Character Sketch

A character sketch employs much the same strategy as a mood piece, except that the subject involved isn't a feeling, but all the important facets of a given person in his or her particular context. So the strategy is often to present a series of situations that bring out the character's possibilities and essential attitudes—all the relevant parts of who that person is. Each of these situations may be fragmentary—not a complete scene in the usual sense of the word—because its purpose isn't to develop a plot but to let the character demonstrate his or her basic nature.

That's the overall strategy of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, in which Holden Caulfield shows who he is through ajourney that involves successive meetings with adults and finally with his sympathetic sister.

Relationships are confined to those which add further detail to the developing picture of the character. If his dead father is important, then there may be recollections or even flashbacks of that relationship; if her interest in architecture is the guiding force in her life, the story might be structured in terms of her visits to different buildings, showing what a school, a church, a theatre mean to her and therefore precisely who she is in that particular context. If she cares more for architecture than for people, each building might be empty, or filled with strangers the story shows her ignoring or misunderstanding.

Each piece of the story should be either a new facet of the character's being or an effective repetition and development of one already shown.

My story "A Sense of Family" was much more a character sketch, showing the nature and possibilities of its protagonist, than it was a plotted story, since all Val's actions end up short-circuited and frustrated. She never does collect the money she's owed or get to her brother's wedding. If plot were the only interest, the story would probably be a letdown to most readers. But the gradual revelation that what keeps Val from relating to people in more effective personal ways is her very strength, her ability to live on her own terms without compromise but also without anger or love, provides a fuller and more ironic picture than the plot alone could communicate.

Character sketches can be structured from the outside in, developing first the most external and commonplace of the character's doings and relationships, then dealing with ones successively closer to eventually show the one thing at the center. Alternatively, they can be structured broadly, mixing the important with the more trivial so that a pattern can emerge. Or they can be a species of collage built around strong contrasts and perhaps the gradual revelation of unexpected or unusual traits.

Slice-of-Life

Although a single character or a cluster of characters—say, a family—may be at the center of a slice-of-life story, the story's main concern is not to explore their personalities. Rather, it's to use them as ways to demonstrate their social context. They tend to be representative characters, chosen because they demonstrate a given social situation so well rather than primarily because they're so interesting as people.

Steinbeck's The Grapes ofWrath is a portrait of the Okies displaced westward by the dust bowl disaster of the thirties. It's the Okies as a group who are important, rather than the Joads in particular. They're significant as a typical family who, through their travels and trials, show what Steinbeck conceived to be the main facets of that social upheaval as a whole.

That they're typical, though, doesn't mean they're not highly individualized. Ma Joad, in particular, is as memorable a character as ever was written. Rather, they're a way of making concrete and immediate the human dimension of economic and social disaster.

Similarly, James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, Heller's Catch-22, Dickens' Oliver Twist, and much of the short fiction of Cheever and Roth, are attempts to reveal a certain way of liv-ing—a time, a place, a social context—as demonstrated by the experiences of a given set of characters. The characters and the plot elements (if any) are less important for their drama than for their representative qualities, persuading the reader that the small reveals the large and that each character and event has a significance beyond the merely individual.

The danger with slice-of-life stories is that, in the absence of a plot to keep things moving, the small incidents of individual lives intended to demonstrate a larger social reality will just seem trivial and boring. A friend of mine describes slice-of-life, not altogether jokingly, as stories where a woman in carpet slippers goes out to buy a loaf of bread and then comes home again. It's crucial, in such stories, that the events chosen be vivid and interesting in themselves and be arranged and presented in such a way that the reader can't help noticing they mirror a reality larger than the merely personal.

Melodrama can come to your rescue here, as it did for Steinbeck and Dickens. Virtually a whole state uprooted, dust storms, cruelty and hope, strong family relationships put to the ultimate test, violent events of many kinds, prevent The Grapes of Wrath from ever seeming mundane, boring, or everyday. Similarly, Oliver Twist's colorful details of life in London's underworld of child exploitation and the vividness of individual characters like Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Nancy compensate for Dickens' exceedingly improbable plot weakened, at most crucial points, by the extensive use of coincidence.

Slice-of-life has a tendency to yawn. Don't let it.

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