Building Life-Like Characters through Real-Life Observation

Posted on Jun 23, 2010 in writing | 1 comment

It’s funny how you start to paint a picture of people’s lives when you’ve been around them long enough. I’m talking mostly about strangers here. My husband and I moved across the country, from Utah to Ohio, for the summer, and we now live in an apartment complex full of complete strangers. From my couch, computer desk, or porch, I can easily observe the world as it runs by with my day, and I’ve recently realized just how many pieces I’ve put together about the people in my community—without any conscious effort at all.

Here are a few examples that come to mind as I consider the people around me as I work (I suppose it’s mostly children then). One apartment below and to the right of mine, there’s an Indian family with a beautiful little girl about age 7. She seems to like cartoons a lot (I know because they blare through my open sliding-glass door on a regular basis). On fair-weather days, she races around on her teetering training-wheeled bike, up and down our street, and occasionally heads over to the apartment building across the way to play outside with her girl friends.

The girls may have a screaming match with one another one day (after which I want to hurt someone), or they may play with their little toy kitchen. Some of the best moments I’ve seen, however, are when they play-act the role of adults. One will exclaim, “Oh! I’m late for work!” then gingerly sip the last of the “tea” from a plastic teacup, pick up a bag brimming with books and plastic food, and dash off. In moments, they’re all scurrying around in mock exasperation at the many things they can’t possibly manage to get done. (Were we all like that as kids, dreaming of the day when we would get to do all that grown-up stuff for real? Now I sometimes dream that life were a bit more simple, like it was when I was a kid. How ironic.)

And then there are those times when it is just the little girl across the street, with no one to play with. She is quite creative about entertaining herself, from finding new ways to stand and pose on her bicycle seat to leapfrogging over the rope she’s just tied to the building’s staircase. No matter what it is, you can’t miss her voice as she discusses the next activity of the day with an imaginary friend. I always wonder what goes on in the minds of these children as they play.

Anyway, there’s a look at some of the characters I’ve come to know through observation. Before you peg me as a creepy or nosy neighbor, let me assure you that I’ve noticed these things simply from the many times I’ve glanced up from my computer and noted whatever it was that was happening in that moment. I don’t spend all day long (I don’t even spend 10 minutes) looking around for someone to watch like a hawk. And I certainly don’t have the binoculars out to peek into people’s houses. No, I’m just quietly observing people on my own time.

As I’m writing my novel (Did I mention I’m writing a novel?), I’ve realized just how beneficial these unconscious exercises in observation have been to me, and they’ve been even more helpful as I’ve taken them to the next level. No, once the again the binoculars are missing. Instead, I’ve started taking my subtle observations of people and creating actual fictional characters out of them. Most likely than not, these characters will find very little placement in my novel; however, just imagining the possibilities has helped me stretch my imagination and improve my character development skills. I want the characters of my novel to be believable, and I think the best way to achieve that is by observing what real life feels like and how different people deal with it.

So if you get stuck in your writing, or you feel like the characters you are writing about (fictitious or not) aren’t popping off the page like you want them to, take a few moments to quietly watch the people around you. You might even keep a pen and pad of paper with you to jot down any general impressions you have. Again, you aren’t judging the person in real life. You are looking at that person as a narrator would look at a character, then expanding upon the possibilities of that character’s life in a way that makes them seem real and relate-able.

Want to make it even harder? Try to pinpoint the actions and expressions that define each person’s moods, interests, and dislikes as you write about them. If you think, “Wow, she is really angry,” get to the bottom of how you came to that conclusion. What tipped you off to her mood? Was it the way her eyebrows tilted inward as she glared at the space in front of her? Was it the way she muttered under her breath and sought out rocks to kick across the sidewalk? Or was it the stiffness of her stride as she hurried past you down the street?

To be able to describe someone by the things they do and say, instead of simply by their thoughts or through an omniscient narrator, is an invaluable skill that can make your writing more real and natural. It’s difficult to master, but it is possible to achieve with practice. I’d say this exercise offers a great first step to describing characters well. The next step might be to actually meet the people you see regularly, get to know them, and see how accurate your portrayals of them are.

Here’s to great character development as we write!

photo by Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore), under a creative commons license

One Comment

  1. I loved reading this! I often make observations about my neighbors as I walk to my car or in other brief moments throughout the day but I never realized the value that could have in my creative writing. Cheers to you Rachel!

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