Are Character Sketches Useful?

Character Sketch Question


I couldn’t go off on holiday (to Bath, Yay!) without writing a blog post. I thought long and hard about what to write about and I thought it would be a great time to leave you with a question; so as I can read all your comments and suggestions when I get back. Great idea, no?

But what I wanted to talk about was Character Sketches – do you use them? Find them useful? Or a complete waste of time? It’s one of those writing tools that seems to split the writing people we all look up to. Some authors simply have to use them every time they start a project and refer back to it whilst writing, others do them in so much detail, down to the last freckle, whilst on the other hand, some simply think they halt the creative process of the actual writing.

But, I think we should start with what an actual Character Sketch is, for those who don’t kind know. A Character Sketch is simply a sheet of paper with different headings, upon which the author describes their characters in as much detail as required to get a mental picture. If we take Harry Potter, for example, a Character Sketch may look like this:


Name: Harry Potter

Age: 14

Hair Colour/Type: Brown, short, fringe

Eye Colour: Brown

Facial Features: Wears glasses, Scar on forehead shaped like a lightning bolt

Personality: Quiet, introverted until pushed to limits, innocent

(*NB: some of the above details may be incorrect to the actual Harry Potter)


But as you can see from the above example, you can get a fully rounded picture of what a character looks like, feels like, sounds like. And then the author will do one of these Character Sketches for each and every one of their major characters.

Are you one of those authors that do use them?

I suppose I can only answer for myself from my own experiences in my own writing. When I was writing The Black Petal I did try and use these to aid me. I wrote them for some of the main characters: Jack, Blake, Lucia and Asa. To be honest? I found them totally distracting, actually halting the writing. I found myself going over the Sketches over and over again, making sure the characters’ details were all filled in exactly how I wanted them to be. What I soon discovered, was that when I was writing the later stages of the book, the characters needed changing slightly, didn’t quite work a situation or needed re-jiffing to suit something better. Then I went back to the Sketches to change them, rework them to reflect the characters. Again, I was wasting time.

But I suppose there are upsides and downsides – when I went through my own editing routine, I found myself re-skimming over some of the chapters to make sure there were no continuity errors. Jack having blue eyes for example, not brown eyes. If I’m being honest, I did find a few of these continuity errors which needed to be changed instantly. If I had used effective Character Sketches, there would be no need to go over other chapters, and in fact only needed to simply glance at them as I was writing.

Does all of that sound too waffly?

I didn’t use Character Sketches whilst I was writing The Caseworker’s Memoirs.

Perhaps, Character Sketches work better for certain genres, or books that include an awful lot of characters? But if so, what genres would they be and how many characters are ‘an awful lot’? Even though The Caseworker’s Memoirs is not a YA (Young Adult) novel, I do class myself as a YA Author. I would guess that the majority of YA authors don’t use Character Sketches. Maybe a complicated, spy adult novel would. I just pulled that out of thin air – I’m not saying that to be true of all.

What are your thoughts?

Do let me know, I’m very interested to know what other people think of them, especially other writers of any genre. Perhaps you don’t use Character Sketches, but some other planning device?

I eagerly await your responses!

Until I get back from my holiday though, have a nice week!

Categories WritingTags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 thoughts on “Are Character Sketches Useful?

  1. My character base descriptions come fully formed into my head. I do use character dossiers/sketches but they are much more fleshed out then what you described above. Some of the info on them ends up to be utterly useless, some of it comes in play in the book. For example: In Other Systems: Helen’s dossier says “quilts in her spare time with Diane. Every family member and crew members have a homemade quilt done in a style of their own taste from Helen. Cushion covers, pillow shams and extra bedding around the ship was made by Helen and Diane.”

    Utterly useless to the plot–except 1) Abby wakes up on the Revelation, she is under a handmade quilt 2) When she needs affection, she and Helen snuggle under a quilt. 3) When Abby needs to have a girl talk, she enters the quilting circle. 4) Abby tears her environmental suit, she realizes that the skills Diane uses to fix it are no different than the quilting skills. 5) When she comes out of stasis slower than expected, Brian wraps her in a quilt and carries her to her billet.

    The character dossiers helps when you have more than one protagonist. In Other Systems, Abby is the protagonist, but I also had to keep straight, Cole, Harden, Helen, Brian Mark, Pat, Diane, etc. It is the act of putting the dossier together that helps me get the character straight in my head–not the dossier itself. Because once the dossier is done, I don’t look at it again until after the work is complete and I am looking for fodder for the website or a blog post 🙂

  2. I do my character sketches as well as getting someone to interview me as the character. It’s amazing the things you find out about your character that you should really have known but didn’t. Every little bit helps 😀

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