How to Write a Character Sketch | NANO PREP 2016

It’s kind of addicting, so be careful.


Knowing your characters before you introduce them to potential readers is a time-consuming task. But when you only have so much time to write 1,667 words 30 days in a row, knowing who you’re dealing with before you start becomes extremely important. While you have the time, I would suggest “sketching” at least one of your characters. Not drawing, though I suppose you could do that too. Think of a character sketch as a bulleted list of all the facts you eventually want your reader to know about them.

There are plenty of examples out there from creative writing websites that suggest you outline every aspect of your character in detail, everything from appearance to mannerisms to things they experienced in their childhood. If you want to go into that much detail, you’re welcome to do so. But if you’re short on time and want a simpler, more focused approach to character sketching before November 1 hits, this short guide is for you.

I divide my character sketches into three “levels” – basic details, relationships and history. I find that small physical details like hair/eye color either come as I write or I add them in later. You can add a category for physical details if you want to, though; that one is fairly self-explanatory.

Basic details – things the reader learns within the first few scenes with this character

Everything from name/nickname to jobs, hobbies, daily habits, likes, dislikes. We’ll use one of my main characters (MCs) for next month’s novel as an example here. The book opens, after the prologue, with [character’s name – no, I haven’t decided yet, I hate naming things] sitting in a chair, her feet up on a desk, staring at her name printed at the top of a resume. Everything about this scene conveys things she does not normally do, and is not supposed to do – feet up on her boss’s desk, glancing at his files when he’s not there. We don’t know anything about [name] at this point, except:

  • Her name (printed on top of the resume)
  • Her personality (a rule-follower, though she isn’t now, which becomes significant later)
  • Probably her feelings about her boss/job
  • Drinking habit (she doesn’t, usually)

I like to list details as bullet points because traditional outlining gives me unwanted flashbacks to my freshman college composition course, but that’s just me.

Relationships – connecting one character to other characters you might also sketch

Here you might want to create a sort of diagram that connects characters to one another. For the sake of time, I’ll use simple bullet points again. What’s important is that you specify who the person is, how they are related to your character, your character’s feelings toward that person, where the relationship stands at the start of the novel.

  • Boss – [name/MC] has worked for boss for going on three months (his personal assistant). Boss has gone out of town, boss trusts [name/MC] to house-sit. It is unclear whether or not [name/MC] plans on quitting but all previous jobs she has held in the past 2 years have lasted three months or less.
  • Dr. [name] (I’m bad at names) – went to school with MC. They used to be friends. They have not spoken in 2 years. They meet again for reasons I won’t give away in case for some reason this novel ever gets finished and you read it. He keeps his distance for reasons we find out later. There is no past or future romance between Dr. [name] and MC.

I typically do this for every major character I plan on featuring in a story. I get a little character-happy and always have too many, so I’ll spare you more details.

History – things the reader learns as the novel progresses

Every character has a past. Whether it’s largely significant in the novel or just a small detail, I think it’s best you know as much about what your character has been through as you can. Start from the beginning. Where do they come from. Does their relationship with their parents (or lack thereof) matter to the story? Past relationships that aren’t with other present characters in the novel? Figure out how your character’s past has gotten them to where they are when the novel begins and how it will shape their development actively throughout the novel.

Again, these categories are based on the general themes and story elements I personally tend to focus on in my fiction. Yours might be different. You might add more details like significant locations your character likes to visit or actively avoids. My philosophy is that as much of it should relate to the story as possible. Even if you do come up with more details than you end up using, what you don’t use can serve as inspiration for things you add later.

Some argue that outlining before you start writing a novel kills spontaneity. No one’s saying you have to outline every scene, every piece of dialogue. Getting to know your characters before you spend a month or more with them, though, will significantly increase your chances of hitting 50K this year. I can guarantee it.

I’m really excited for November now. Unless I can’t come up with names for my characters, which will be a bit confusing.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

Now’s the Time to Hit the NaNoWriMo Forums | NANO PREP 2016


IT’S OCTOBER! DO YOU KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS? Most of you don’t. Which is fine. I get it. This blog has grown so much in the past 10 months, I’ve honestly lost track of who was around last year when I started doing NaNo spotlights (give a shoutout down below if that’s how you found me!).

Anyway, it’s October. Forget about Halloween. Forget about pretty much everything else, because it’s almost November, and November is the most important month of the year for people addicted to writing a lot of words in a short amount of time (uh, me).

National Novel Writing Month starts next month, which means every Monday in October I’ll be sharing tips and strategies to help you get ready to write your novel. This is my ninth consecutive year participating in (and hopefully winning) NaNoWriMo, so I promise, I’ve got you covered. Don’t worry – I’ll still be sharing general writing advice every other day of the week per usual. But Mondays are now reserved for my fictionistas (I really wish I could say I made that up – others beat me to it), so if you’re out there, make sure you’re following this blog ASAP so you don’t miss out.

Now onto today’s topic of awesomeness: forums.

What are the NaNoWriMo forums?

The online forums are a place for all NaNo participants to chat, ask questions, bounce ideas around, procrastinate … everything you would expect from a forum, except all about noveling. There are topics about everything, from the basics of how NaNoWriMo works to random threads about “stereotypical elves” (really). They’re where you can go when you’re feeling down and need some help getting back up as you write. You can also go now, before the fun starts.

Who should go there?

Everyone! People who just like to talk about writing. People who need advice. People who have questions about whether or not a plot point makes sense. People who just want to feel like they’re part of a big community of people who understand how their brains work. You don’t have to show up with a question or even participate in the discussion. I’ve lost countless hours in many Octobers past just scrolling through things people have written about. It’s very easy to get lost … which is why, if you’re going to explore, you should do it sooner rather than later.

Why now? Why not November 1?

Trust me, you’re going to be a little preoccupied by the time November rolls around. If you’ve never tried writing 1,667 words daily for 30 days straight before, it’s going to hit you pretty hard about five days in. If you haven’t done it since last November, it’s still probably going to take some getting used to. So while it’s fun to explore different topics, get to know other writers and find people who want to “sprint” with you (writing as much as possible against a timer, basically), you’re going to need to be careful about how much time you spend in the forums after November 1.

Which is exactly why now is the ideal time to go check them out. No one has started writing yet. NaNo HQ has now given the official OK to go in and start prepping, which means the forums are going to come back to life in the next few days and beyond. I’m going to check them out myself tonight. It’s a great way to get pumped for next month even if you don’t have an idea for a new novel yet.

Keep in mind that your home region also has its own set of forums for you to explore and meet people who actually live near you. These can be much less overwhelming, and you have an ML there overseeing everything if you have any specific questions about how stuff works.

I officially have NaNo fever, and I’m so happy to be able to use the extra energy to help you get ready to write 50,000 words this November. I won’t be repeating topics, so if you want more advice about surviving 30 days of literary insanity, everything you need to know is right here.

Questions? Concerns? Exclamations of pure joy and frustration that it’s only October 3? Compose your words of wisdom to let me know how you’re feeling. I’m here for you.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.