Observation exercise for character development


There’s no getting away from the fact that your story will need people. You will need to invent characters to populate the imaginary world within your stories. Making them honest and believable can be hard; I’ve read books containing characters that seem like robots, so devoid of honest emotion are they. So what can we do to make our characters more real? You practice observing real people, that’s what.

Go into the busiest part your nearest big town or city, find a seat, sit on it, and watch. Have a notepad and pen with you, and an ipod if you must. Watch the people passing you by and ask yourself questions.

What is their mood? How do I know this? What gestures and facial expressions are they making to show me their mood? What is their gait like? Write down the mood you think the person is feeling and everything they’re doing to show you that.

For couple or groups, watch how they interact. What is the group dynamic? What place do each of the people hold within the group? Who’s the leader and who’s the wallflower? What are each of the participants doing to show you all of this? Their facial expressions, gestures, gait, tone of voice, speed of speech, words used (if you can hear their conversation). You can even write each of these things down as a keyword if you find it hard to remember what to look for.

If you see a couple arguing, fantastic. Note those expressions, gestures, voice characteristics etc and see how they differ from the other people you’ve watched. Parents with children will have another unique set of expressions, gestures and voice characteristics. Are they telling the kids off? How are they showing their frustration, irritation, anger?

Groups of youths will interact different from senior citizens, groups of men will be different from single women, police will be different again, stall holders, newspaper salesmen, market traders, every person will have their own unique set of facial expressions, hand/arm gestures, body movements, and voice characteristics to show you their moods. By watching, asking yourself the right questions, and making notes, you will build a valuable store of information to help you show your characters’ moods and interactions in more believable and true way.

This may seem like basic baby-steps kind of stuff, but it’s amazing how little notice we take of each other these days. Our society has become so insular and self centred that we have forgotten how to interact with each other. Everyone seems to be texting or talking on their smart-phones and everyone’s head is permanently turned downwards to look at the little screen in their hands.

We’ve forgotten how to recognise the non-verbal language of our own species, and this is a simple way of getting that skill back again.

Where is the creativity?

Now that self publishing has become the norm, everybody and their uncle are writing books.  It’s wonderful that the book we were always told was inside every one  of us can now be brought into being so easily and that everyone has an equal chance of leaving a creative legacy to the universal consciousness long after they’ve gone.  All those unrealised geniuses of the written word now have a means with which to let their talent blossom.

The problem is that not everyone is a genius wordsmith and many who really shouldn’t be writing, are writing and publishing books.  I’ve noticed more and more in recent months those little signs that give away the absence of real creativity and it bothers me.  For instance, I’ve seen quite a few examples of books containing characters who have been named after other, already famous fictional characters without even the lamest of attempts at changing the name or trying to disguise it.  Just the other day this chick on facebook posted about her book that contained a pair of protagonists named after an extremely famous TV crime duo from the not too distant past.

I know there’s no copyright on names but come on, stealing names of already famous characters is not just lazy and uncool but also smacks of a huge lack of creative ability.  If you can’t even come up with a unique name for your protagonist, then what’s your story line going to be like?  Maybe it’s just me being a perfectionist but every time I see this happening, I cringe.

Another thing I’ve noticed more than once is books that have obviously been based on another famous book or movie and in some cases the story line is almost an exact copy with only the names, locations and peripheral action changed.  Then there are the multi genre books.  You know the thing I mean; the “it’s a vampire/zombie war set in a steampunk environment with an erotic romance between two aliens from different planets who are forbidden to be together by the fairy queen until the ancient dragons have been found/killed.”  The authors of these books don’t have a connection with a specific genre that pulls them and inspires their creativity, so because they can’t decide which to plump for, they shove them all into the pot together and come up with a joke.

Maybe I’m being too harsh but I truly believe that a writer doesn’t ‘want’ to write a book; they write a book because they can’t not write a book.  A writer will always know which genre they ‘must’ write in, without even thinking about it.  It won’t be a conscious choice, it’s hard wired into them.

Where’s the creativity?  Know your limitations and if you have to nick things from the creative work of others, then maybe you should look for another hobby.

One Big Universe

I’ve never blogged about this before and only ever really discussed it with my mother.  I don’t know quite why that should be, I guess it’s never occurred to me to mention it before.  It seems so obvious to me you see that I never thought I was being unusual or unique.

My characters all live in the same universe.

“So what?” I hear you yell.

Well, other books I’ve read don’t seem to make a point of that.  Let me explain.  At the moment I have one complete 4 part series out called The Lilean Chronicles and the first of a new series called The Sinclair V-Logs.  I also have one other stand alone novel finished and in the process of editing.  I’m halfway through writing a second Sinclair V-Log and have 2 other stand alone novels planned for the April and July Camp Nano’s.

All of these novels take place within the same universe.  You’ll meet characters in one series that you first met in a previous series.  For instance, a peripheral character in the last of The Lilean Chronicles series has become the main protagonist in The Sinclair V-Logs.  He is also a peripheral character in one of my stand alone novels and the main protagonist in one of my stand alones has a couple of mentions in one of The Sinclair V-Log novels.  From book to book, series to series to stand alone, you’ll hear planets mentioned that have been visited before or mentioned before in previous series’ or books.

For me, this gives added cohesion to my books; a sense of familiarity that ties them all together.  After all, we actually do live in the same universe, so it makes sense that my characters would too.  It makes me smile when reading one of my books and I come across a name I know from a previous book or series, or hear a character talk about this planet or that planet.  I think to myself  “Oh, I’ve been there in such and such a book.”

When meeting a character that I’ve already met in a previous book, I immediately feel a sense of connection which I feel helps the reader to feel at home in my universe.

I’d be very interested to know your thoughts or observations on this.