People Watching

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We were sitting on the steps leading down to Centennial Park from the parking lot of the old burger joint one night, drinking cheap beer advertised on TV and talking about girls. My friend was older than me, maybe five or six years older, maybe a little more, but he was wise and full of insight to my eighteen year-old self. If I think back, a lot of things my friend told me have stuck. I’ve lost touch with him in the intervening years, but I can hear his voice if I think hard enough.

I tell you that story to tell you this: there’s no secret to developing characters. Anyone can do it. Some writers run their people through a kind of boot camp by interviewing them and knowing all sorts of details that may or may not be revealed in the course of a story. Others take a more organic approach and allow plot to reveal character through action. In the business we call this ‘pantsing’ for ‘flying by the seat of my pants’.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I need to know more than just a little bit about my characters in order to write about them and often their actions determine the path of the plot. This happens when I ask the question: “What would (character name) do in this situation?” If the answer isn’t dramatic enough, I change the situation to suit the character. The one thing I need to know is whether the character will zig or zag in a given situation. defines Character as “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing”. The same site goes on later to define a character as “(of a part or role) representing a personality type, especially by emphasizing distinctive traits, as language, mannerisms, physical makeup, etc.” Some writers – as I said above – need more than others. When we’re talking about aggregate features and traits that represent a personality type, we’re talking about people. That’s not a secret, either, but I think it’s something that’s often forgotten by writers of all stripes.

There are two sides to “Write What You Know”. First, yes – write what you know about, share your expertise and be passionate about the stories you want to tell. Second, don’t limit yourself – find out what you don’t know and expand your base of knowledge. Then you can more authoritatively “Write What You Know” because you just learned it. When I don’t know characters that I think will be essential to the telling of a story, I have to find out more about personality types. I consult books, watch films, read interviews with real people who I think are like the character I want to create. Sometimes I go places to people watch. Sometimes riding public transportation will inform a character.

I’ve used all kinds of character sheets as I’ve been learning about writing. Everything from a basic D&D character sheet to Nancy Kress’ character interviews have been helpful in determining all sorts of things I need to know or don’t. I don’t necessarily need to know everything about the characters’ childhoods, but I do need to know things like one important event that occurred in their past. The one thing that they hold on to, that shapes them and drives them to be the person they are. Where and when it happened, how old the person was when it happened, who was involved, how it affected him. Everyone’s got a story that’s painful. If I know that one story about any of my characters, they’re easier to write.

My day job allows me to interact and observe hundreds of people each day. I roll the dice every time I’m out among them as to which things I will absorb, which traits and features will be filed for later use. A lot of times it’s as simple as getting someone to tell me a story about their day or something that they’re passionate about. A lot of people like to talk. It’s listening that’s the secret.

Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at

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