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Monday, April 16, 2012

People Watching

Not long ago while working through some difficult revisions, I noticed I was slacking in a certain area.  Over and over again, I avoided giving descriptors (other than names) to my secondary characters. 

With some flat characters this is okay.  Brief mention of a name might be all you need.  But if a character will be interacting more than once with your protagonist, you probably owe your reader more.  In my case, I avoided "showing" my characters because I'd run out of ideas for making them look, act, and speak differently from each other.

What can an author do when the characterization well runs dry?  A possible answer: People Watching.

"People watching" is one of my teenage daughter's favorite past times.  She shamelessly peeps at other drivers while they pick their noses, flirt with dates, and sing along with the radio.  (Next time you think you're safe in the privacy of your own vehicle, you might want to think again!)

It isn't just bored teenagers who can capitalize on other people's quirky behaviors.  Authors benefit from engaging in this activity by coming home with varied and vivid descriptions for their characters.  The woman at the corner table in Starbucks might lend unusual hand gestures to your new protagonist.  The unshaven man at the bus stop who hunches his shoulders while shoving his hands deep into his pockets might become the homeless man who witnessed the crime.
 
I decided to do a little people watching of my own, and, after giving several individuals a crawling sensation on the backs of their necks (You know the feeling.  You experienced it in junior high school when that creepy kid on the back row kept staring at you.), I came home with a helpful list of descriptions to flesh out my description-starved characters.

The intimidating character on page 150 inherited a cataract-scarred eye from the scruffy fellow at church who kept watching me. (If I find my doppelganger in your bestselling novel, you owe me a thank-you letter, buddy!)  The scholarly council member who makes his appearance a few pages later can thank a slender orthopedic surgeon for his height, build, and curly hair.  I added a few details of my own, of course, but those first visual impressions are what got the creative juices flowing.

If you decide to dive into people watching, here are a few friendly suggestions:

Suggestion Number 1:  Wear a pair of mirrored sunglasses.  You can stare a little longer without getting dirty looks.

Suggestion Number 2:  Take a small notebook to record your impressions.  You can also use it to write down those priceless phrases you overhear like, "Take a picture, Loser!  It will last longer!"

Good luck and happy watching!