The importance of a character sketch

Let me share a little secret with you. I hate outlining for a new book. Actually, hate is probably not strong enough a word. I loathe it. Take all the villains of every romance I’ve ever written, mush them all together, call them “Outlining,” and you pretty get a picture of how I feel about the activity.

In my heart, I am a pantster. However, I have no wish to fly by the seat of my pants with something as important as writing.

Oh, sure. I always leave room for changes and even when outlining, I don’t outline every last scene. I tend to outline bits at a time, so I can change my mind if necessary. I like to know how the book will end (HEA, of course), and I like to know what will prevent my hero and heroine from getting to that point, but I don’t always note everything in between.

However, I don’t want these precious characters to flounder either. I have discovered what helps me most is doing a thorough character sketch before doing a plot outline. The character sketch can include anything and everything about your character, even details that won’t make it into the manuscript. And all these tiny details provide the framework for my character’s motivation and actions.

What does a character sketch look like for me? Something like this:

Fave food
Religious beliefs
Inner pain
Bad habits
Loss of virginity
First love
Happy childhood?
Quick description

I fill in the blanks and suddenly my character comes to life. This sketch allows me to create an outline that is plausible. I do such sketches for my main characters and it allows me to identify points of friction between them. All of a sudden, I have some juicy conflict. Actually, I must admit, the character sketch part of an outline is probably the most amusing part. It allows me to play the “What if?” game. What if I gave my hero a vicious scar on his face? What if my heroine has no belief system? What if my villain hates humans, but has a weakness for fluffy kittens? You get the idea.

What I’ve given you here is a basic sketch. As I mentioned, you can include anything you want: favorite colors, favorite teacher at school, even most beloved pet. It gives your character depth and a history, and it helps them travel along the precarious path we call a plot. Do you want your hero to meander along this path, without direction? Or do you want him to set out with guns blazing? I think we all desire the latter for our characters. Filling in the details of their lives helps us achieve this.

7 thoughts on “The importance of a character sketch

  1. Rosanna — Good blog post.

    You, my dear, are a quasi-pantser. That’s what I call authors who have the most important aspects of the plot in their head at the beginning and “know” their characters, then let the muse and the characters take over on the connecting scenes.

    This is what I teach in my Plotting class — know your characters especially their goals, motivations, and conflicts, know the inciting incidents for the hero/heroine that sets them on the road to reaching their goals, know the crisis that impedes the character from finally reaching the goal near the end of his journey, and know the ending.

    BTW I like outlines. We A-types often do — almost as much as we like lists and double-calendaring our lives. But I found they wasted my time when trying to write a book. So, call me a quasi-pantser – the method works for me.


  2. Great post, Rosanna, and one that applies no matter in which genre we write. I’m a bit of a pantser too, but character sketches are a must for me even though we all know change often shows up when we least expect it. It’s part of the fun of writing fiction!


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