People can learn visual concepts from just one example, but it remains a mystery how this is accomplished. Many authors have proposed that transferred knowledge from more familiar concepts is a route to one shot learning, but what is the form of this abstract knowledge? One hypothesis is that the sharing of parts is core to one shot learning, and we evaluate this idea in the domain of handwritten characters, using a massive new dataset. These simple visual concepts have a rich internal part structure, yet they are particularly tractable for computational models. We introduce a generative model of how characters are composed from strokes, where knowledge from previous characters helps to infer the latent strokes in novel characters. The stroke model outperforms a competing state-of-the-art character model on a challenging one shot learning task, and it provides a good fit to human perceptual data.