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I Need Help Starting a Character Sketch Essay

by Michael Stratford

A character sketch essay is a written sample of a person's life, as if you were writing a 10-minute reality show episode about someone you know -- a member of your family, a teacher, a best friend. It's someone who readily comes to mind, and that is the starting point for your essay: ask yourself what it is about this person that makes him memorable for you.

Chaucer as Model

Once you've chosen your character, pick out character traits that make him stand out for you. A good model for this is Chaucer in his "Canterbury Tales" -- the vignettes from his prologue briefly describe the actions, physical characteristics and words of his characters. He only chooses a few details to emphasize, as you should; this is a snapshot, not a portrait. You can choose from the list of qualities above; you can also consider the person's motives, values or choices, or the background that makes him what he is.

"Show" Not "Tell" Incidents

Once you've listed the characteristics you want to talk about, choose a few incidents that illuminate them. Stephen King in "On Writing" reminds writers not to "tell" about a person, but "show" characteristics and mannerisms by describing a person's actions in a given situation. "He was the stingiest guy ever" is telling; "he saw the dime, stepped on it and wouldn't budge" is showing. Be sure to set each scene by giving detailed descriptions of each incident, how it came about and how the character reacted. Put your readers into the story.

Setting Up Your Essay

The essay you create from the elements above should first describe and then dramatize the memorable character. Begin with an introduction telling how you know him or met him, and what he means to you. This opening should intrigue your audience enough to keep them reading. Your second paragraph should include physical details and dress; the readers should gain a mental picture of your subject. Your third paragraph should include details about his personality: how he interacts and dialogues with others, what he usually does in certain situations, what phrases he uses when perplexed, annoyed or sure of himself.

Now the Stories

Now it's time to share the stories about him. Your readers have a fairly complete mental picture; this will add to their enjoyment of the incidents. Avoid telling readers how to react; keep yourself at an emotional remove as well to avoid becoming sentimental. Your final paragraph should include the reason you wrote in the first place; if you've described the person and events well, your essay will have meaning for both you and your readers. Now get started!

References

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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