My son and his friends love to play games where they one-up each other on powers.
“I’m armor plated!”
“I’ve got armor piercing swords!”
“I have shields!”
“My fireballs can pierce your shields!”
Eventually they get to the inevitable “I’m a god in Mech” level and just clash. There’s lots of whooshing and kablooing and slashing. Boys will be boys, and going all kablooey is just part of growing up. They even manage to rope some of the girls in sometimes and everyone is out there changing the rules by the second. It’s fascinating to watch, but it’s kind of like watching a game of Calvinball where the players can’t touch each other because the school has all these rules.
It’s great fun for kids. Exercise, creativity, problem solving. These are all good things even if the kids do get to bend the rules. In the world of writing, rule changing can be the kiss of death. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, damn is it infuriating.
Everything is moving along nicely then a character does something that is so absolutely out of character that the fantasy world crumbles and the reader is left staring a jumble of words on a page. All the magic is gone. This usually happens when an author needs a way out of a situation and can’t think of a good one so, aha! the young girl was god all along!
One of the best ways to avoid things like this in your writing is to have a pretty good idea in mind of what the characters are actually like and stick to it. Sure, characters can change, but it shouldn’t happen rapidly and it’s something the reader should be able to experience. Those changes should also be driven by the effects of the plot on the characters. In other words, characters (like real people) need a reason to change.
That’s actually one of the reasons for the Saxton books: I knew I needed him back in the series, but he was painted as a smug asshole in Henchmen and still pretty much a jerk in Arise and that wasn’t going to work for Transmute. So, I wrote a few novellas about how his desire to hunt monsters changes his world view. It was also an excellent way to expand on the mythos of the bad guys from Arise.
But I digress. Wilford Saxton was written a particular way for Henchmen and we got to see more of him in Arise. I had a mental sketch of the character and I stuck to it pretty well for those first two books. Likewise, the rest of the cast has seen subtle changes, but their basic personalities and capabilities are still intact. Eve still drinks too much and functions as a leader. Jessica is still mercurial and dangerous. Steven’s still basically a jerk with his heart in kind of the right place. Sure, there have been some changes in the characters, but they were changes driven by the results of the story.
I pulled off this bit of supernatural chicanery by keeping the characters true to themselves and I did that by generating character sketches.
At its most basic, a character sketch is a blurb about a character. You don’t need to generate sketches about all the characters in a book, but the main characters definitely need some flesh. It doesn’t take much, usually a few paragraphs and some thought to generate the skeleton of a character and throw some meat at it. Physical attributes are the first layer of this process and they’re usually the least useful in terms of creating a character. Just like in the real world, the way a character looks or dresses usually has little impact on how they act in the story.
Wherever she is, I assure you it’s very hot.
There are notable exceptions, and I’ve used them: Eve is a seven-foot-tall, bulletproof blonde. Her height and hair color are actually important to her character and a side effect of what she is. Most of the time, though, it’s less important to develop looks because readers like to generate those on their own. Give the most basic descriptions and leave it at that.
What is import is giving a character a history and a philosophy of life. That’s what lets a character maintain stability throughout the run of the story. So, to build off the post on clowns (which I’m still tinkering with writing), let’s take a look at a possible character that was described in the story outline: the hero who dies to save a young couple.
The Hero: (dies before the story ends, but sacrifices himself to save others)
Name: Jake Roberts
Age: mid 60s
General look: weathered by the dry desert. Lean. Wears a lot of denim and gingham shirts. Regularly seen without a cowboy hat, but absolutely refuses to wear it indoors or in his truck. His truck is a dirty, if well-maintained, late 80s F150. It’s dusty, but otherwise spotless. His truck is a key indicator of his personality – keep things in shape and if they ain’t broke, don’t fix ’em.
History: Born on the same ranch he still lives on. Ranch covers a huge tract of land that’s been in his family since the 1800s. Left the ranch to join the Army, felt it was his civic duty. Served two tours in Vietnam. After being wounded and saved by a Vietnamese man, he decided he wasn’t sure who to trust: the government or the people the government sent him to kill. Traveled Asia for a while. Came home and took over the ranch after his parents started to get too old to do it on their own. Father died in car crash. Held his mother’s hand as old age took her away. To this day he quietly swears he saw his dad in the room when his mom died, but refuses to tell many people about it. It’s this fact that lets him have just enough of an open mind to contemplate the nature of the clowns.
Factoids: Usually believes the simplest solution is the best. Not prone to much talk. Likes his bourbon and cigar on the porch as he watches the sun go down. Never gets drunk. Still vehemently believes in his country even though he feels it needs to get itself together. Never curses. Used to go to church regularly, stopped after his mother died. Believes God can’t be put in any physical place. Seen as something of an odd-ball in town, but people listen to him, sort of the wise old Obi Wan Kenobi of eastern New Mexico. Think Sam Elliot in “The Big Lebowski”. Has an encyclopedic knowledge of cowboy sayings.
Certainly it’s impossible to sum up a person’s life in a few paragraphs, but a character sketch isn’t intended to do that. All we’re really trying to do is lay out the foundation for the character and give a few points that will explain why they behave the way they do. The book itself is for summing up that life, or at least a portion of it.
Do you create sketches for your characters? Got any you’re working on? Leave a comment!
Scribendi’s guide on writing character sketches