People Watching

Everyone has their own opinion of how to be a better writer and how to make your writing better. There aren’t many writing questions that can be posed without Stephen King offering tidbits of wisdom. Whenever faced with the question of how to become a better writer, I always turn to his response that you must read more and write more. Words of wisdom and words to live by–as a writer, anyway. But what if we broke it down to components. I think most of us have areas we try to emphasize or that become very important to us as we craft our images to paper. One of mine–at least at the moment–is character development. A technique I believe is vital to this step is People Watching.

My wife and I both come from therapy backgrounds–occupational and physical respectively. We have found ourselves over the years sitting on benches such as the one above and watching people as they come and go. Then without even consciously thinking about it, we begin to notice issues within the way they move. Details that make each one unique and we speculate on the why. This developed a habit inside me to pay attention to seemingly mundane details–details that provide realism and believability in the context of a story.

I also learned to watch not just with my eyes but with ears also. I focused on their speech, the conversation people had. This translated to more complete dialogue especially when you store a detail away from an example which strays far from the norm. Someone has a peculiarity, some trait that makes them stand out. The way the intonate, a repetitive mannerism or word used in conversation. All of these details that are lost to most of us as we walk through our lives each day become important to the believability and survivability of our story world and its characters.

Even when I listened to conversation spoken in languages I could not understand. This removes this focus from the words and puts the emphasis on the passion with which the words are spoken and the dynamics of the body as the person speaks. Are they unable to sit or stand still? Do they punctuate every word with dynamic hand and arm movements? Is their head bouncing around as much as their lips are moving?

The point is that the world around us is our greatest resources. Unfortunately, it is one that can be wasted or at least not used to its fullest. We may spend quite some time looking at setting and crafting words to create that same vivid image on the page. A few short weeks ago, I referenced taking pictures and using them later to create a setting. But how many times do we look at the tiniest details? Someone’s gait pattern–it could end up being the giveaway that gets a perpetrator caught in a crime thriller. An odd formal sounding speech–that may provide a single detail that readers will forever identify with that character. It could be a twitch of the eye or repetitive head jerk that allows the character to stand out from the crowd.

If you are struggling to find that next detail, that one thing you can’t put on a finger on that seems to be missing. That item which you feel your story needs to really shine. Don’t forget about the simplest, cheapest, and most available resource to a writer. Head out to the mall, the park, or even just a parking lot and people watch.

And, hey, sometimes people watching makes your chaos not seem so chaotic.

Character Development

It should be obvious to most that you can’t have a successful story without successful characters. What defines a successful character? While there may be many answers to this question, the one I want to focus on today is believability. In my opinion, unrealistic characters can kill a story before it ever gains momentum. To combat that, the writer must spend some time on character development. I mean a butcher is not going to use dull knives, a lumberjack will not start the day without having sharpened his saw blades. Why would a writer begin a story without developed characters?

What constitutes a defined–or developed–character? That is where the individualism of the writer comes into play. It becomes a judgment call and depends greatly on which end of the plotter/plotster/pantster spectrum the writer finds himself. While I would not consider myself a plotter by any means, I choose to err on the side of caution with character development. Why would I risk ruining a perfectly good plot by inserting incomplete characters?

You might counter: Well who is to say they are incomplete? The reader for one. Unless you are writing solely for your own statisfaction, most of us are searching for readers who will enjoy the stories and characters we create. So, yes Virginia, that reader’s opinion of your character development is important.

So, now what?

Enter the questionnaire. My early forays into character development found me simply jotting down notes about my character’s name, nicknames, physical description, job, etc. I honestly thought the most significant use of such a document would be to ensure consistency by giving me something to refer back to when I couldn’t remember a specific trait. After a couple of courses where I was exposed to the presence of formal character questionnaires, I soon realized how much I was truly limiting myself and my characters.

Perform a search and you will find several examples of character questionnaires in differing lengths and complexity (one of my favorites is the Proust Questionnaire from the August 2011 issue of Vanity Fair). Are they all necessary, perhaps not. Only you can decide which one to use or whether to scrap them entirely and create your own. Not to mention the fact that the degree of detail varies greatly according to character importance. A supporting character doesn’t necessarily need as extensive a background as your hero or heroine. (And keep in mind that the bulk of the information you will record in a character development tool is for your own benefit. Your reader will likely never see the bulk of it.)

Wait a minute. Hold the phone. So, I’m going to write a lengthy blurb defining all these various details about my character and then never use it. Not exactly, but maybe … yes.

I feel your pain. I can remember thinking how ridiculous it was to answer these questions about my characters especially if I wasn’t going to include most of the information within my writing. Then something strange happened. As I completed my assignments and answered the questions (not to mention adapted the questionnaires to my own style), I suddenly began meeting my characters. It was as if I had started reading a biography centered on my character. I begin to learn things about them I never considered.

As I resumed writing my narratives, my characters began to respond in a richer, more complete, and more realistic manner. I didn’t have to think as hard about their actions. It was as if they were alive on the page. Not only had they stood up and introduced themselves to me, they were directing their own responses and interactions within the fictional world I had placed them in. I simply had to hold on for the ride. The initial investment in time and effort I had expended to fill out those questions was gaining a return many times over in the production of the story I had planned to write.

Is character development and character questionnaires a daunting task? It certainly can be. Is it worth it? In my opinion, absolutely. But, you will have to decide for yourself.

If you currently use some form of questionnaire for character development, leave a comment sharing your thoughts and experience below. If you haven’t tried one, experiment and let us know what you think. Even if you are in the middle of a story, you can still use one. It could prove beneficial not only to the completion of your work but also as you begin to revise. If you still think it’s a load of hog wash, let us know that too. I want to hear from all sides.

Just because I use questionnaires to bring order out of chaos doesn’t mean they will be everyone’s cup of tea. But isn’t your writing worth putting the effort forth to at least try?