How to Write a Character Letter

A character letter, also known as a reference letter or personal reference, is often required when applying to a new job or for scenarios involving a court case or legal issue. If you are asked to write a letter of this sort, you should only agree if you truly have a good sense of the character of the subject. Also, if you feel that you wouldn’t be able to speak positively about the person who needs the letter, it is usually best to decline.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Writing a character letter requires you to provide honest, thoughtful comments about the subject's skills and personality to help them in a job application or legal scenario.

Step One: Can You Write the Character Reference Letter?

A character reference letter should begin by explaining your relationship to the letter’s subject. Are you a friend, a boss or coworker? If so, explain how you know the person. This can help the reader of the letter to temper anything you might say. Failure to state your relationship can lead the reader to think you are purposely omitting the information because you might seem biased, which certainly won’t help the letter’s subject.

It’s best to avoid writing the letter if you're a family member because even though you would give a glowing review of the subject and her skills, hiring managers or judges are likely to view these references as overly biased. Consequently, your reference letter could be dismissed entirely. If you employed a family member you've been asked to write a letter for, advise her to seek reference letters from professors, contacts from volunteer work or neighbors instead.

Step Two: Figure Out What You Need to Say

Writing a character letter can be challenging, so don’t be afraid to ask the subject for specifics about his resume or if he feels certain things should be mentioned. It isn’t ethical that he gives you too much of the letter’s content, but you want to be sure that what you are writing will help him. If, after having this conversation, you don’t feel that you would be able to do what is being asked of you for moral reasons or simply because you don’t know the individual well enough, you should politely decline the opportunity.

Step Three: Describe His Attributes

The bulk of your character letter should be focused on what you view as the individual’s most impressive attributes. If the reference letter is for a job application or a similar purpose, aim to talk mostly about the skills the subject has that you feel would best qualify him for the opportunity in question. After all, your goal is to help your friend or colleague get the position. Whenever feasible, back up assertions of positive character traits with real-life examples that you have personally witnessed.

Example:

I have worked with John Smith for over five years and have always found him to be a highly organised, hard-working colleague. He has excellent customer service skills and I have always been impressed with rapport he builds with customers and coworkers alike.

Step Four: When Writing to a Judge

When you are writing a letter to a judge, it’s important to illustrate the subject’s positive traits. A character letter for court may be used in a custody decision or other important matter, so you need to be honest without overstating any personality attributes. However, your letter could make or break an outcome for the individual who asked for your help, so it’s critical that you be as thorough and thoughtful as possible.

Step Five: Provide Contact Details

If you feel comfortable doing so, provide your contact information so that the letter’s recipient can reach out to you with any questions. She most likely won’t, but doing this makes it seem like you are even more serious about the character assertions you’ve made in your letter.