How do you create compelling characters?

Nothing is born in a vacuum. Characters don’t emerge fully formed. Creating compelling characters is a process of getting to know them and working to make them come to life. They’re developed through character sketches, through the writing process itself, through lots feedback, and diligent revision.

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Character Sketch Scrivener

Photo by Kevin Dooley. Modified by The Write Practice.

What Is a Character Sketch?

Think of a character sketch as the rough draft of your character. It’s a place where you can freely experiment, where you can tell yourself (or your writing partner) who your characters are, how they look, and where they come from.

You can type out their whole backstory, or just the parts of the timeline that inform your character’s identity. Their inner and external conflicts will be crucial to your story, so be sure to include those, too.

Most importantly, use character sketches as a tool to discover your characters’ key motivations and goals, because those are the engine that drives your story forward.

How to Use Template Sheets in Scrivener

Template SgeetsScrivener has a template sheets function that makes building out character sketches easy. If you started using one of their document templates, like the novel template that comes with Scrivener, there should already be a Template Sheets folder in the your project document that looks like the screenshot to the right.

If not, you can make a Template Sheets folder by creating a new folder in the Binder (the left hand column), and then from the top menu selecting Project > Set Selection as Templates Folder.

Once you have the folder, you can add as many templates as you like!

Sidenote: I reference Scrivener’s features and include screenshots of the software, but you can still use these methods without Scrivener. Simply create a separate text file for each character and keep them in a folder named “My Story – Character Sketches.” If you’re interested in Scrivener, Joe reviewed it here.

Visualize Your Characters Using Scrivener’s Corkboard

Now that you have your template sheets folder, you can generate character sketches by creating new files from the template sheets you have.

Fortunately, we live in a digital age and Scrivener’s digital corkboard interface gives us the power of notecards in a way that allows us to drill down from the card view into the character sketch itself.

The notecard system is well documented and has been made famous by a dead author, a living author, Writer’s Digest, and teenagers writing research papers everywhere. Scrivener simply digitizes this time-tested method.

In the screenshot below, you’ll see that I have several characters in view. They’ve all been generated from the Character Sketch template sheet we created previously.

What’s great about this is that you have a card for each character, with optional visuals or text description.

All the characters

I go for visuals out of the gate, as it helps me ground my character in an image. Having a visual on hand makes writing about them easier, at first, because the photos jog my imagination. Once I’m really entrenched and know my characters (i.e. about twenty-five percent of the way through the first draft), I don’t need to look at the visuals at all.

You’ll notice that some characters don’t have photos—I added those characters during the story and didn’t bother going back to find photos for them. That’s OK. One of the most important things to remember about your planning or pre-production phase (to borrow a film term), including character sketches, is that none of it is set in stone. Your story will evolve, and so will your characters.

For the images I’ve picked a few actors and photos I found on Google Images.

To add a photo to a Character Sketch in Scrivener, click on the character’s card, open the Notes column on the right hand side, and drag your image into the image area where the instructions are:

Image Drop

To insert a photo inline with the text, first click where you want the photo, and then go to  Edit > Insert > Image from File…

Individual Character Sketches

Here’s a screenshot of an individual sketch of one of my characters:

Character Sketch - Scriv Default

This sketch was created using the character sketch template that comes with Scrivener. I’ve since abandoned Scrivener’s defaults in favor of my own compilation, which follows.

An Alternative Character Sketch Template

As you learn more about character sketches, you’ll probably want to customize your character sketch template and make it your own. Personally, I find Scrivener’s default sketch sheets superficial. When sketching characters, I like less structure, and less prescriptive fields around the character’s physical appearance and personality.

If you’re just starting out and you don’t have a character sketch template, here’s one I put together based on my own experimentation.

This is what my character sketch template looks like in Scrivener:

Mr. Miyagi

And here’s the full text, which you can feel free to use or modify as you see fit:

[photo]

FULL NAME

One Sentence Synopsis This character in a single sentence.

Summary This is a paragraph summary of your character. Include physical attributes, habits, mannerism. Sketch your character.

Motivations & Goals What do they want?

Conflicts What makes them human?

Narrative What happens to them in the story? What else is important?

Why Character Sketches Work

There are practical reasons to do character sketches. For one, developing characters is a process. Paving the way with character sketches, along with setting sketches in the following article, are a great way to give the gel of the story time and space to set.

Yes, they’re extra work, and yes they can be difficult. But that’s part of the process.

If you feel like you really know the character and can write the story, run through this checklist to make sure before you move on:

  • What is your character’s primary motivation? What are their hopes and dreams?
  • How does your character change in the course of the story?
  • What does your character look like? How do they act around their parents? Their friends? Their boss?
  • How does your character act under stress?
  • What is your character’s weakness, their kryptonite?
  • What will your character die for?
  • What is your character’s biggest hypocrisy?

If you can answer all of these questions with confidence, congratulations, you’re probably ready for setting sketches, which we’ll cover next week.

Does your method for sketching characters line up with how I do things? What are your tricks for helping bring your characters to life? Share in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Set aside a block of time (no more than thirty minutes to one hour) to sketch some characters in your latest work of fiction, whether it’s a short story, a novel, or a ten book series.

No characters coming to mind? Try sketching some of these characters and see how it goes!

  • A disciplined, medal-winning Jui Jitsu practitioner whose sister just died
  • A mother of three on a Thursday morning
  • A soldier who has returned home after being a prisoner of war in Iraq
  • A journalist covering the derailing of a local train that killed four passengers

Naming them is just the beginning. Don’t be afraid to get personal with the characters you create. When you’re finished, share a few paragraphs about one of your characters in the comments section below. We’d love to see who you come up with!

Happy writing!

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Matt Herron
Matt Herron
Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.