Start writing fiction: characters and stories
Start writing fiction: characters and stories

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5.3.3 Generating and sharing a character sketch

‘Write what you know’ is a familiar piece of advice often given to writers. But ‘what you know’ can expand through imagination and sympathetic identification with others who are not like you at all.

This is similar to what actors do – they are not confined to ‘playing themselves’ – and neither are writers. But, as Novakovich says, there are other methods for creating your characters besides the autobiographical approach.

Activity 5.2: Trying a new approach to the character sketch

Part 1

Choose one of the methods below, one which is least familiar to you, one you have never tried before:

  • Imagine a character very like you but give them a dramatic external alteration. You might make the character the opposite sex, for example, or make them significantly older or younger. You choose.
  • Imagine a character very like someone you have observed – but give them a dramatic external alteration. You might make the character the opposite sex, for example, or make them significantly older or younger. You choose.
  • Create a character purely on the basis of your imagination or intellectual conception (as described by Novakovich as the ‘ideal method’). Remember, don’t be misled by the term ‘ideal’ – this character won’t necessarily be morally good or well behaved.
  • Create a character using any of the above methods in combination, as in what Novakovich calls the ‘mixed method’.

Now write a brief character sketch, around 300–500 words, in which you reveal certain aspects of the character. Use a third-person narrator (‘he’ or ‘she’). Here are some things you might like to include in your sketch but this is not an exclusive list – you may not include all of these aspects; you may include other aspects:

  • appearance
  • occupation
  • voice
  • feelings
  • current circumstances
  • attitudes
  • hopes and fears.

Part 2

Share your sketch with some other writers or readers, and ask for their review and feedback.

Remember: if your writing contains graphic material, you should warn your readers.

Part 3

A reader has an intimate relationship with the characters in a story or novel. The reader’s reaction to your character matters.

Read and think about the comments you receive about your character sketch, and ask these questions:

  • Has more than one person made the same point about an aspect of the writing?
  • Is there anything that people think worked better than you did?
  • Is there something you thought worked well that someone else has found less successful?
  • Has anyone said something about it that has surprised you?

Reflect on these comments and decide what you agree with and what you are not sure about. Do any of the comments help you to think about how you could change the writing for the better?

Remember: the point of obtaining feedback on your work, and discussing work with fellow writers, is to help you to think about how to improve your writing.

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