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.

The Running Woman

Most mornings I see her, jogging past my window.  She’s going from somewhere, to somewhere else but I doubt I’ll ever know where those two places are, the origin and the destination.  All I know is, she jogs.  She isn’t dressed as most joggers are, in shorts, sweats and lycra tops with heart monitoring armband or ipod ear buds.  She wears jeans, shirt and overcoat with a backpack on her back.  She looks like she’s going to work, or shopping or the  bus stop and is permanently a little late.

She intrigues me.  I wonder about her; where she’s come from and where she’s headed and more importantly, why she’s dressed like that for jogging.  She’s not fat so it can’t be that she’s embarrassed to be seen in jogging clothes and wants everyone who might see her to think she’s running for a bus.  She has a normal figure, a figure I’d be happy to have and if I did, I’d wear lycra and not care who saw me jogging.

Maybe she’s just crazy, a nutjob and this is the way her particular madness expresses itself.  If so, it’s a good and healthy madness.

For the first time, yesterday I saw her walking.  The same jeans, the same overcoat and backpack but walking this time.  Maybe she’s got a new alarm clock.  Maybe she’s got new meds. Now she intrigues me even more; why is she just walking?

She inspires me to write a character around her for one of my short stories.