Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Workshop: The Observation Diary

By Lazette Gifford
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 Diary.

 Step 1:

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 observing.

Step 2:

Make a master list of needed information:



                    Body shape


                    Face, skin

                    Clothing type



                    Reaction (to this person)

Step 3

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.

                    Gender: Male

                    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 outside.

                    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 future.

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 mounts.

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. 

Step 4

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 me?

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.