You are a writer. You enjoy what you do, and you do it well. So, what do you love most about writing? Could you pick one specific thing? Are we speaking of fiction, nonfiction or poetry? Essays maybe? Where does editing fit in here? Be careful, it quickly becomes a complicated question.
If we parse out all of the elements of writing, there are literally thousands of specific mechanics from which we could choose. So, which one draws you back to the keyboard? The words, the phrases, the syllables? Perhaps you love a perfect metaphor, delivered like a soft kiss. Or is it the lilting sound of iambic pentameter in poetry that gets your ink flowing?
Each writing element presents a unique delight to the literary aficionado. However, one of our favorites here at Grammarly is the character sketch. A character sketch has the ability to stretch our collective imagination and serves as a literary witch’s cauldron – magically producing endless places and characters for use in fiction writing and poetry.
The term “character sketch” has its origins in portraiture. It was later nabbed as a literary term during the infancy of the English novel. Painters would often do a quick pencil sketch, or charcoal, of a subject. Using this sketch as a physical reminder, the painter could later elaborate upon it, transferring the subject to a larger canvas with much more patient skill.
The theory is the same for a literary sketch. Jotting down a few notes, or even a paragraph or two, the writer captures the unique essence of a character. The sketch then becomes a gestalt from which the writer can design a more in-depth literary portrait. It is a type of literary shorthand.
An easy technique to learn, the character sketch has become a staple of fiction writing. Many novelists begin a new work with an idea, then flesh out that idea by writing a sketch for each of their main characters. The process becomes a creative machine that breathes life and depth into each of their heroes and supporting cast. Many of the sketches spring forth from characters who people the writer’s imagination.
Try it sometime. To begin, you can always use subjects from real life. This removes any stress from the exercise and alleviates the pressure of performance. You don’t have to be Charles Dickens here, working on Sketches by Boz. Just think of it as an act of reporting, which indeed it is. Take a notebook with you the next time you go to a restaurant. Jot down what you notice about your server, or another person eating at a booth across from you.
“He is young man with blonde hair. His hair is longer in the back. His uniform is brown and gold. There is a yellow seal embroidered at his left breast. He is tall and lanky. His uniform does not fit well. His shoes are black. He walks hesitantly. There is a cloth belt wrapped around his waist.”
This is a basic character sketch. It contains all of the essential elements needed to give the reader a brief glimpse of this particular character. Using this thumbnail, a writer can then elaborate upon it as much as he or she wishes. Try writing a few of them and see how many unique characters your imagination can conjure.
“The windows in the restaurant did little to let the light in. A thin film of grease covered each one. The wan sunshine fell over each table lazily, as if it were too tired to try. The blonde man’s name was Zach. I saw the letters stitched on the front of his brown uniform. It hung off his tall frame like a scarecrow’s sack-suit. The embroidery was dull with grime and too few visits to the drycleaners. He walked with a limp, some old injury perhaps, and his black shoes clunked. The chaotic swing of his server belt caught my eye like a pendulum. It was tied on too loosely and threatened to slide down to his knees with each step.”
Intrigued? July 13 is “Embrace Your Geekness” day. Try it with a character sketch!