Writing Thumbnail Character Sketches

personality type thumb finger nail

We see people and things not as they are, but as we are.

Anthony de Mello

Park: “What did he look like?”
Girl: “Well, kind of plain.”
Park: “In what way?”
Girl: “Just……..ordinary.”

Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-Ho (2003)

Readers differ in the amount of description they need when reading a fictional character. I remember once writing a short story then uploading it to my writing group for critique. In the short story I’d mentioned about halfway through that the main character had a beard. I’ll always be amused by one beta reader’s comment: “It’s a bit late to spring a beard on us.” (My emphasis.)

Now I look at beards on men and think of how the beard might suddenly ‘spring upon’ me… which has pretty much ruined beards… Anyhow, the moral of that story is that some readers didn’t mind learning he had a beard whereas others had already constructed a strong visual in their mind and didn’t want it altered. So if you are going to describe a person, do it early. That said, I’ve read plenty of popular work in which description is drip fed to the reader.


There is a term used in reference to literacy: Concretization. It is thought that children are better at ‘concretizing’ than adult readers, who no longer require it in order to follow a story. So it’s possible (hypothetically) that children’s literature might provide more in the way of description than books for adults.

Author Sarah Dessen requests that no faces go on the covers of her books.

I don’t like to throw characters into a plot as though it were a raging torrent where they are swept along. What interests me are the complications and nuances of character. Few of my characters are described externally; we see them from the inside out.

Michael Ondaatje
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The Cosy Little World In Illustration

Artists have various ways of deliberately distorting naturalistic perspective to achieve a certain mood, for example, a cosy little world.

A common feature in children’s book illustration is the curved horizon. An exaggerated and curved horizon gives the impression that the child lives on a very small planet, and mirrors the experience of early childhood. The young child’s arena is small compared to that of an adult, both physically and imaginatively.

Humans have the tendency to populate every sparse area with fairies. We historically consider small protrusions in land (knolls and hills) magical in some way. Here’s an illustration of a fairy hill, with tiny people coming out of a trap door. (Similar imagery can be seen in “The Legend Of The Pied Piper“.

The Fairy Hill by Lady Beatrice Glenavy

And here’s an Arthur Rackham illustration of a magic hill:

Arthur Rackham Magic Hill
Arthur Rackham Magic Hill

I believe the concept of the fairy hill has something to do with the tendency to depict horizons as curves in illustrations for children.

Oxford Book of Poetry for Children compiled by Edward Blishen, illustrated by Brian Wildsmith (1963) fairy hill
Oxford Book of Poetry for Children compiled by Edward Blishen, illustrated by Brian Wildsmith (1963) fairy hill
The World Is Round by Gertrude Stein
A Postmodern picture book “The World Is Round” by Gertrude Stein, the only children’s book she managed to get published. (All the others were deemed too dark.) The cosy little world on top of a knoll or hill intersects with the symbolism of altitude, in which a character goes to a high place to achieve Anagnorisis. The grassy hill or knoll is the miniature, childlike version of ascension of the Mount.
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Donnie Darko Film Study

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko is a 2001 film set in 1988, in a fictional Virginia town called Middlesex. This genre blend of drama, mystery and science fiction is precisely ambiguous enough to generate much discussion about what is meant to have happened. This is ideal ‘cult-following’ material. Note that Donnie Darko didn’t make much of a splash when first released, but achieved its cult following subsequently.

Today I offer my own take on What Happens in Donnie Darko — nothing that hasn’t been said before — but I’ll also come at it from a storytelling point of view. What makes Donnie Darko a satisfying story? Why do viewers who love this film really really love it?

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Luggage and Suitcases In Art and Storytelling

Luggages, suitcases, boxes and other forms of containment are useful motifs for storytellers. Find a standout example in the lyrical short story “Prelude”, one of Katherine Mansfield’s finest.

In “Prelude”, the Burnell family move from central Wellington out to the country. Mansfield’s narrative camera follows Kezia as she says goodbye to her old house. Meanwhile, her unmarried Aunt Beryl feels constricted. Mansfield utilises a variety of containers to convey this emotional state.

Below, you’ll find a collection of suitcases and luggage in art. These characters prepare to go on holiday, arrive at their destinations and return home.

The holiday destination is a heterotopic liminal space, and there’s nothing like luggage to put us in mind of this altered psychological state.

by Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1955 suitcase
by Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1955 suitcase
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Eavesdropping in Storytelling and Illustration

When there’s a mystery to be solved in a story, especially in a children’s story, the character very often begins their journey after hearing a conversation they weren’t supposed to hear. The Golden Compass begins like this. Another example is The Halfmen of O by Maurice Gee. For a picture book example see The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg.

There are many other eavesdropping scenes which open stories for children.

Why? Because children don’t start with the same information that adults have, and are protected from evil by those who love them. Also, don’t we all learn most of the things from overhearing and observation during childhood?

Since women are historically infantalised, there are many artworks which show a woman hiding in the corners, learning things she is not supposed to. Knowledge is power. These are subversive women.

1887-88 Danaë and the Brazen Tower (aka The Tower of Brass), by artist Edward Burne-Jones.
1887-88 Danaë and the Brazen Tower (aka The Tower of Brass), by artist Edward Burne-Jones.

Or perhaps she was simply gazing from inside at the outside world, because a woman’s place is traditionally in the home.

Paul Zelinsky for Rumpelstiltskin
Charles West Cope - Palpitation 1884
Charles West Cope – Palpitation 1884

The TV series Big Love about the three wives of one man offered many opportunities for eavesdropping scenes, as all three women were living in each others’ pockets. When a character is forced to eavesdrop in order to learn what’s going on, this suggests a degree of powerlessness.

In Big Love we never see Bill (the husband) eavesdropping. He doesn’t need to. However subversive the image of the eavesdropping woman, determined to find things out about the world despite the lack of information provided to her, the proliferation of such gendered scenes suggests, to the wrong audience members, that women are naturally sneaky, devious and manipulative.

The following image plays on fears of the upper classes about the people they employ to work in their homes.

In a position to know, Clarence Coles Phillips, 1921 eavesdropping
“In a position to know”, Clarence Coles Phillips, 1921.

The stairs and hallway are typically a good place in the storybook dream house from which to hear everything going on.

George Hughes Figurative Painting “Eavesdropping-On-Grownups” for the cover of Saturday Evening Post, 1955.

The image below is no doubt supposed to be cute, but there’s something incestuosly creepy about a little brother listening in on his big sister’s conversation with (by her body language) a boyfriend. That same creep factor is utilised in Six Feet Under to unambiguously creepy effect when Billy follows Brenda and Nate into Brenda’s bedroom and photographs them while they are asleep.

“The Little Brother” 1949 by George Hughes

The following is an eavesdropping scene from a chocolate box.

“Listening at Doors” This is an illustration by Hugh Thomson for the play Quality Street by J.-M. Barrie. The-chocolate selection was named after the play.

Outside ninjas and actual spies, it’s more difficult to find examples of grown men eavesdropping in art. Men run the world. Men don’t need to be secretive about their need to know what’s going on.

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Nymphs and their Habitat


Nymphs are minor female nature deities from Ancient Greek folklore. Like Pan, they serve as personifications of nature but unlike Pan, who can turn up anywhere (e.g. in The Wind In The Willows or as a character in The Secret Garden), nymphs are typically tied to a specific place. They are usually depicted by horny heterosexual male artists as beautiful maidens.


Well, they are not necessarily immortal, but are thought to live much longer than humans. In this respect they’re like the djinn, or like characters such as Noah from the Bible, who also lived an extremely long time, apparently?

Some nymphs are depicted with wings; sometimes nymph wings look like cherub wings, suggesting they can fly close to the Heavens, and perhaps occupy a liminal space between Heaven and Earth.

More similar to Greek gods than to monotheistic Gods, nymphs sit at all points along a morality spectrum: Some are simply beautiful and laze around next to rivers as a beautiful addition to nature while others have far too much sex and encourage men to do very bad sex things which will send them to Hell.

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Baseball Art and Storytelling

Bernie Fuchs baseball in Sports Illustrated
Bernie Fuchs baseball in Sports Illustrated

Both Maggie Fortini and her brother, Joey-Mick, were named for baseball great Joe DiMaggio. Unlike Joey-Mick, Maggie doesn’t play baseball—but at almost ten years old, she is a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Maggie can recite all the players’ statistics and understands the subtleties of the game. Unfortunately, Jim Maine is a Giants fan, but it’s Jim who teaches Maggie the fine art of scoring a baseball game. Not only can she revisit every play of every inning, but by keeping score she feels she’s more than just a fan: she’s helping her team.
Jim is drafted into the army and sent to Korea, and although Maggie writes to him often, his silence is just one of a string of disappointments—being a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in the early 1950s meant season after season of near misses and year after year of dashed hopes. But Maggie goes on trying to help the Dodgers, and when she finds out that Jim needs help, too, she’s determined to provide it. Against a background of major league baseball and the Korean War on the home front, Maggie looks for, and finds, a way to make a difference.
Even those readers who think they don’t care about baseball will be drawn into the world of the true and ardent fan. Linda Sue Park’s captivating story will, of course, delight those who are already keeping score.

Saturday Evening Post, July 6, 1957, “Sandlot Homerun,” by John Falter baseball
Saturday Evening Post, July 6, 1957, “Sandlot Homerun,” by John Falter baseball
By Stevan Dohanos (1907-1994)--'Catching the Home Run Ball,' f. Saturday Evening Post Cover, April 22,1950
By Stevan Dohanos (1907-1994)–‘Catching the Home Run Ball,’ f. Saturday Evening Post Cover, April 22,1950

Shenice Lockwood, captain of the Fulton Firebirds, is hyper-focused when she steps up to the plate. Nothing can stop her from leading her team to the U12 fast-pitch softball regional championship. But life has thrown some curveballs her way.

Strike one: As the sole team of all-brown faces, Shenice and the Firebirds have to work twice as hard to prove that Black girls belong at bat.

Strike two: Shenice’s focus gets shaken when her great-uncle Jack reveals that a career-ending—and family-name-ruining—crime may have been a setup.

Strike three: Broken focus means mistakes on the field. And Shenice’s teammates are beginning to wonder if she’s captain-qualified.

from “The Brownies at Base-Ball” in ST. NICHOLAS MAGAZINE Vol. XIII #12 (October 1886) by Palmer Cox
from “The Brownies at Base-Ball” in ST. NICHOLAS MAGAZINE Vol. XIII #12 (October 1886) by Palmer Cox

See also: The Golden Age Of Brownies

A boy who loves baseball must get past his hard-working immigrant parents—and the rhino in the outfield—to become a batboy in this laugh-out-loud middle grade novel in the tradition of The Sandlot.

Nick wants to change his life. For twelve years, he’s done what his hard-working, immigrant parents want him to do. Now he’s looking for his own American dream and he thinks he’s found it. The local baseball team is having a batboy contest, and Nick wants to win.

But the contest is on a Saturday—the day Nick has to work in his father’s shop. There’s one other tiny—well, not so tiny—problem. A 2,000-pound rhinoceros named Tank. Nick and his friends play ball in the city zoo—and Tank lives just beyond the right field fence. Nick’s experience getting the ball out of Tank’s pen has left him frozen with fear whenever a fly ball comes his way. How’s a lousy fielder going to win the contest?

Nick practices every day with his best friend, Ace, and a new girl who has an impressive throwing arm! But that’s not enough—to get to the contest, Nick has to lie to his parents and blackmail his uncle. All while dodging the school bully, who’s determined to win even by playing dirty. Nick will need to keep his eye on the ball in this fast, funny story about a game that can throw you some curveballs—just like life!

Alè Tran Tran, Mattotti Tettamenti, 1995
Alè Tran Tran, Mattotti Tettamenti, 1995
Cover of book The Cactus League by Emily Nemens with baseball as moon

Jason Goodyear is the star outfielder for the Los Angeles Lions, stationed with the rest of his team in the punishingly hot Arizona desert for their annual spring training. Handsome, famous, and talented, Goodyear is nonetheless coming apart at the seams. And the coaches, writers, wives, girlfriends, petty criminals, and diehard fans following his every move are eager to find out why–as they hide secrets of their own.

Humming with the energy of a ballpark before the first pitch, Emily Nemens’ The Cactus League unravels the tightly connected web of people behind a seemingly linear game. Narrated by a sportscaster, Goodyear’s story is interspersed with tales of Michael Taylor, a batting coach trying to stay relevant; Tamara Rowland, a resourceful spring-training paramour, looking for one last catch; Herb Allison, a legendary sports agent grappling with his decline; and a plethora of other richly drawn characters, all striving to be seen as the season approaches. It’s a journey that, like the Arizona desert, brims with both possibility and destruction.

Anchored by an expert knowledge of baseball’s inner workings, Emily Nemens’s The Cactus League is a propulsive and deeply human debut that captures a strange desert world that is both exciting and unforgiving, where the most crucial games are the ones played off the field.

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