There are several reasons to have students write character sketches:
- To summarize or narrate a book read.
- As a prewriting exercise before writing a work of fiction or a biography.
- To understand why a character may change during the course of a story.
- To learn to develop the art of noticing details.
- To improve your writing skills.
Character development is often one of the hardest tasks facing a writer. In fact, if you recall your favorite books you will likely be reminded of at least one particular character in the story who stands out very vividly.
Working on a character sketch — whether appreciating a character developed by a particular writer or creating a character of your own — will help you develop your own writing skills.
What is a Character Sketch?
A character sketch is simply a written analysis of a person we know in our own lives, a literary figure, or an imaginary character of our own invention. The analysis usually includes:
- Physical characteristics.
- Factual details.
- Historical background.
- Occupation or hobbies (what he/she enjoys doing).
- Character traits (usually adjectives that describe the person).
In a well-developed character these traits are usually very obvious. In some cases, they may change with the story line. In any case, there should be evidence from the writing where the character exhibits these traits either by his actions, words, feelings, or mannerisms.
The more developed the character is the more evidence we will have on hand to back up these traits. But don’t be fooled — character sketches do not necessarily need to be long. For example, look how little text Dickens uses to completely introduce us to Scrooge:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely, and Scrooge never did.
Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Scrooge, how are you? When will you come to see me?” No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”
But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call “nuts” to Scrooge.
And although the character Scrooge does become more developed as the book moves on, and indeed changes, there is no better starting place than this description Dickens places at the beginning of the story, in the sixth paragraph of the first page.
This then, is a character sketch. We KNOW Scrooge. We know his physical characteristics, his relationships, his personality, and a whole slew of character traits. A character sketch places a mental picture of the person we are describing in the reader’s mind.
You’ll find helpful resources below.
- First determine if you wish to develop a character of your own or analyze a character from literature. For the first time out, try analyzing a character that you enjoy reading about. (If you wish to write a character sketch of a real person, try our biography post.)
- Write a physical description of the character — everything from the color of his hair and eyes to the size of his feet — and include how he dresses.
- Now include the facts (some you may know, some you may not):
- Where was he born?
- How old is he?
- During what era did he live?
- Socioeconomic class?
- What are the important relationships in the character’s life (mother, father, children, sister, etc.)?
- What does the character spend most of his time doing (there may be more than one thing)?
- What things does the character like?
- What things does he dislike?
- What are the character’s strengths?
- What are the character’s weaknesses?
- Create a list of character traits that describe the character.
- For each character trait listed, provide evidence. If you are writing about a literary character, there should be passages where the character shows by his actions the trait that you see. If you are creating the character, you’ll have to provide the evidence!
- For an extra challenge, compare and contrast two different characters (perhaps those from books written about a similar era or characters that are placed in similar circumstances).
Sample Character Traits
A list at ReadWriteThink.
Character Traits List
A longer list.
Character Trait Chart
Graphic organizer from Education Oasis.
Trading Card Creator
Interactive at ReadWriteThink that helps you organize the information and print a character card.
Activity: Compare & Contrast
Helps for comparing and contrasting two different characters.