Definition: In a character sketch, you are letting the reader know many things about the character in a few lines of poetry or, as in a story, in a paragraph or two. It is like drawing a quick pencil sketch rather than doing a full portrait. The reader should get a general idea about the nature of this person, and know something about how they look and how they live in the world.
one long dirty nail
on the index finger of his right hand
extends perpendicular to the cheese-on-club-cracker
hors d’ oeuvre he holds
i shop the isles of the grocery store
try to decide between generic or name brand soda
whether or not to buy ice cream
he is dressed in army surplus
–a wrinkled gray-green canvas hat
holds down his wiry salt and pepper hair
he moves in small quick jerks
wary of the watching people
he stuffs his jacket and khaki shorts
with tooth-picked cubes of holiday ham
he rocks back and forth
on the birkenstock sandals
that moor him–crew socks and all–
to the sample-station buffet
he might keep money under his mattress
if he had one
i wonder where he lives
–how he came to this
where he will sleep
when winter comes
(c) d. ellis phelps, 2017
Try It! Use detail to describe someone you know, someone you have seen, or imagine.
- Where did you see this person? Walking down my street; in the airport; sitting on a park bench; on the news…
- What was he/she doing? Trying to fix his car; yelling out the window…
- What color was her hair? How long was it? How was it styled?
- What kind of hands does this person have? Are they expressive or do they hang limply at his/her sides? Are his/her fingers long and thin, crooked or like fat stubs?
- Think of a word to describe the person’s expression or characteristics of his/her face. Was it hateful, comical, stupid, curious, blank, round, wrinkled, smooth, flat or pinched?
- How was the person dressed?
- Describe his/her body. Was he/she tall, short, lean, fat, muscular, or flabby?
- How do you imagine this person behaves? Ex: He looked like a person who would take his grandmother out to dinner every Sunday.
- In what kind of place do you imagine he/she lives? Do you think he/she might live in an a mansion, a shack, a boat, in the country, or in the suburbs?
- How did he walk or move? Did he saunter, slide, limp, ramble, hobble, or stroll?
- Did he remind you of an animal, a machine, something in nature, or an object? Ex: He looked like an old, rubber boot, hunched over and worn.
- What kind of things do you imagine this person thinks about, needs, or wishes?
- What do you wonder about this person?
Challenge: Create a poem or story using the character you have described. Arrange and rearrange the words and phrases until you like the way they sound when you read them aloud to yourself or someone else.
Illustrate your piece.
Hint: You can add other details to create your poem or story. You can also use poetic license to add events or details that did not actually happen to create interest or drama.
P.S. If the character you have just described was a real person, now try creating a fictional character. You can use this list of questions to describe your character, or think of your own ways to let us see him or her.
image “homeless man on broad street” used with permission of the artist, Rhys, A., via Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.
d. ellis phelps is the author of Making Room for George, (Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2016) and of this blog. All rights reserved; however, educators may copy and distribute this material with this attribution, Young Writer’s Idea Box, (c) d. ellis phelps, 2017.