The 8-step character sketch — creating your story’s characters without getting lost

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

To tell a good story, you need more than plot, worldbuilding, and well-crafted prose. You need compelling characters. What makes a compelling character? Flaws, goals, and needs.

Flaws, goals, and needs help us set up opposition and conflict, which are what make stories gripping.

Let’s say you’re writing a murder mystery. A novice detective lives in the shadow of her police chief father. She becomes obsessed with a cold case he failed to solve before he died, and finding a new clue, decides to catch the killer herself. In opposition to this, the killer (the villain) wants to continue to evade the police.

The detective and the killer’s goals put them in direct opposition to each other. 🤜💥🤛

But often two opposing goals aren’t enough. So, let’s add another opposition: The detective struggles to investigate because of her meddling boss, the antagonist. The detective wants to devote all her time to the cold case, but the boss demands she focus on other work.

In the case of sidekicks, mentors, and other allies, the goals may align with the main character’s, but then, ideally, flaws will conflict — or at least contrast. On the flip side, an ally’s strengths may complement the main character’s flaws or provide a skill that the main character doesn’t have.

For example, in our murder mystery example, the detective continues to work the cold case on the sly, disregarding her boss’s orders. In fact, the detective trusts no one, and would rather keep her investigation a secret than confront her boss. But she hits a snag when she must reluctantly form an alliance with one of the victims’ mothers. The mother steps into the role of sidekick as she turns amateur sleuth. Let’s say the mother is a retired police detective herself. In fact, someone who once worked with the hero’s father. Her vast knowledge of police work makes her not only a sidekick but a mentor, helping the hero detective not only purse the killer but also learn her life lesson — that she must trust not only herself but others in order to succeed as a detective.

In the example above, I’ve sketched a main character with a flaw, a goal, and a life lesson she needs to learn.

Now it’s your turn. Start by opening a new document in your word processor, note-taking app, notebook, or wherever you want to sketch your characters.

Let’s get started. 👇

1. Select the character’s role in the story

Choose a character you want to sketch. What role will that character play in the story?

✅ Hero / main character
✅ Sidekick
✅ Mentor
✅ Antagonist
✅ Villain (sometimes also the antagonist)
✅ Love interest
✅ Other secondary character

2. Describe the character

Next, write 4-6 lines about your character. Don’t go overboard. You can flesh it out later — right now, you don’t need a full page description. Consider these aspects of your character. 👇

  • Name, gender, age
  • Appearance (eye color, hair color, clothing, etc.)
  • Distinctive traits in dialogue (e.g. certain words they will or won’t use or phrases they will repeat)
  • Distinctive gestures (e.g. they play with their wedding ring when they’re nervous, they stand very close to people in conversation, they avoid eye contact)

3. Pick the character’s backstory “shard of glass”

This key piece of backstory is the pain that keeps the character from fulfilling their destiny or finding happiness. It’s the reason for the character’s flaws. To learn the life lesson (see below), the character will need to pick out the shard of glass. You may not even need to reveal the shard of glass in the story, but this important piece of backstory will help clarify who your character is.

Complete this sentence to add the shard of glass to your character sketch:

✏️ I am in pain because…

4. Describe the character’s flaws and strengths

Flaws are usually concrete behaviors that other characters can perceive as either positive or negative. For example, a character may be fanatically devoted to a cause. Other characters may perceive this as positive, because they’re perceived as steadfast, a real strength. In some cases, a flaw can be a problem, such as bad situation a character finds themselves in (e.g. crushing poverty, a world overrun with zombies).

Strengths are the positive flip side of flaws. Again, other characters may perceive strengths as either positive or negative. For example, an unselfish character who loves to help may be vulnerable to others taking advantage of them, leading them down the wrong path. If the flaw is more of a problem, then the strength may be a skill gained as a result of that problem (e.g. the character’s poverty has taught them frugality, self-reliance, and the importance of kindness to strangers).

A behavioral flaw may help the character reach their short-term goal, but it will serve as an obstacle to achieving the life lesson (see below). When you are considering your character’s strengths and flaws, consider how they connect to the lie and the shard of glass (see below).

Sketch out the flaws and strengths for your character:

✏️ My flaws are…

✏️ My strengths are…

5. What is the the lie the character tells themself?

As a result of the pain the shard of glass causes, the character covers it up by telling themself a lie. That lie stands in direct opposition to the life lesson (see below). In contrast to flaws, the lie is usually concealed from other characters, and even if the character expresses their lie, it will probably be a vulnerable confession.

Examples include (each one matches a life lesson below):

  • I’m not strong enough to face my fears…
  • Nobody could ever love me after what happened…
  • The world is cruel and kindness is for losers…
  • Everyone else has it better than me…
  • What I did is unforgivable and disqualifies me from happiness…

✏️ The lie I tell myself is…

6. Identify the character’s long-term motivation

A desire or vision for the (distant) future. This could be highly ambitious desire, like “I see myself rising from the mailroom to become the CEO of the company” or “I see myself no longer single and poor, but with a big family in a big house where we want for nothing.” This vision may be unrealistic, even a false vision of what will make the character happy. Or it may be possible, if the character achieves their life lesson.

✏️ In the future, I see myself…

7. Pick the character’s short-term goal

A goal that, according to the character’s logic, leads to the long-term vision. But, in fact, this goal contrasts with the life lesson below, putting the two in conflict and stopping the character from advancing toward their long-term desire. An important difference between the long-term desire and short-term goal is that the latter must be a tangible action that the character can get started on right here and now. For example, if the character dreams of becoming the CEO, they may want to prove to their boss in the mailroom that they’re exceptionally hardworking and talented, and therefore deserve a promotion to assistant mailroom manager. This kind of tangible, short-term goal can help us set the first scene goal. It’s also likely to change as the story advances (e.g. because the mailroom manager gives the promotion to someone else).

✏️ Right now, I want to…

8. What life lesson does the character need to learn?

The character’s need or life lesson sets up the climax of the story. Once the character realizes what they need — rather than the short-term wants they’ve been pursuing — they will have a new set of strengths that will allow them to overcome the final obstacles in the climax of the story. These strengths should contrast with the flaws from earlier — replacing or eclipsing them.

✏️ I need to learn…

✅ To forgive myself or someone else
✅ To love — myself, my friends, my family, or a romantic interest
✅ To respect myself, my choices, and my principles
✅ To ask for what I want and need, asserting myself
✅ To show kindness and act kindly, even in a world full of meanness and negativity
✅ To seize the moment — carpe diem — and cherish life in the present
✅ To have fun, laugh, and find joy in life, instead of lingering on negative, pessimistic views
✅ To be patient, not rushing through things
✅ To accept who I am, the life I’ve been given, the people around me — even my destiny
✅ To express myself, sharing my bottled-up emotions
✅ To free myself from envy, cultivating gratitude for what I have
✅ To take responsibility for my own future, not allowing others to decide for me
✅ To have faith or trust in myself or other people
✅ To be courageous, overcoming my fear of the thing that is holding me back
✅ To fight for my survival or even regain the will to live
✅ To embrace humility and selflessness, e.g. overcoming greed and sacrificing my wants for other people’s needs
✅ To accept blame and atone for past wrongs
✅ To let go of the past (often related to e.g. forgiving myself or others)
✅ Other life lesson…

✏️ When I learn my lesson, I will overcome these flaws and/or gain these strengths: …

Combining the elements

Once you have completed all the information above, you should begin to have a sense of your character. Do the flaws logically grow out of the shard of glass? Would the life lesson allow the character to pluck out that shard of glass and address one or more of their flaws? Do the strengths complement the flaws — or maybe intensify them?

Take a look at the elements of the character’s personality, ensuring that the pieces fit reasonably well together. Keep in mind, though, that this character sketch doesn’t need to be exhaustive. In fact, I’d argue you’re better off treating it as a sketch, not a finished portrait. Because once you start drafting, the character is likely to evolve.

Plotter vs. pantser character creation

Once you have 3-5 sketches of the most important characters, make sure you decide on which character will hold the point of view (POV). Will this be a first-person POV narrative? Or will we get the main character’s thoughts filtered through third-person POV? Will some chapters give us access to the POV of secondary characters — or even the villain?

Once you’ve chosen the POV, your character sketches should help you build a story outline using the story structure I’ve provided. Even if detailed plotting doesn’t work for you, you may want to consider creating a few character sketches before you begin writing — it’s one thing to discover what the story is about and another to discover whose even telling the story.

And even if you sketch out your characters and outline in great detail, keep in mind that the people in your story may evolve as you write. If they do, make sure you revise the character sketches to keep track of how they actually behave on the page.

Good luck creating your characters — I hope to read about them in your fiction soon. 😊

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