Tips for Building Characters: People Watching

On Sunday, I posted a short vignette about the experiences of the people around you when you are at a mass transit terminal. I used a railway station as an example but it could easily apply to large bus stations and airports, or these days anywhere you might see a large group of people – you may get a similar experience at a food court at a large shopping centre. A food court may also be far more conducive to overhear conversation that you might build a story around.

I want to expand Sunday’s idea further into how we as writers can learn from the people around us and build characters and stories based on the experiences we see. You will need a pen and paper for this (Something that writers should carry practically everywhere they go). Choose one person and…

London Waterloo Station. The UK’s busiest railway station demotix.xom
  1. Look at them: What assumptions can you make about them based purely on their clothes, their manner, how they move. Do they have any notable features? Do they walk funny? Notice every little thing about them that might be valuable. Are they alone or in a group? What emotions can you see played out on their face?
  2. Notice how they interact: Our characters do not exist in a bubble so watch them with others. Do they appear nervous or irritated being in a crowd or does it not faze them at all? Do they seem to be on a planet of their own? Are they so engrossed in their phone or their ipad? Are they themselves watching other people. When they do, how do they look? Are they ogling somebody they are attracted to? Do they look suspicious when confronted with a certain “type” of person?
  3. Write a physical description: Later you are going to flesh out your character based on these notes. Try to notice the small things. Are their shoes buffed? Is his/her jacket dirty, colours etc. It’s the small details you are going to need here. Are they wearing a wedding or engagement ring?
  4. Write a bio: A few brief words here should do. Speculate at what they do for a living, their education level, their religious beliefs, their sexuality if you think you can take a good guess, their marital status (and whether they have children), where they have come from, where they are going and their state of mind
  5. Think about a back story: Not much, just a few notes will do. Why did he look suspicious when that group of loud teenagers fell into step behind him? You could ask, but it is much more fun to speculate – perhaps he was mugged, perhaps his suspicion of young people is based on no more than tabloid rhetoric. Why did they look down at the ground when somebody attractive passed? Perhaps he is nervous and awkward in front of women, perhaps she spotted an ex-boyfriend she’d rather avoid. The possibilities are endless here.
  6. When you get back: write a short character piece incorporating all of your notes and see where it takes you. It might just stay as it is or you might fight that questions come up in the course of the story that will allow you to flesh out a piece of short fiction
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3 thoughts on “Tips for Building Characters: People Watching

  1. Jools

    Excellent advice and a great way to exercise the creative imagination. So many opportunities to deploy the writer’s trusty notepad!

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