Creating believable characters is the single most important thing you can do as a writer. Characters are what drive your story. They make it interesting. They keep the reader engaged because they are relatable, almost tangible people who have fears and desires and triumphs, just like your readers. A good plot is great, don’t get me wrong, but I have found that characters (good, almost living, breathing characters) only get in the way of the plot. Because they have minds of their own. Because something comes along and the way they want to pursue it is different from the way you would have them pursue it. Before you know it, your plot is full of holes and you have fully developed, thinking characters running around the story wreaking havoc. If you’re a planner, a plotter, a non-pantser, just reading this might terrify you but I promise you, it is the best thing that could ever happen to your story.
So where do you find these headstrong and willful characters? How can you take a two-dimensional, chicken-scratch character from your notebook and form it into a substantial, believable person? Spying and eavesdropping, two powerful tools that no one will tell you about, probably because they sounds like terrible advice! Trust me, though. People watching (spying) and paying attention (eavesdropping) can spark the beginnings of a dynamite character which can make or break your story, novel, or screenplay. If you feel guilty, as I did when I first began practicing this, remember that you’re not taking a real flesh and blood person and writing a character based exactly on them. You are looking for a quirk, something memorable or beautiful or strange, which you will then incorporate with a handful of other qualities into a well-rounded character.
There are moments I can still remember vividly because they made such an impact on me. Those moments, like snapshots, are burned into my brain and I use them to create meaningful characters. For example, when I lived in NY I made an early morning run to the grocery and saw this moment that I’ll never be able to forget:
The boy sits in the passenger seat, bored and resigned. The girl is looking at him with that light in her eyes that means more than he’s interested in seeing. The little green car is all beat up and the light reflects off of the one white door on the driver’s side. The pavement of the parking lot is still dark with rain from the night before and the lights of the car barely make yellow circles in the thick mist rising from the blacktop.
These moments, ones that strike you with their beauty or sadness or strangeness, the overheard conversations that make you double take, or shake with silent laughter, are what form characters that carry weight. This is what I mean when I say you should “spy and eavesdrop” on people. Be aware of the life happening around you and you will always be rewarded. I’m sure you are thinking of your own “snapshot” right now. Go write it down! See where it take you!