In composition, a character sketch is a brief description in prose of a particular person or type of person. In writing one, you go into the character's manner, distinct characteristics, nature, and the way that person behaves him or herself. It's also called a profile or character analysis and doesn't necessarily have to be about a fictional character.
How to Approach a Character Sketch
Even though it's an informative type of essay, a character sketch doesn't have to be dry and only descriptive. "It can also impress or entertain the reader or praise the subject," notes author R.E. Myers. "The facts, traits, idiosyncrasies, and accomplishments of the subject provide the fabric of the character sketch. Anecdotes and quotes are also helpful in portraying the subject. You can stress the subject's personality, appearance, character or accomplishments." ("Figures of Speech: A Study and Practice Guide." Teaching & Learning Company, 2008)
If analyzing a fictional character, you can also go into the person's conflicts, how the person changes, his or her attitude toward others, and role in the story. You can list the person's likes and dislikes and how you feel about the character. If the character is the narrator, you can discuss whether the person is an unreliable narrator.
A character sketch can also be satiric, as in work by authors such as Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) and Thomas Pynchon (1933-) or modern-day television sit-coms. As a composition, a satiric sketch would likely need to be written in the character's voice and point of view to work.
Use of a Character Sketch
Besides being an essay type that students write in composition classes, fiction authors can use character sketches in their prewriting or drafting stages of short stories or novels as a means to develop the people who'll inhabit the world they're creating. Writers who plan series (or even those who just end up writing a sequel to a successful story) can find character sketches useful as a reference for maintaining consistency of detail or voice, if the character ends up being a narrator in the subsequent work or has a particular vocal tic, slang vocabulary, jargon use, or accent. Often the act of taking on the character's voice in a sketch will assist the author in discovering aspects of the character and fleshing him or her out to be more realistic. Character sketches can also be a task to work on when stuck for a plot point, character's motivation to move the plot forward, or attitude/reaction toward a conflict or event.
In nonfiction writing, character sketches can be useful for biographers or feature article writers as a prewriting tool and as descriptive material to mine for the finished work.
Annie Dillard's Sketch of Her Childhood Friend Judy Schoyer
"My friend Judy Schoyer was a thin, messy, shy girl whose thick blond curls lapped over her glasses. Her cheeks, chin, nose, and blue eyes were round; the lenses and frames of her glasses were round, and so were her heavy curls. Her long spine was supple; her legs were long and thin so her knee socks fell down. She did not care if her knee socks fell down. When I first knew her, as my classmate at the Ellis School, she sometimes forgot to comb her hair. She was so shy she tended not to move her head, but only let her eyes rove about. If my mother addressed her, or a teacher, she held her long-legged posture lightly, alert, like a fawn ready to bolt but hoping its camouflage will work a little longer." ("An American Childhood." Harper & Row, 1987.)
Bill Barich's Sketch of a Publican
"The publican, Peter Keith Page, lives with his family in a flat on the second floor. Page is a fiftyish man, slender and well-tailored, whose manner might be described as studiously charming. His mustache and hair are tinged with auburn, and this, along with a sharp nose and chin, makes him look a bit like a fox. He enjoys jokes, subtle conversations, double entendres. When he takes one of his turns behind the bar, he works at a measured pace, often pausing to ask after his patrons' health and well-being." ("At the Fountain." In "Traveling Light." Viking, 1984.)
David F. Venturo, "The Satiric Character Sketch." In "A Companion to Satire: Ancient and Modern," ed. by Ruben Quintero. Blackwell, 2007.