The Power of People Watching

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
Henry David Thoreau

FFISummer092253Almost four years ago, I stood in an apartment parking lot with twenty-three strangers from all over the country. We made awkward conversation, silently sizing one another up and wondering how people so different would ever survive a semester together.

That summer was the best of my life with some of the most unique personalities I’ve ever had the privilege to know. In class, we studied personalities, strengths and weaknesses, character, opinions, and worldview. I knew how each person reacted in the midst of passion, anger, joy, or grief. I knew struggles and victories. Our common denominator was a desire to lead and a heart for the Lord.

And I had to know my characters the same way.

Through these people and because of that summer, I had ideas to propel me into my first book. My characters took on the physical traits and personality of one of my roommates. My supporting characters share names in common with some of the guys.

The best characters are the ones the reader can relate to as a close friend, soul mate, enemy, or victim. The best stories emerge from the people, places, and experiences around us.FFISummer090523

Spending night and day with these people for two months taught me the beautiful complexity of people’s stories. It also taught me the depth of people. The best stories come from people watching, from intimately engaging in life, and embracing the good and bad.

As I work on my current WIP, I watch the people around me. I study emotional reactions, goofy quirks, language patterns, clothing style, facial expressions, and character. Slowly, my characters take shape on the page. Fair warning: if you are in my vicinity, one of your odd habits may make it into my book.

As writers, we tend to isolate. Or at least some of us do. We are content to people watch without interacting. Big problem. As Thoreau said, writing is flat if the writer has not lived.

Get out of your chair. Abandon your laptop. Spend time with friends and family. Sit at your favorite park or Starbucks. Take a note pad and record people’s conversations. Listen to the words they use, how they form sentences. Interact with the guy behind the counter or the people walking their dogs. Engage them in conversation.

Live and live well. Abundantly and fully. Engage with people intimately, not for the sake of a story or character, but because every person we cross paths with has a story that can teach us something about life and the Lord and yes, even writing.

People are weird and quirky and complex. We all have different personalities and reactions. People are full of surprises and opinions. Fashion your characters that way, too. God created people in His own image. Fall in love with them. Embrace the uniqueness. Embrace your uniqueness. Then write with eyes wide open, heart full, and a mind overflowing with memories to make your stories rich.

Have you people watched lately?

The ‘Real Stuff’ of Character Building

A few years ago, my sister gave me a t-shirt that reads, “Careful or you will end up in my novel.” She meant it as a joke, but the truth is that my t-shirt does not lie: for me, every person I meet is a potential character in my mystery series. Like every writer, my writing is informed by my experiences and that includes experiences of people.

That said, none of my fictional characters are ‘real.’ Though they may be inspired by someone I meet, I usually take my creative license very seriously and make my characters composites of traits that fit the needs of my story lines. For example, I met a charming World War II veteran at a dinner speaking engagement last fall. He kept everyone at the table laughing with his wisecracks and his stories of being an ordnance (explosives expert) officer during his military career. When he noted that he still had all ten original fingers, I knew I had to use that line in a novel, so I began to formulate the character of Vern Metternick in my upcoming release.

What was even more surprising to me – and especially delightful! – was that as I developed the character and his relationships with other characters in the book, I realized his explosives experience could lead to a key, and very funny, scene in the novel that I had not anticipated. So my chance dinner partner unknowingly not only gave me the kernel for a wonderful character, but also actually helped shape the plot of the book. It really is true that authors can create characters, but not always control them, and I say that’s a good thing! Especially when those characters can solve knotty plot problems and make the book even better than I had planned.

There is also a flip side to my t-shirt – on occasion, I do use real people in my mystery series. Since my books deal with current conservation issues, and I aim for strong local connections, I use real places in my books, and actual experts in the story. I always ask those folks for permission to write them into the novel and then thank them in my acknowledgments. To put them at ease, I promise not to make them murderers (unless they ask to be!), and I generally give them an overview of how they’ll fit into the story. So far, no one has turned me down, and I get a real-life connection out of it that my readers love…not to mention one more person who is almost as excited as I am when the book debuts!

As a result, I assure my friends who see my shirt that their secrets are safe with me. Besides, they can always take comfort in that lovely disclaimer that prefaces fiction: “Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.”

And if you believe that, I have some ocean-front property in Arizona I’d be happy to sell you.

Where do your characters come from?

 

Emotional Development of Characters

Image: graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last year I drew The Emotional Development of Characters as the topic for my speaking engagement at the Tucson Festival of Books. Part of me was delighted; developing characters is one of my favorite parts of writing. The other part was terrified. Character development, like many aspects of writing, is very individual to the writer, and while I knew how I did it, it wasn’t exactly easy to explain, nor was I entirely convinced the majority of what I did wasn’t done subconsciously. Still, I took the challenge and came up with  a few pointers any writer might use as a starting point. Since Tuesday is a day for sharing about writing on the WordServe Water Cooler, I share those tips here with hopes someone might find them useful.

What do you remember most when you finish a really good novel? Are you left in awe at the amazing plot? Or do you have lingering thoughts about the characters? For most readers, it’s the characters they identify with more than anything. That’s because to care about what happens in a story the reader must care about its characters. So, how do you create characters your audience will care about?

One time literary agent, now children’s book author, Nathan Bransford once tweeted: In great novels, every character has their own set of goals, vices, and motivations and no one is purely good or evil.

In other words, they are human. One way to make it easier to connect to your characters emotionally is to give them some flaw. After all, to err is human. You don’t want to give them just any old flaw, though. It should be an important inner flaw, ideally one that plays off their strength. For instance, someone who is self-disciplined and organized (strength) may also be a control freak or inflexible (weakness). A strong and brave character (strength) may be overprotective and overbearing (weakness). Whatever the flaw, it should prevent the character from being the best they can be. It should get in the way of what they want, resulting in some internal struggle they will eventually face to overcome—or not if your story is a tragedy or the character in question a villain.

I like to think about my characters strength and flaws by getting a glimpse into their personality. There are lots of personality profiles available for a writer to tap into, but I use the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment to sketch my characters’ profiles. It suggests people have different ways of gaining energy (Introversion or Extraversion), being aware of information (Sensing or Intuition), coming to conclusions or decisions about that information (Thinking or Feeling), and ultimately dealing with the world around them (Judging or Perceiving).

If my heroine was Intuitive—trusting interrelationships, theories and future possibilities, her strength might be that she’s aware of others, and she is able to weave together possibilities from bits of information. Her flaw may be that those possibilities are not always based in fact, and therefore she makes decisions using circumstantial evidence. Maybe my hero is Perceiving—adaptable and keeps options open as long as possible. While this allows him to be flexible and go with the flow (strength), it backfires when he adopts a ‘wait and see’ approach when he should be taking affirmative action (flaw).

Once I have my characters’ personalities down, if I’m writing a romance I like to make the hero and heroine as opposite as possible. Those differences are ripe for emotional conflict. Or, maybe the conflict stems from the fact they are too much alike, such as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. Either way, the process of overcoming and resolving those conflicts requires emotional maturity if the couple ever hopes to be together—and that is one part of their emotional development.

Another tool the personality assessment provides me with is the framework for how my characters would realistically act in any given circumstance. You know that adage about sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting? It’s a lie. Words hurt because they are aimed at emotions. How a character reacts (or doesn’t) to internal and external conflict throughout your story should reflect who they are and where they are emotionally at that particular point in time.  More importantly, it should develop as the story progresses, eventually cultivating in some notable change to the character’s emotional self. Understanding your character’s personality, their strength and flaws is a start to making their responses more believable.

What about you? What tips or tools do you use to help readers care about your characters, and by default, their story?