“The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write.”
—Unknown

How To Create a Character Sketch Using Scrivener

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.

Free Guide: Want to write a novel? Get our free guide to the seven tools that will help you write (and finish) your novel. Click here to download your guide instantly.
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!

Download the step-by-step guide and learn the best tools to help you write a novel today.

About 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.

  • Michael

    Great article. I’ve been using scrivener for a while but character sketch always seemed vague. I only just found out the attach an image function a few weeks ago. That’s for providing some great advice.

    • Cheers, Michael! I’m glad you found it useful

  • I can’t say enough about how much I love, love, love Scrivener!!!

  • Marlon PJ Manalese

    Thanks for the wonderful article! You have inspired me to clean up my character sketches to look as aesthetically pleasing as that. I didn’t know you can put their photo within the same written document in such a neat way. I usually attach a character sketch under the character photo as two seperate documents and then use the split screen to write their profile while drawing inspiration from the accompanying photo.

    You also have great points to consider for character traits and would be honoured if you and other readers of this post can also check out my blog series on Crafting a Character @ http://yourwritetolive.com/blog-series/

  • Natalie

    Hi Matt, to get my characters leap off the page, I look at their conflict and try to create conflicting interests between all characters, not just protagonist-antagonist. It layers the story, gives it edge and entertains the most. One very useful trick is to limit your characters’s trait to four major traits, one being totally opposite, out of the box trait, if possible and run your character’s dialogue through them, – one character at a time, all dialogues throughout the story, eye on traits. Leaping off page guaranteed. :0)
    https://www.facebook.com/natalie.melvin.10

    • Marlon PJ Manalese

      yeah that’s a good idea! there needs to be a world outside of the protagonist that’s alive and breathing. That does make it more realistic.

    • thanks for the tip Natalie, that’s awesome. I like to delve into the conflicting interests of my characters in the “Narrative” part of the sketch I put in the article, but that’s a good point that people often forget to consider minor characters.

  • Thanks for the lesson, Matt. I’m definitely going to keep your post to refer back to again. I bought Scrivener this spring and tried to apply to my novel that was already complete. It was too confusing, but I’m anxious to use if for my next book. Thanks.

  • EndlessExposition

    A friend of mine and I designed a character questionnaire that I filled out for my main character. If you want to use it feel free. I left a couple questions blank because I haven’t gotten there yet with planning; also, you’re supposed to answer the questions in first person but that was a little too weird for me so I stuck with third.

    CharacterChart
    Fill out these questions as if you were your character.

    The Basics:
    Name: Alexandra “Alex” MacBride
    Age: 14
    Gender: Female
    Birthday:
    Hair color: pale red
    Eye color: blue
    Ethnicity: Caucasian, American
    Height: 5’5”
    Weight: 138 lbs.
    Distinguishing features: freckles

    Questions:
    1. Introvert or extrovert?
    Introvert
    2. Who do you live with?
    Mother, father and cat
    3. Where do you live?
    Oak Ridge, NJ
    4. Describe your social group in a few words:
    Uninteresting, shallow, followers (leaves this social group in the beginning of the story)
    5. Risk taker or not?
    Initially no, but lets this side of her emerge as the story progresses
    6. Hobbies and interests?
    Reading, writing, playing with her cat, riding her bike, thinking too much, listening to music and audiobooks
    7. Music taste?
    Alternative rock
    8. How do you dress?
    Jeans and t-shirts kind of girl
    9. Sexual/gender orientation?
    Cisgender female, heterosexual
    10. Favorites (color, food, book, movie, song, article of clothing, etc.)
    Color: blue, Food: pizza, Book: The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters, Song: Leave Out All the Rest by Linkin Park, Article of Clothing: purple fleece-lined sweatshirt, Shoes: green Chuck Taylor high tops
    11. Any material items that mean a lot to you?
    A fuzzy blanket she’s had since childhood. She plays with the fibers while she falls asleep and it helps her relax.
    12. Favorite childhood memory? Least favorite?
    Favorite: her father reading her bedtime stories
    Least favorite: getting picked on a few times in elementary school for being bookish
    13. Mental/physical disorders?
    None
    14. Fears?
    Not being good enough, getting in trouble (this particular fear diminishes as the story progresses)
    15. Favorite/least favorite people?
    Least: Her erstwhile “friends”
    Favorite: Alicia Cameron (her new best friend by the end of the story)
    16. Jobs (or dream job)?
    Author
    17. What is/was favorite subject in school?
    English
    18. Did you go to/plan on going to college?
    Plans on going
    19. What makes you angry?
    Other people being treated unfairly especially people she cares about, injustice in general, being talked down to, not living up to her own standards
    20. What makes you sad?
    Failing herself or someone important to her
    21. What makes you happy?
    Accomplishing a goal, spending time with people who care about her, writing (when it’s going well), reading, dancing to music in her room
    22. Goals?
    Completing a big writing project, surrounding herself with people who love her that she loves too, figuring out what she wants to do in life
    23. Biggest regret?
    All the times she didn’t stand up for herself or someone else when she should’ve, not accomplishing goals she set for herself because of laziness
    24. What are you most proud of?

    25. Character flaws?
    Laziness, low self esteem, a bad temper
    26.Transportation of choice?
    Bike
    27. What’s your love life like?
    Non-existent
    28.Pet peeves?

    29.Favorite type of weather?
    Rainy
    30. Favorite/least favorite of your physical characteristics?
    Favorite: hair
    Least favorite: freckles
    31. Religious/political beliefs?
    Raised Catholic, personally agnostic
    32. Do you play any instruments?
    No

    Weird Questions:
    1. If you saw a dog drowning in a pond and you were late to school/work, would you
    save it? Why/why not?
    Yes, because she hates to see anything helpless being harmed
    2. If you were stranded on a desert island and could have one other person and
    three items with you, what would they be? Why?
    Person: Alicia
    Items: computer to write on, the fuzzy blanket from her bed for comfort, and The Last Camel Died at Noon to read
    3. You’re at a party. What are you doing? What decisions are you making?
    At party, she’d be standing in the corner not speaking unless spoken to and observing the actions of the other people around her.
    4. It’s three in the morning and you’re up with friends. What sort of things do you talk about? Are you less inhibited? Do you behave differently?
    They’d talk about religion, philosophy, ethical questions, their goals and dreams, what they think of their families and classmates, etc. She’d not be less inhibited per say, but the more tired she gets the more she rambles.
    5. If you could do three things with no negative consequences and no one knowing
    you did it, what would you do?
    1. Pull off an awesome prank
    2. Bother all the mean people she doesn’t like
    3. Take all the books she wants to read but can’t afford from the bookstore (although she’d probably feel so guilty she’d return them in secret after she’d read them)

    • These kind of exercises are the ones that I find too prescriptive. I prefer a much looser framework with more creative freedom when doing sketches. But hey, who am I to judge? Whatever works for you is what you should do!

  • Great points to use when building my next character sketches. I really need to get on board with scrivener

    • you won’t regret it! And if you have any trouble, get in touch with me, I’m happy to help!

  • Pingback: Posts I loved this week | Taylor Grace()

  • Pingback: Writers Dispatch, Issue 6Small Print Magazine | ISSN 2328-9449 (print), ISSN 2328-9457 (online) | Small Print Magazine | ISSN 2328-9449 (print), ISSN 2328-9457 (online)()

  • Pingback: 31 Character Development Resources for Writers()

  • Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [10.20.14]()

  • Pingback: Tipsday: Writerly Goodness found on the interwebz, Oct 12-18, 2014 | Writerly Goodness()

  • Pingback: How to Create a Setting Sketch Using Scrivener()

  • Pingback: Learn Creative Writing with Scrivener • M.G. Herron()

  • Pingback: Using Writing Prompts to Develop Characters | The Lady Nerds™()

  • Pingback: 100 Writing Practice Lessons & Exercises()

  • Pingback: How To Create a Character Sketch Using Scrivener()

  • Pingback: Creating a Fiction Word: How to Create A Character()

  • Pingback: How to Storyboard in Scrivener()

  • Pingback: How to Storyboard in Scrivener feedly | Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life()

  • allyn211

    I just got Scrivener a couple of months ago. I have a good idea of my protagonists, but I don’t think I’ve put as much effort into my antagonists. They’re just “the bad guys”; one of them wants revenge on my MC for putting him in jail and he’s recruited two others to help him.

  • Darlene Pawlik

    I am loving these posts and the comments. Thanks so much, Matt. You are a treasure. I am really looking forward to working with Scrivener.

  • Pingback: Is Scrivener the Right Solution for Your Writing? | Amy Harrop's Blog()

  • Pingback: Feed Your Creativity: Five Things I’m Loving – Jennifer Locke Writes()