If you've ever sat back and watched people (in a coffee shop or waiting at a train station, for instance), you might have noticed that every person is unique beyond the set of his jaw or the shape of her eyebrows. People are all human, and made in the image of God, and yet we have so many differences that render us distinguishable from one another. The way you would react to a certain situation is probably different to the way I would, and probably friends and family would be able to predict that difference.
Now, what if we all had the same faces? How would we set about telling each other apart? Well, we would consider that each individual has his own set of quirks, tone of voice, dress code, familiar way of speaking, way of acting, and way of dealing with problems, all stemming from his past experiences and worldview.
Is it possible to do that in our writing—to develop our characters so distinctly that the reader can guess who is talking or acting or thinking? Well, yes, that's what we aim for, but the excitement of the notion can wear off when you're 70,000 words in and you can't remember whether the cowboy disliked cabbage or broccoli. That's where nifty little character sketches come in.
Now I'm sure you've heard about character sketches, the written descriptions of main characters in a story. They help keep the author consistent in portraying them. Nobody wants to make the mistake of changing the hero's eye colour or the villain's age from one page to the next, but such bloopers are surprisingly easy to make—especially when you are writing a story over a long period of time or if you have a lot of characters to juggle.
These are what I used in the Baker Family series to keep the characters as consistent as possible. Since the first two books are about a family with six members, I needed to make sure each piece of dialogue and each action had a believable motivation based on the character's personality, age, or past experiences. When I added another family (with seven members!) in the following two books, this consistency became even more important.
When writing a basic character sketch, you could include:
Name and Age
Physical Appearance: e.g. hair and eye colour, height, dress style
Main Interests/Quirks: e.g. sports, music, wildlife, reading
Personality: Is he/she predominantly funny or serious, carefree or thoughtful? What differentiates this character from the others?
Good/Bad Qualities: We all have both good and bad qualities. Here's a chance to think up some realistic flaws as well as shining virtues.
For example, here is a tiny snippet from my outline of Baker Family Adventures character Abby Baker:
Appearance: 5’3” tall; long, chocolate-brown hair; hazel eyes; likes to wear leather boots
Main interests/Quirks: Horse-riding; playing the cello and piano; studying history; rising early in the morning; bites her lip when thinking
Personality: Sensible; a deep thinker; kind and cautious
A Step Further
In my recent Victorian project, I found myself struggling to create a mental image of any of the characters. Normally, this isn't a huge problem for me. The people we create on page will always be imagined a little differently from reader to reader anyway. This time, though, I really wanted to be able to “see” them and visually identify with their struggles, actions, and expressions.
When listing their personal information, I found old pictures to represent their physical appearance—and boy, was that exciting. All of a sudden, the characters I had spent months creating were
real! I could see the arrogance on the face of my villain and the thoughtful look in the eyes of my hero—traits I had been working hard to weave into the substance of their beings.
I have really enjoyed getting to know them this way, and often find myself looking at them all again, marvelling at the way their quirks have become visible in the flesh.
What about you? Have you made lists of character information before? Have you tried finding pictures to visually reference your characters, or can you rely solely on your imagination?
Caitlin R. Hedgcock is a Christian author who aspires to use storytelling for God’s glory. She lives with her family in England's picturesque county of Hertfordshire, and spends spare time reading, walking forest trails, and practicing violin for the next orchestra concert. Visit her blog or Facebook page to find out more.