Writing Believable Characters – 3. Observation

Reading inspires empathy. When we read a good story we follow the ups and downs of the characters travelling on their adventures with them. The same applies with writing characters


Image by enric archivell via Flickr

In order to create a good sense of characterization a writer will often learn to engage in a bit of people-watching. No, I don’t mean that you should follow strangers around observing their every move, like you’re doing a field study. As with all things people-watching should be done in moderation.

You may naturally be an observer. You may naturally be interested in what other people are saying and doing, but if you are stuck where to start observing, here’s some ideas:

1. Friends and Family – Watch them for a little while. It doesn’t have to be long, it can be a few seconds. Again, you may already do this. What do you think they are thinking and feeling? What are their struggles and beliefs? How do they react in certain circumstances?

2. Strangers – Similar to above. You might be in a café or on a bus and see people interacting or overhear conversations. What are people talking about? Does someone seem out-of-place or nervous? Is someone else overconfident or trying to hard? If you listen you’ll often hear many stories going on that put you into other circumstances.

3. Situations – This involves putting yourself into someone else’s situation and thinking, what would I do? How would I feel? How do I think that they feel? People will often criticize celebrities without considering themselves in that position.  I will usually wonder what it must be like for the person involved. This sort of thinking helps develop empathy.

people on walkway

Image by yewenyi via Flickr

You don’t have to go out and do these things deliberately. You certainly don’t want all these things floating around in your head when you sit down to write a scene. You should, hopefully, be thinking more about the story when you’re writing.Instead just be a bit more receptive to what is happening with other people. After all, much of writing good characters is balancing caring about your characters along with telling the story. If you care about them then chances are the reader will too. 

Above all, remember to do what works for you personally.


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