Looking for Mr, Mrs or Ms Right: People-watching for fictional characters

Every fiction writer has different methods for working out who their characters are. I find mine in TV shows, novels, non-fiction works, and of course, day to day life.

If you know me personally, then yes, it’s likely that at least a part of you will appear in one of my stories. Don’t be worried though as I would never make someone I know out to be evil (or just plain embarrassing) in any way and still be recognisable as that person. I promise! I take only small portions of a person’s behaviour or traits and join them up with others to make a new character (most of the time).

Quite often, I might notice a behaviour or way of dressing or standing while travelling on a train – a perfect place for people-watching! Each carriage section is like a micro-society, a forced grouping of people who want nothing to do with each other while carrying on conversations with their travelling partner as if they aren’t squished into a seat with strangers.

Another way of sourcing personality traits and quirks is at parties or large events. Being a generally reserved person I am an expert at this as while everyone else is chatting, sharing stories, mingling and moving from one person to the next, I’m usually sitting in a corner observing and listening. I don’t sit in stony silence, of course, but offer the occasional comment, smart-arse remark, or question just to show I’m still alive.

People-watching allows for characters to develop in the background of the imagination. It provides an innate understanding of human nature that comes across as more natural in a storyline. For specific details on individual psychology I refer to books. My bookshelf holds a collection of biographies, psychological references, self-help texts, and history books. From these, I find character-types to suit particular time-periods, behaviour patterns, cultures, and psychological profiles.

For instance, in my upcoming novel, one of the characters is derived from Women who run with the wolves by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes, The Great Cosmic Mother by Monica Sjoo & Barabara Mor, and numerous other books similar in subject matter. Her personality is aloof and otherworldly as she has grown out of archetypes of the goddess across different cultures. She’s certainly the type of character I haven’t picked up from a train ride into the city (even late on a Saturday night)!

Regular characters (as in those with no particular super powers) are instigated by people I’ve met or seen on television. I note the traits that caught my attention and then research how a person like that might evolve. Each of my current “world” of characters has a family history going back two generations and a life-resume of what they’ve achieved up to the point they appear in my story (yes, that could be construed as a tendency for anal retentiveness, but I should point out that I’m into genealogy as well). This way, I understand how they might react in a given situation and the writing of particular scenes will come smoothly. Also, their place in the story has a more secure footing.

I’ve been working on my manuscript this week and cut several characters. The ones that went were the ones who were fillers. They had no background, no personality, in some cases, no name. This doesn’t mean that I won’t cut a fully-researched character from the story if it’s not working just that the ones with a bit of depth stand a better chance of surviving the editing stage.

As I like to finish posts by sharing a few tips, here are my top 3 for developing characters

#1           Always take a notebook and pen (or Smartphone) on public transport so you can scribble a few notes when needed. The electronic device might work better if you’ve got one as it looks like your texting rather than note-taking…

#2           Wear sunglasses wherever possible. They allow for less-obvious surveillance of the funny looking/sounding/acting person across the carriage/aisle/backyard from you (sorry, I have no tip for covert surveillance indoors but please feel free to post some in the comment box)

#3           Be open in allowing different personalities into your life. You don’t have to love them all, but in accepting that everyone has the right to be who they are and listened to, you’ll have much more fodder for your stories.

My “as yet to be titled” novel is due out by Christmas.

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7 thoughts on “Looking for Mr, Mrs or Ms Right: People-watching for fictional characters

  1. I’m exactly like you in that I find inspiration in the people I interact with. I’ve been traveling a lot for my job lately and I’ve been so inspired by the handsome pilot in the airport or the front desk clerk at the posh Seattle hotel that looks like she’s going to cry at any moment. And then all the male characters in the things I’m working on tend to look like actor Jensen Ackles in my head because he’s just so perfect. And I love that you create family history for your characters. I try to do that, too, because that ensures that not all my characters react the same way to the same things because their histories and life experiences are so varied. It’s also half the reason I feel like I’ll never get my novel written – too much time focusing on the backstory!

    • I know what you mean, Rachel. A lot if my hero characters look a bit like Richard Armitage… Doing individual bios helps get past the pre-conceived notions in my head. Thanks for commenting so soon after I posted. Good luck with your writing.

  2. Pingback: Finding Fictional Characters | THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER: A Modern Gothic Romance

  3. It’s an interesting question. A friend of mine asked me where I got the ideas for the main characters in my recently published novel King’s Ransom, and I genuinely couldn’t answer the question. Even when I thought about it, and I found myself with a mental picture of some of the characters, there was no-one I could knowingly reference.

    Perhaps one indication is that I am generally not a very visual person: I like what I see when I see it. Whereas I really love words with a passion.
    .

    • Usually they’re a mix of influences from the people you know to who you see at the movies/TV to the those you pass by in the street. I don’t put too much into it as I generally take in more than I realise, but if I hear a really great line or word or quirky observation, I’ll keep it. And usually it will relate to what I’m working on, which is quite convenient.

      Thanks for dropping by, John.

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