For decades, "Candid Camera" entertained millions of TV viewers by "catching people in the act of being themselves." Short film clips revealed the personality and character of unsuspecting people as they went about their daily lives. A character sketch essay does the same thing in writing. Well-chosen details create a vivid impression by showing someone in the act of being himself.
Choose a Character
Choose someone you know well as the subject of your character sketch essay. Think of someone others would like to meet. For example, you might write about your 95-year-old neighbor, Mr. Meyer, who has lived in the same house his entire life.
Isolate one or two character traits. For an essay about Mr. Meyer, you might choose frugality and courtesy. Narrate details that show his frugal, courteous ways. Avoid the temptation to write everything you know about him. Including too many details will make your essay sound like a list.
Keep your readers in mind as you write. You know Mr. Meyer, but they don't. Because you're so close to him, you may neglect to include important details. For example, mentioning an accident he had will confuse readers if you don't explain what it was.
Building the character
Dramatize details that will support the focus of your essay. Your goal is to show, not tell. Telling is direct description: Everything in Mr. Meyer's kitchen is old-fashioned. Showing is indirect, or roundabout description. It's more subtle and requires readers to form a mental image: "Mr. Meyer pushed aside the black rotary phone on his Formica table."
Describe your character's physical appearance and clothing. People also reveal themselves through facial expressions, gestures and repeated movements. Show Mr. Meyer slapping his knee as he laughs or smoothing his mustache when he thinks.
Let your character speak. By hearing his voice and the words he uses, readers gain information. Show how Mr. Meyer's gravelly voice makes his stories about the early 1900s more interesting. Add such brushstrokes and flourishes as his use of old-fashioned words --- icebox, sitting room, streetcar.
Set scenes. Show Mr. Meyer relating how his children used to sit on the braided rug listening to "Little Orphan Annie" on the ancient radio.
Show your character interacting with others. When a neighbor stops by to check up on Mr. Meyer, describe the scene and conversation.
Reveal your character's personality through an anecdote or narration of a scene: "Due to his frugality and age, Mr. Meyer never had a cell phone until he received one as a gift." Your ordeal with helping him set it up leads to confusion and laughter.
Avoid telling readers how to feel about your character. They'll have more fun coming to their own conclusions. If a reader reflects that the cell phone episode reminds her of trying to explain the DVD remote to her grandma, you have succeeded in creating emotion.
Maintain adequate emotional distance from your subject. By describing someone you know well, you open yourself up to letting your own emotions and opinions take over. Use your personal knowledge to paint a vivid picture, but adopt the stance of an interested observer.
- Northern Illinois University Department of English: How to Write a Character Sketch
- Southern Methodist University: Writing Assignment - The Character Sketch
- Larae.net: The Character Sketch
- Webster's New World Student Writing Handbook, fifth edition; Sharon Sorenson; 2009
- Candidcamera.com: About Candid Camera
- Photo Credit young man using his lap top image by Kovac from Fotolia.com
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