Writing Great Characters Step 1 – People Watching

child-laughingWriting great characters is one reason why we write. Right? We get to imagine being a whole other person – lots of them – and the better we put ourselves in our character’s heart, mind, and body, the more we give our reader a strong, effective and touching experience. It’s the essence of the art.

But first we need to have a character to write about. I’m talking starting from scratch here, when the last story is done and we’re wandering about with an empty imagination waiting for the next to arrive. Who will we imagine?

The good news is, they are all around us. Characters are everywhere.

Eyes Wide Open

Plant yourself on a bus bench. In a mall, at the fountain in the town square, anywhere you will see masses of people moving. (I come from a massage therapist’s perspective, so I prefer movement.) Sit still, open your eyes, and as far as possible without staring, look at them.

You’ll see people. They’ll be moving. Then you will notice something – they all move differently. That guy with his head high and chest out, striding forward like he’s going to conquer the day and save the damsel; that laughing fat man with the rosy face who carries his weight like a point of pride; that other fat man with the complexion of underdone pastry who looks like he’s drowning inside himself; that young girl with an armful of books, moving slowly with eyes wide open because there’s just so much to see. She’s the one who catches you looking.

See? Do you really see? Every body shape, every variation of movement and set of face and style of dress, tells you something about the person inside. And your writer’s mind creates the story behind the moment. Your fabulous writer’s mind, always and forever asking the magic question Why. Then you will start to know why the little girl smiles when she sees you, and why the conqueror has such a bold stride but looks so frightened.

Inside Their Skin

Just like that, you have the beginnings of a great character. Lots of them, in fact. Just by looking. Take out your notebook – you brought it along, right? – and jot down the salient points of your favourites.

What’s next? Seeing is good, but a thoroughly-imagined character is much more than skin deep. Next, you get inside their skin. We’ll save that for another post. For now, go out and watch people.