Writing Tip #5: Catching a Character

Do you ever see a stranger and that person catches your eye? You look again. What draws your interest? Why did you give that person more than a glance?

I love to people watch. There’s a man who visits the mall every day. Well, at least every day we go walking. He always wears an expensive suit, white shirt, and tie with matching pocket handkerchief. Soft-looking leather shoes. Omar and I have speculated on why he’s there, often just sitting on a bench. We assume he’s retired from a job where he dressed up to go to work every day. I think his wife died as well. Someday we may talk with him, get the real story, but until then we’ll let our imaginations run wild.

It’s fun to people watch, but as a writer you can take it further. Be intentional when someone catches your eye. Write down the details. Ask yourself what you see, but also jot down questions you can write about later.

One night in an upscale restaurant I saw an older man with a younger woman. She sported the largest diamond solitaire I’d ever seen, but no wedding band. They were talking earnestly, bordering on heatedly. I have practiced writing dialogue by assuming they were engaged and he was pressuring her to set the wedding date, or that he was the father of the woman, trying to talk her out of marriage to a rich, but shallow man. Take my two people and come up with a situation of your own.

Again at the mall, there was a man who sat at a kiosk. I never saw anyone stop to buy something, and the man was always on the phone. He wore really nice pants and a silk shirt beneath a sports coat. He didn’t look short of money. What was his story?
Write down what small thing that stood out, the inconsistent detail, the special characteristic. You can play with these details later, imagining characters based on them. You might give a character a similar, unusual characteristic. Be sure you know how your character got that jagged scar, why he always wears a boutonnière.

Once you get started noticing and writing things down, your subconscious will incorporate oddities or quirks and save them, ready at your fingertips, to give your characters more depth.


About Penny

Penny Durant is the award-winning author of CHILD OF EL SALVADOR, narrative nonfiction set in the late 1980s in civil war-torn El Salvador and New Mexico. She has also published nine childrens books, and is a frequent workshop provider, novel writing teacher, editor, and critiquer. She has written two adult novels, "true life stories." Two of her pieces have been put to music by composer Michael Mauldin and performed in the region.
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2 Responses to Writing Tip #5: Catching a Character

  1. Jean Jenkins says:

    I like your observations. I write non-fiction, but I also pay attention to ordinary people and occurences because they often provide insight for my blog and/or book.

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