A Tool for Your Writer’s Tool Kit: Observation

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by Becky Wade

Jane Austen was a genius with story in so many ways. One particular skill that I marvel over? Her skill at observing others and then transferring recognizable markers of personality and character to the page.

Think for a moment about just a few of the characters from Pride and Prejudice. What do the following names bring to your mind?

• Elizabeth Bennet and the fabulous supporting cast of her family: Mr. & Mrs. Bennet, Jane, Mary, Kitty, Lydia.
• Mr. Darcy
• Mr. Bingley
• Mr. Collins
• Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter Anne
• Mr. Wickham
• Charlotte Lucas

Each and every character mentioned above is distinct and different. Right? And each one likely reminds us of someone we know in the real world, even now, exactly two hundred years after the book’s publication.

How did Jane do it? Well, in her day she would have spent a great deal of time in the company of other people. Conversing. Socializing. Observing.

In our day, we spend less time sitting around the fireplace talking. We tend to fill our spare moments in front of the TV, the computer, or our cell phones. It’s possible for us to go days without really looking at or hearing people.

If, as authors, we don’t make the effort to observe, we won’t be able to portray fascinating and varied characters in our stories. In some of the manuscripts and novels I read, the characters are all basically the same. That is to say, they may dress differently, have different genders, and be of different ages. But other than that, they’re all… nice. Each one is nice and ordinary and bland.
Undeniably Yours
So what’s the modern writer to do? Here are a few practical ways to sharpen your skills of observation and craft more memorable characters:

Jot down any small snippet of character inspiration. Maybe you see a person on TV who’s a ‘close talker’ — someone who tends to speak right up into the face of other people. Or you notice that your grandfather always wears high water pants. Jot these observations down.

Look. Next time you’re in a line or at the park or stuck at a red light or otherwise confronted with a lull in your routine, don’t pull out your phone. Instead, observe. Maybe the woman ahead of you in line appears to be from the wrong side of the tracks. What, exactly, makes you think so? Notice details about her: the brand of her clothing, her hair style, her nail polish color.

Listen to the speech patterns and accents of the people you come into contact with. All of us have pet words and phrases we use, often without realizing it. The way we speak reflects our personality, our education, our region of the country.

People Watch. Churches, airports, malls, and coffee shops make great people-watching locations. To jump start creativity, take a notepad with you and record the details of the characters you see.

Create a ‘Character Ideas’ file (if you don’t already have one) and put all the ideas you generate into your file. When it comes time to populate a new manuscript, browse through your ideas and shop for characters. I like to mix and match. I might take, for example, the ‘close talker’ from the above example and then give him high water pants.

Marry details to a character in unexpected ways. Instead of making the close talker with the high water pants into an old man, consider making the character into a middle aged woman. Or a teenaged boy. Or a ninety year old single lady who’s never been married.

Here’s to our characters! Let’s stretch our creative muscles when creating them. The sky’s the limit. There’s a whole world full of diverse people ready to fill your story and charm your readers.

Becky WadeBecky Wade lives in Dallas with her husband and three children. Her CBA debut, My Stubborn Heart, was nominated for an INSPY and RITA award. Undeniably Yours, the first in the Porter Family Series, is available now. Becky loves to connect with fellow writers via her web site at beckywade.com and facebook!

Comments 0

  1. I was just thinking about this yesterday while watching Wheel of Fortune (I love that show!). There was a contestant who made a thousand facial expressions during the course of the show! When she called a letter, her face instantly scrunched up in this look of guarded expectation. When Pat was talking to her, her eyes went wide, like she was waiting for him to throw a heavy object at her. It was quite comical! She’s definitely showing up in one of my novels!

  2. Thanks, Rachel, Linda, and Ian! Gabrielle — yes! Exactly. Once you’ve opened yourself to observe people, you begin to see ‘characters’ everywhere. Your description of the lady on Wheel of Fortune was terrific. I can visualize her already. 🙂

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