Workshop: The Observation
By Lazette Gifford
Coming up with descriptions of characters,
especially those just passing through the story, is often an annoyance. It
can sometimes become difficult when you want that character to be more than
a faceless puppet, but you don't want to take too much time to write him
up. These characters aren't going to be around long enough to worry about
-- and yet you know you need to make them real for the role they fill,
however briefly they appear.
So how can you easily create these people?
You can do it by taking note of the people
around you. Literally, taking note of them -- and keeping an Observation
You will need some simple way to write down
your notes. Since quite often you'll be doing this away from home, a small
notebook, notecards or a PDA are the best choices. Be prepared to have
these (and a pen or pencil for the paper systems) on hand at all times.
A handheld tape recorder can also work
sometimes, but you'll have to transcribe the material into some print source
in order to use it. Also, there may be times when talking about what you're
seeing is not going to be comfortable for you or the person you are
Make a master list of needed information:
Reaction (to this person)
At least once a week make an effort to
observe someone you don't know very well. It can be a total stranger or a
neighbor; it might be someone working, walking along the street, or sitting
at a restaurant. Write down your observations in your notebook/notecard/PDA.
Add more information than just the answers to the questions on your master
list -- this is only a short set of cues to get you going.
This is a description of a guy who lives
down the street from me.
Age: Mid thirties
Body Shape: about 5'9" and
stocky though not fat
Hair: light brown, blond in
places during the summer
Face, skin: round face, small
eyes, narrow mouth. Perpetually tanned, even in the winter, from being
Clothing type: plain clothes,
usually jeans and a pullover shirt. Light coat in winter
Actions: always on the move.
I've never seen him sit still. And he often stalks rather than walks, with
his legs slightly apart and his arms at his sides.
Voice: I've never heard him
talk. I have heard him yell, quite often.
Other: Married, three kids,
wife rarely seen
Reaction: He seems to be one
of those people who is perpetually angry. Even when he and the kids are out
in the yard supposedly having fun, he's yelling and cursing.
I could add could add far more information
if I had the time or inclination, but this, to me, is an excellent set of
short descriptions to get me moving on a character I might need in the
So, I have these observations -- what do I
do with it? What if I'm not writing about some guy living down the street
from my main character? Maybe I'm writing a fantasy novel, instead.
The man who worked the stables had
sun-bleached hair, cut unfashionably short, and skin tanned dark brown.
He stalked out of the barn as though going to battle, and demanded what
we needed. After asking for our horses, he turned around with a grunt
and went back to the barn, yelling and cursing at the people there as
though we had asked for something difficult, rather than for our two
Whey you reach a point in your story where
you need someone quickly, leaf through your observation diary, and you are
apt to find an entry to fit the role. No need to think much about the
character since he's barely going to be on the stage for a paragraph or two.
You might then mark in your diary where you
have used this character. It won't matter if you use the same basics for
several different stories, but it might help you see when you look for a
certain character type and might help you expand your 'actors' by choosing
someone else instead.
You can expand your observations to include
other things, like places, weather, animals -- just about anything that
might come up in a story can be observed in the real world. Looking for
aliens? Go to a zoo and make note of the behavior of animals there. Want
to write about a busy space port? Try a bus station or an airport lounge,
if you happen to be traveling somewhere. Don't miss the chance to take note
of anything that might be helpful. Be prepared by having the needed tools
to make those notes.
You might find it easier to do some of your
observations as paragraphs rather than lists. If so, be certain that you
tag it at the top so that you can easily sort them out later.
Small red truck with black
details and topped with a matching red camper. Not new, but well-kept,
washed and waxed. All the hubcaps match. This is not a work truck.
So what does that little description get
How about this for a science fiction story?
I piloted the
Moonstar into the berth beside a
small, well-kept skimmer -- not a work ship, from the looks of it, with
its still shiny red exterior and black detailing. The little craft said
'rich' in an unobtrusive way, and it made me wonder who else had shown
up at home for our meeting.
Once a week make an effort to describe a
person and something else from your list. Build up an inventory of
easy-to-access material that will help you fill in those background places
and people, and make your fiction worlds seem more alive. This is an easy
workshop, but it's one that you need to keep at and update often. Keep the
tools on hand to write the material down. These thirty or forty words now
can save you half an hour later, trying to imagine something simple to drop
into place in your story.