People Watching and Developing Fictional Characters

I spend more time than I should just staring out windows. It’s not that there’s a lot to see here, but you never know what you’ll miss if you don’t happen to be looking at the right moment.

Watching 3

You can observe a lot by just watching.

[Yogi Berra]

Watching 2

You may get real tired watching me,
but I’m not going to quit.

[Harrison Ford]

Watching 1

Discipline is just doing things
the right way
whether anyone’s watching or not.

[Michael J. Fox]

While I’m watching I try to put into practice what my father once told me when we were out hunting: “Look for what doesn’t belong.” Of course, that had us checking out a lot of stumps on hunting trips, but it’s true — a movement, a shadow or shape that wasn’t there before is often what alerts me to the presence of a visitor in the garden.

I like to people-watch, too. In a stadium or on a bus, train or plane there are wonderful opportunities to study the people around me. (I try not to stare, especially in church!) Some of the characters in my novels bear the traits of people I may have seen during one of those times. A few well chosen quirks or tags can make a character memorable.

My characters are totally fictional, not modelled on anyone specific. Seeing them in my head and developing them into believable people within a story may end up with them being a composite of people I’ve seen or known, but it’s important to me that they behave true to their personalities. I can’t combine a random assortment of personality traits and expect the resulting character to be credible. People may act in peculiar ways, but there’s usually a good reason. The writer’s challenge is to find that reason.

One resource I’ve found valuable for ascribing appropriate traits to my characters is the WRITERS GUIDE TO CHARACTER TRAITS: Profiles of Human Behaviors and Personality Types by Linda N. Edelstein, PhD.
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So, I’m curious. How do you develop your characters? How do you select the key personality traits that govern their actions and reactions? Oh, and are you a people watcher? Do you have a method for camouflaging your observations… or do you just go ahead and stare? ;)

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8 thoughts on “People Watching and Developing Fictional Characters

  1. Shari Green says:

    I remember looking for what doesn’t belong (and seeing many stumps). :)

    I haven’t explored that book too much yet, but it does look like a good one!

  2. joylene says:

    They start as visitors in my head, but soon I find I have to see them on the scene to really notice their characteristics. I guess that’s why actors have always fascinated me. Especially those who can change their persona so easily.

  3. Laura Best says:

    I really like listening to the way people speak. Many of us have such a uniqueness when it comes to dialogue. I don’t tend to watch people so much as listen. My characters develop as I write, and I’m constantly learning more about them. It can make for some interesting times. :)

  4. This is a great way to develop your characters–look for what doesn’t belong. And I think it’s great that your dad took you hunting!

  5. elderfox says:

    Morning…at least we don’t have that eastern freeze. I’m always eye-spying people, especially menfolk since I’m not one :) Lately I’ve been on a teen watch (mostly on TV & NEWS & research & me & mine of course) as I plan to include several in Harrison’s story. Hope I’m on the right track this time, but then again, being 82 the teens have sorta faded from memory :) and a lot has changed for them. ( Will have to pick up that book too.)

  6. Carol says:

    Hello to each of you, and thanks for sharing your experience of developing characters and their personalities. Both listening as well as watching are good methods of observation. I can appreciate Earlene’s need to research teens and men. I’ve struggled to write a male POV… really have to focus to get into the right mindset.

  7. My characters are a curious mix. I’m an observer. I’ll take a bunch of qualities I see in people, throw them into a blender, and come up with a unique person. They are shaped by their personal history, their relationship with the Lord (or lack thereof) and others, and their unique purpose in life.

    As a SOTP writer, I allow them to come to grips with their problems and life in general. During edits, if I notice inconsistencies, I can make corrections.

    • Carol says:

      Hi, Susan. It sounds like you have a method that works for you. Sometimes I think I make it too complicated… even dreaming up backstory that explains why my characters are like they are. Thank goodness for those editing opportunities. :)

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