How to Write a Character Sketch That Works For You

Doug Landsborough
July 19, 2023

If you’ve been around the writing block once or twice, you’ve probably heard the term “character sketch” once or twice. Characters are what turn good plots into an excellent book or short story, so we’re always looking for ways to write better characters.

And very few of the best characters just happen by accident. They require thought and intentionality to get right. That’s where a character sketch can help you.

But what is a character sketch? How is it different from a character template or profile? What do they look like? And how do you write a character sketch?

Well, future bestselling author, that’s what we’re here to figure out. By the end of this article, you’ll have everything you need to know if a character sketch is right for your writing style and exactly how to make one.

And, to be clear, no drawing is required. Let’s get started.

What is a Character Sketch?

Let’s figure out what the heck a character sketch is before we start talking about how to make one.

A character sketch is a brief piece of text that introduces, describes, and answers questions about a particular character in your story.

There are multiple ways to write a character sketch. Even though we’re going to give you one way of doing it, feel free to change things up to work with your writing style. That said, most character sketches should include the following:

  • Physical descriptions
  • Conflict, motivation, and relationships
  • Backstory
  • Character arcs

If you aren’t sure what all those things are yet, don’t worry. We’re going to cover each, and I’ll give you some links if you want to dive into the deep end with each one.

First, we have one more question to answer.

Why are Character Sketches Important?

To be honest, some writers don’t use character sketches. Some have entire dossiers on their characters, while others (definitely not me) have a good enough memory to just know all this stuff.

But for the majority of writers, a character sketch can be an invaluable resource.

The whole point of a character sketch is to both have a decent foundational understanding of your main character (and secondary characters) before you start writing them and to have something easy to reference when you need it.

“When you need it” could be:

  • While writing a scene with that character
  • While revising your draft to ensure your character is consistent
  • While coming up with an entirely new story featuring that character

Or just to show off to your friends when you want to brag about this really cool person you made up.

Because a character sketch is a reference piece, we want it to be short. No more than a page, and either full sentences with headers or bullet points. You’ll come up with your best style as we figure out what to put on there, though.

Start with the Basics

Don’t get mad at me, but we’re actually going to do a lot of work before slotting it into a character sketch. 

Odds are, you’re going to have a lot of thoughts about your character. Too many thoughts, actually. Some of them will be relevant to a character sketch, while others might only live in their backstory or only come into play four books from now.

So we’re going to get all the information out, then refine it into a working character sketch.

Brainstorm

I want you to just dump all the details, quirks, flaws, history, etc., about your character onto a page or into a word document (or into a Dabble Note if you want to make all this info super convenient while writing).

Specifically, try freewriting to get all your ideas out. Set yourself a timer—for five, ten, or fifteen minutes, whatever floats your boat—and just write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t limit yourself, don’t worry about syntax or spelling, and definitely don’t stop to evaluate what you’re writing.

Write until that timer tells you to stop. If you think you’ve got more in you, take a couple minutes to regroup, then set another timer.

Once you think you’ve successfully drained your brain onto the page, then go back and fix things up, decide what stays and what goes, and get a better look at what you want this character to be like.

Just to make sure you have all the basics of a character, before we get too deep into our character sketch, let’s make sure you have a few standard ideas.

Consider Physical Appearance

Not all writers include detailed descriptions of their character’s appearance, while some go into excruciating detail. What you opt to do depends on your voice and style, but you, as the author, should have a decent understanding of what your character looks like.

Here are some physical traits to consider. Don’t think you need to fill out all of these ideas, but aim for the majority with one- or two-word answers.

  • Eye color
  • Skin color
  • Hair color
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Body type
  • Fitness level
  • Tattoos
  • Scars/Birthmarks
  • Other distinguishing features
  • Disabilities
  • Fashion style
  • Accessories:
  • Cleanliness/Grooming
  • Posture/Gait
  • Tics
  • Coordination (or lack thereof)

Think About a Character’s Thoughts and Feelings

Make sure you look at what’s going on inside a character, too. A character who is just physical appearance is more like a shell or a husk than an actual fictional person. Kind of grim, but it got the point across, right?

As we dive deeper into the character sketch, these things will become more fleshed out (beyond physical traits), but consider the following:

  • What are their thoughts on the larger conflict going on in your story?
  • Do they see the world optimistically or pessimistically?
  • How do they feel about those closest to them?
  • In general, how do other characters feel about being around them?

We’re staying high-level here, but don’t feel like you need to restrain yourself when thinking about a character’s thoughts and feelings. We’ll use everything you’ve got later.

Ponder Their Relationships

Characters who exist in isolation within your story are tough to pull off. There are very few instances where having no relationships with others will qualitatively improve a character.

Start thinking about how your main character gets along with or competes with others. These relationships will be instrumental in the character’s arc as your story progresses, and it’s that journey readers will remember.

Think about:

  • Family
  • Friends
  • Partners
  • Mentors
  • Rivals
  • Enemies
  • Acquaintances

Do you need to make a list of all those relationships right now? Of course not. But I’m sure two or three really stood out to you, so make a list of those for us to plug into the character sketch later.

Flesh Out the Character

Okay, so we’ve established the basics of your fictional person. As it stands, they sort of resemble a believable character, but they wouldn’t stand up under close scrutiny.

They have all the superficial details but not the things that make them tick. To make that happen, we need to flesh them out.

Explore Their Motivations

What is the why behind your character’s actions?

It’s not good enough to say a character is doing something “just because.” Even if they’re doing it because “it’s the right thing to do,” your reader will want to know why it’s important to do the right thing.

So jot down a few notes about what motivates your character. This could be an event in their past, a goal that’s important to them, a promise they made to their little sister, etc.

If you need some assistance coming up with great motivation, check out these articles from DabbleU:

Dive Further into Their Personality

So we already have a few ideas about the way our character thinks and feels, but it’s time to go deeper into the character's personality.

Think about the personality of any of your friends or family. Odds are, they have a couple defining characteristics with a sprinkling of some other quirks.

For example, I have a friend who advocates for environmental policy, is a caring mom, and also loves the chaos of wearing mismatched socks.

Those are three personality traits of varying magnitudes that reveal a lot about her. 

Do the same thing for your character. Think of at least two major personality traits and two minor quirks. If those inspire you to write more, that’s great. But we really want to figure out who this person is (without getting too verbose).

Dig Through Their Backstory

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: your character doesn’t start existing on the first page they show up on.

Maybe they do to your readers, but for you, the author, there has to be a history that has led them up to that point.

This backstory informs a heck of a lot of the character and their actions. If that backstory isn’t woven into their current journey, they won’t feel believable to your reader.

Specifically, you want to focus on elements of their history that:

  • Created their current goals
  • Fuels their motivation
  • Birthed their flaws
  • Shaped their strengths

For more info about crafting a compelling (and traumatic) backstory, click here.

Define Their Goals and Ambitions

What is it your character wants? We already have their why (motivation) and ghost (backstory), but what is it they’re working towards?

That in itself could fill a whole page, but I want you to condense it into one or two sentences. Think about it like this:

  • Bilbo Baggins wants more adventure in his life.
  • Hermione Granger wants to excel at her studies.
  • Walter White wants to provide for his family after his cancer diagnosis.

Yes, there’s more to each of those, but we want a straightforward summary of what your character wants. As you’re writing them, everything will revolve around their goals and ambitions, even if their goal is just to help out someone else.

Want some inspiration? Here are 101 character goals to get you started.

Add the Final Touches

I don’t want to get your hopes up, but you have the makings of a complete character on your hands. With everything we’ve covered so far, your character can wander through your plot and feel real.

But there are still some last details to sprinkle in there to round out your character sketch. These deets will only serve to make your character more memorable and effective.

Understand Their Speech and Mannerisms

Since we can only rely on text and our reader’s imagination to breathe life into a character, we need to use every chance we get to differentiate them from our other fictional folk.

One of the best ways to do that is to give them a unique way of speaking or mannerism.

Does your character use metaphors when they talk? Do they have a Moira Rose accent that other characters struggle to understand? Are they ex-military and carry that sense of discipline and respect into every conversation they have?

Each character you include in your story should be identifiable through their speech or actions without adding their name everywhere.

That doesn’t mean you’ll always exclude their name, but adding a quirk in their speech or actions will help you keep up your flow while keeping your reader immersed.

Show Development Through Their Relationships

Remember those pesky relationships we thought about before? Those aren’t static, and neither is your character.

As this character grows or switches over to the dark side throughout your creative writing, how will their relationships change as a result?

Their parents could disown them. The world could see them in a more positive light. An enemy could become a lover.

And all of these should be a result of their character arc, which you can read all about right here.

Jot down how each relationship you came up with earlier will change by the end of your story.

Ensure They Are Consistent

Inconsistent characters make good stories bad. The last step before we put everything together into a comprehensive sketch is to review everything you’ve written so far.

Not for spelling or grammar errors but for consistency and continuity.

You want to make sure that their appearance makes sense with their backstory. That the character's personality jives with their thoughts. That the general vibe is the same throughout–or jarringly different for a reason.

Be sure to ask yourself, “would they do that?” or “does this make sense?”

It’s best to catch any inconsistencies now before a reader does (and gives a poor review as a result), so don’t rush or underestimate this step.

Once you’ve done that, it’s time to…

Put Your Character Sketch Together

Throughout this entire article, you’ve been compiling a lot of information about one character. The thing is, it’s too much info.

So now we want to slap everything together into a succinct character sketch. Here’s what I suggest, but feel free to add what you think is necessary.

Name:

Age:

Physical Characteristics:

Distinguishing Features:

Personality:

Quirks/Mannerisms:

Relationships (And How They Change):

Backstory:

Goals:

Motivation:

Character Arc:

If you’re using Dabble, add a new Note under your character’s folder. It will look something like this:

Insert Image

Always remember that a character sketch is a reference document meant to be quickly scanned. If you want a more detailed profile for your character, check out our template with more than 100 different traits to fill in and add character depth.

And when you’re ready to up your creative writing game, give Dabble a whirl for free for fourteen days by clicking here.

Seriously free. No credit card is required to try out all the features built for fiction writers like you.

the character'sphysc

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.