"A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings but a cat does not." -Ernest Hemingway

Monday, May 2, 2011

Character Development Part One: To Sketch or Not To Sketch?

If you were to ask any author where they get their ideas for characters from they’ll most likely tell you, “they just come to them when they write.”  However, if you were to ask them how they make their characters seem so real; they’ll most likely say, “because I write who I know.” 

 There are many techniques authors use to get to know their characters.  Some authors I know talk about how their characters have been “floating” around inside their head for some time (even years!) so they feel like old friends, some create characters by meshing together appearance and personality traits from actual people they know while others build their characters using character sketches.  I’ve even met an author (who has over 90 published books!) who told me they actually “interview” their main characters to “get inside their head.”  Is any one of these techniques the right way when it comes to developing characters?  In my opinion, I’d have to say no.  I believe whatever format an author uses to bring a character to life is the right way for that author.
Which technique does The Unknown Author use?  Actually, I have used a little of each of the techniques mentioned above, with the exception of an interview; however, I am open minded to the possibility!  In my writing experiences, I’ve found certain stories dictate how my characters are born.  Most the short stories I’ve written the characters have been inside my head knocking to come out and come alive, while the two novels I’ve written (both between 50K and 120K words) I used character sketches to develop my characters.  Why the difference?  For me, it’s because generally I write my short stories off the cuff and my novels I follow an outline (one reason being is editing and re-writing a 100,000 word manuscript can be a nightmare without one, but, we’ll discuss this in a future posting for this is a topic within itself!).  How about you, do you have a special technique when it comes to creating characters?

First, I think it’s important to point out that character development should be proportionate to the importance of each character.  In other words, you don’t want to write page after page of character description for an extra that shows up in Act Three and is never seen again and only have one paragraph for the Protagonist.  The same applies to your supporting cast versus characters that only have a bit part.  Otherwise, you run the risk of your main characters not acting consistently or realistically.   

What kind of attributes should you put in a main character’s character sketch?  A physical discription, their sex or perhaps educational and financial background?  Sure these types of attributes help to establish the character, but when it comes to bringing them to life they’re unimportant.  Let’s explore: 

Why is the color of eyes or hair unimportant?  Basically, when it comes to your protagonist it helps to eliminate physical appearance altogether, unless it is vitally important to establishing why they are the way they are.  Why?  Because did you know most readers like to actively put themselves in your protagonist’s shoes and picture them as the hero/heroine?  Think about the last book you read in which you had a vivid description of the protagonist?  Go back and reread the book and I bet you will find only a brief, if any, description of their physical appearance.  However, when it comes to secondary characters giving physical descriptions can help the reader keep track of who is who. 

How about sex?  (Okay all you Austin Power fans out there that’s not what I meant!) Unless you are using a name that could be cross gendered your reader will most likely get the picture.
What about their educational and financial background?  Again, unless it is important in establishing their backstory it’s probably not that important to your reader. 

So then, what kinds of attributes are important to add to a main character’s character sketch?  In my experience, the most important attributes I’ve found which help me as an author “write who I know” is their name, their flaw, the goal that motivates their actions and their history.  How about you, what attributes help you to get to know your main characters?

Next week, we’ll explore each of these attributes and why I have found them to be important in bringing my main characters to life!

Until then,

Keep on thriving, keep on striving and keep on writing!

T.K. Millin

The Unknown Author


  1. Great post! As anyone acquainted with me knows, I'm a 100% pantser. I never outline anything because I have no idea how anything is going to wind up anyway. My first draft is my outline. When it's done, I'll go back and slash or add. Usually, I add more description in the second draft, but I don't go crazy with it because, like you say, readers like to put themselves in the place of the protagonist and over-description ruins this for them. I would rather set more of a scene description and work on the moods involved.

    I do the same for background descriptions, as well. If I describe the furniture in a room, there might be one chair that doesn't get described. That is my reader's chair to do with as they please. It makes it more personalized.

    Another thing is not to dumb down to your reader. Too much personal description tells your reader they must be told every little fact about every little hair on their body. Like you say: what difference does it make? Spread the info out.

    A little story about Blaze. When I was young, I read all the Saint books I could get my hands on. I would gloss over the descriptions of my hero because in my mind I was the hero. A thorough description wasn't needed for me.

    You hit description right on the head! Great job, my friend.

    P.S. I'm still excited about the book! :D

  2. Thank you for the wonderful response Blaze! You make some very good points and being a pantser is great! Some of the best writing is done this way!

  3. It's tough on your wardrobe, though.