Character Building #1–What to Look for When People Watching

Sorry I haven’t really posted in this week. I’ve been weirdly busy. I’m still working on the third and final Mistborn novel by Brandon Sanderson. I’m loving it, and a review for the series will be coming shortly.

But hey! I’m here. Posting and everything.

Let’s talk about characters.

I love characters. They are the number one thing that draws me into a book. A bad plot can be forgiven with good characters. A great plot can sink with flat, fake, boring characters. I know authors who do it well, and authors who kinda suck at it. I’ve read waaaaaaaaaay to many blog posts about other people’s advice for building characters.

But as I’m editing my own novel, realizing that I need to overhaul basically the entire plot, I’m turning to the characters I’ve written, trying to make them better, deeper, realer–anything. Since I like reading character driven books over more plot based books, it makes sense that I would write a novel heavily invested in the characters I’m creating.

I have lots of other bloggers’ advice clattering around in my mind, which is sort of psyching me out, making me second-guess the characters I’ve built and the ones I’m still refining. I’ve read a lot of good characters, but I’m having trouble pinpointing what about them was good, or different–basically, what strategies I should steal.

I’m going to have a series of blog posts about how I approach characterization, my thoughts about other people’s advice, and what I see in published works. I’m trying to get my own thoughts in order, and I hope it will help other people in my own situation.

Here’s my first one:

What To Look For When People Watching

Reading helps. Reading blog posts about building characters helps.

But, for me, the best way to translate that vague half-formed character idea into a real, interesting, complex person on the page is to people watch.

I go to high school, and my novel is set in high school, so just keeping my ears open during the lag times in class is probably my most beneficial strategy. I get exposed to airheads and athletes and hard-core AP-ers (is that a term?) for free all the time. I have to go to school anyway. When it gets boring, I’ll think about my characters.

(Though technically, right now, I’m out of school, and it’s actually getting inconvenient. I’m trying to plot characters the likes of which I haven’t spent time with in close to two months. It is frustrating, to say the least.)

I people watch anywhere, especially if I’m bored. Restaurants, clothing stores, side walks, the people driving in the car next to me in traffic (don’t worry, I don’t have my licence yet, so I’m not behind the wheel).

I don’t advise watching people to exactly copy their character. You can’t just inject a person you like or find interesting into your plot–it won’t feel right to the reader. Also, your characters should be completely understood by you (or as much as possible); trying to copy another person without literally being that person means that you sacrifice your own story-telling instincts to the reality you’re trying to capture into the pages of your novel.

So what do I look for?

Details. Things that stand out to me about them. The thing that makes this person different from that person.

In other words, quirks.

If I’m talking to my friends, I’m noting their mannerisms, speech patterns, insecurities, annoying and/or charming habits. Anything that I could add to a character to make them feel realer, without me having to do any hard work in the manuscript.

Examples (notes I’ve taken recently):

  • a person’s voice that goes up when they lie
  • hypochondria
  • a distinctive bracelet/anklet/necklace/ring
  • a person who just sucks at unlocking doors (I’m looking at you, sis)
  • a color scheme of clothing they always wear
  • a way of sitting (on the arm of a sofa, backwards on a chair, etc.)
  • tapping out rhythms to songs on their leg (or, more specifically, walking through the motions of, for example, playing the song on the piano on their leg)
  • a certain ringtone on their cell phone
  • the design on a T-shirt (if it is geeky or retro or exceptionally trendy)
  • the vernacular people use in texts/status updates/Snapchats/etc.

What you want is a small detail that instantly gives the reader a wider or deeper understanding of the character.

You have to balance your use of the detail. You can’t mention it once and never again–it’s not doing anything for you. You can’t mention it every time the character appears in the story–then the character is reduced to only that detail. You have to string it through the story, subtly enough that the reader doesn’t even notice it, but that it makes their picture of the character clearer.

Some of these details should be used to extenuate the basic values of the character you’ve painted. Your shallow girl student doesn’t just text in class, but really blatantly. The librarian has to play with the pages of a book as they read. Your agile, ninja character doesn’t sit in a chair, but perches on it.

Other details should be surprising, drawing you into the character. Your BAMF Buffy-esque character has a habit of falling off/out of chairs. The gossip queen has a horrible memory for faces. Your computer hacker still hunts and pecks.

But the details can’t be too out of sync with the character you’ve created. It has to be interesting, but the reader still has to buy it. You want your reader to say, Oh, that’s funny…but wait, that actually makes sense. Not, what is this author doing?

We do this all the time in real life. As you meet a person, you learn more of their habits and quirks, and they slowly fill in your picture of them. Even if they at first seem weird, once you know the person well enough, you realize it’s actually just an extension of another part of their personality.

This isn’t advice to build a character from scratch. I use this technique to flesh out characters I’ve already started writing. The quirk isn’t their entire character, it’s just that twitch that your main character always notices.

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