Unravelling the mystery of the five-point character sketch

Years ago a tutor on a Society of Authors Arvon residential gave us a five-point character sketch, which I’ve used as a first way in ever since, although the fifth point always puzzled me.

Point 1: Name
Choose a name for your character, bearing in mind that names carry information about, for example, age and social background. They also carry more subtle nuances, suggesting a kind of personality and way of being.

Point 2: Their appearance
Age, hair colour, eyes, build, style… one or two points that give you a glimpse of your character

Point 3: Something they love
This might be any kind of thing, from dishonesty to travel, from football to cottage pie. Just the first thing that comes into your head

Point 4: Something they hate
As above

So far, so straightforward, but then there’s Point 5…

Point 5: Their special object
I interpreted this as meaning something you would always associate with them – maybe a physical mannerism such as a limp or an affectation of speech, or something they usually had with them like a dog or cat, or favourite piece of jewellery. But I don’t think most people have a special object such as that, so I always struggled to find one for my characters.

Then when I was tidying up after Christmas I was putting a fallen angel back into my fireplace wall when I suddenly thought, all these objects are special to me.

The angel that fell
The angel that fell

There’s the penny-size Thomas the Tank Engine I found in the edge of the sea the summer I spent in the beach cafe writing Peony Pinker. The Christmas cracker car one of my kids gave me when I was writing Car-mad Jack. The champagne bottle candle from a twenty-first birthday cake. The Incredible Hulk who was here in the house when I arrived, and the angel I found in a drawer in an empty house once when I was close to despair. The sewn heart a sweet friend I’ve never met sent to me last year. The teddy-bear my daughter won at the amusements arcade on a family day down at Looe. To mention but a few.

The little teddy bear from Looe
The little teddy bear from Looe

And I suddenly thought of the five-point character sketch, realising that it doesn’t have to be one definitive special object. It can be any object at all that has emotional resonance and meaning for you.

Any object my character feels is special to them will do for point number 5. Or a scattering of small objects like the ones in my fireplace wall, which tell so much of the story of me.

26 thoughts on “Unravelling the mystery of the five-point character sketch”

  1. Hello Jenny – yes, I agree re the object. Sometimes it’s almost like a talisman in relation to a main character. But often it turns out to be something really significant to the story, doesn’t it?

    A friend, colleague and student of mine, Jane Spiro, on a novel course of mine had all the ‘ingredients’ for her story but knew it was lacking the one thing that would spark it into life.

    Walking beside the Tamar it suddenly came to her, via her own family history, that Balkan amber was the key. Initially she thought that this was just a device for characterisation; then she realised that it was actually the core of the whole novel, and this pulled it all together instantly in her imagination and gave the book its heart. (She wrote a chapter on this for my book Writing the Bright Moment.)

    Thanks – good blog, as usual.

    1. Sparking a story into life – yes – that’s the power of these symbols, isn’t it? They carry so much emotion and information, for the writer as well as the reader. Thank you for your comment, Roselle 🙂

    1. Goals are vital, as you say… that’s often my next stage after sketching the basic character – but it changes with every project and workshop

  2. Thanks Jenny! Fascinating to writers! I’d agree with the first two points about characters. I always find a real person who I can think of to get a characters’ appearance – it may be someone I know, or who I’ve seen often in the street, or someone in the public eye. Using a real person not only gives you colouring, body-shape, height, but things like quirks of movement and speech. You can see and hear your character more clearly.

    I can see that the ‘something they love’ and ‘something they hate’ steps would work, but personally I use Kurt Vonnegut’s method of having a character ‘want something, page one’. Even if it’s only a glass of water, Vonnegut said. It’s similar, in that what a character really wants often leads you to what they love and hate. I sometimes develop it as: what do they want now – what do they want next week – what do they want out of life?

    I think, like you, that I’d really struggle to give every character an object that was special to them, though they may emerge from the story. Most people have them, I imagine, even if only as memories. Several of mine are old christmas ornaments, like yours – and things that my family have made or bought for me. Like the copper moebius strip my Dad made me.

    1. Great reply, Sue – I may try the what do they want now/next week/ out of life development in my workshops. I’ve only once had a story sparked by a real person, and that was the child walking her dog in Polperro who became Peony Pinker – it was spontaneous, and not something I’d have considered doing before. Interesting!

    1. Yes – I LOVE that people leave such thoughtful and interesting comments on my blog – it really helps me to develop my idea, and expands upon it for other readers.

  3. It’s interesting to think of one’s friends and acquaintances in this respect, isn’t it. Would you have objects you would associate with them, and how would they feel if you told them!

    1. I have played this game… but not with the people I’m thinking about! Though I once had a lunch with a ten good friends where we all took one person at a time and thought of an animal she reminded us of – kind of who’s-your-daemon, but a decade or more before His Dark Materials. It was extraordinary. For example, of the nine who were guessing, three had the same animal for me.

  4. Reading your comments about point 5, made me think of all the little things I’ve kept over the last few years that have a special memory or association. I have a whole draw of items that would mean so little to anyone else but so much to me. What a great tip to remember when writing about a character. Thanks Jenny. And thanks Susan too for your interesting comment!

    1. Yes, it’s brilliant Carolyn. I make collages for my characters too – great way of finding these ‘special objects’

  5. This has really made me think about this 5 point character sketch content, as Bebe Lilliehook Livoff’s points about “Western” preoccupation with the hero story in classic form made me think a few weeks ago.( As a result I wrote a story deliberately not following this form and won a competition. It’s very liberating to break free in some ways). I realized, laughing to myself, that one of my “precious” objects (this sounds mad-shades of Edward and Tubs) is the action man toy “Dr X”- the one with the repulsive ‘toxic gut’. My son buried him in the garden years ago and he’s still there now- just by the steps up to the bank. He was a truly horrible boys toy but being buried has made him acceptable. ‘Poor old Dr X’, we still say. I told you this was mad. I have quite a few normal little things too, including grandmothers soft linen tea towels from the 1950s and memories of things that I haven’t actually owned but might as well have.

    1. Oh that’s so funny, Liz – one of my fireplace-dwellers is a rubbery little green Incredible Hulk figure that I found in the attic when I first moved in! I think of him as a kind of spirit-of-the-house, rather like the angel I found in the drawer of the place I lived before.

  6. As a writer totally without method, I appreciated this information, thanks! I am very much looking forward to your course in January when I shall no doubt find out all manner of things I don’t know about! Tessa

  7. Nice article! I have spoken to many local writer’s groups and at conferences on the subject of creating credible characters in fiction. I totally agree with and recommend all the tips you have given here. I would like to share a few other tips that may help writers and aspiring writers with characterization:

    –Really strive to give your characters a personality. Each of us is unique in our mannerisms, way of speaking, body language, etc. Pay attention to the smallest of details. People watch those around you. See how they interact with one another. These are good ways to pick up tips.

    –Become your characters. Go as far as to “role play” them when you are alone. Put yourself in the shoes of your hero or heroine and react as they would. It’s a great way to bring them to life in your mind and on your pages.

    –The more realistic your characters are to you, the more realistic they will be to your readers. Readers love characters that remind them of themselves or someone they know

    –I love the idea of detailed physical description, too. My hero, Mitch Tarrington, has a dimple in his right cheek, wavy dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and silver-rimmed glasses. He’s 6’2″ with a muscular, athletic build and a smile that melts the heart of his lady. Gotta say–he melts my heart, too! You can even pattern your people after someone you admire (Chuck Wicks–my fav country singer!)

    Love, love, love your article! Thanks and thanks also for letting me share, too!.

  8. Thank-you Debbie – top tips! I find myself doing that body-language thing when I’m watching TV (on my own, obviously!) – trying out how it feels to be the straight-backed newsreader or the flamboyant dramatic actor. Your hero sounds amazing!

  9. A twitch, one blue eye and one brown eye, a certain hat, a pickup truck, a woman on the arm, a man in tow, a pink cell phone, a stare, a propensity to disengage, a tattoo, toes out, toes in, shell-back posture, a hanky hanging out the hip pocket, a lapel pin, orange glasses, slicked-back hair, that sneer, a handicaped sticker, a bumper sticker, a sketch pad, a camera, bad breath, a cigar, a razor blade and a piece of glass, a runny nose; some people who read novels cannot remember names of characters, so tags, things always present with a character especially help the character be remembered. I don’t mean remembered next year. I mean remembered in reading the next chapter. I know, because I have that memory problem, even with characters I create in a novel. By the time I am writing page 166, I cannot recall the name of a character I last talked about on page 124. It is a problem. If there is a tag that I have given that character, I can find that earlier reference to him with the use of the finder in Word. I remember the tags much better than the names.

  10. Great comment – thank-you Larry 🙂 I have the same problem with remembering names and I find the tags more memorable too. This is the way I’ve always understood the ‘special object’ and it certainly does hook you in to the character, as both writer and reader.

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