if you really know your characters. In such situations, every little wardrobe detail can be packed with meaning, which opens up far more opportunities for a natural description of who someone is and how they look.Character sketches pause the story, so they don’t always feel natural.Click To Tweet
Another alternative is to have your characters do the dirty work. It’s not unusual for two people to discuss the appearance and disposition of another. In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Slim is introduced to the reader by the respect other characters have for him, and it works just fine.
One last alternative is not to bother. Sometimes, it’s not in a character’s best interests to be introduced to the reader, but rather revealed over time through their actions. Even physical appearance can be unnecessary; plenty of protagonists have minimal physical description so the reader can imagine their perfect hero (perhaps someone who looks just like them).
Using character sketches to your advantage
One final piece of advice is to consider using character sketches in early drafts and then spreading that information out as you edit. Though they come with drawbacks, character sketches are blunt tools that get the job (fixing a character in the reader’s mind) done. More than that, they provide a clear idea of who a character is to the author; I’d even recommend writing your own character description just as a reference, even if you’re not going to use it in your story.
As editing progresses, you can start finding more natural places for the details you’re sharing or smoothing out your character sketch so it feels as natural as possible. Either way, it seldom hurts to begin with a clear, memorable character description and to move on from there.
Do you use character sketches in your writing or do you avoid them like the plague? Let me know why in the comments below, and, for more advice on this topic, check out Are You Dressing Your Characters For Success? and Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device.