People Watching in the Time Dilation Field

I just returned from the Time Dilation Field--you know, the post office? As I stood in line, I composed this blog post about how to describe characters because people watching gives you great examples as foundations.

If you ever have trouble visualizing a character, just go stand in line somewhere and open your eyes, ears, and nose to the people around you.

People Watching

People watching is a learned skill, and it can make creating characters so easy that it feels like you're cheating. Involve not just vision but your other senses like hearing and smelling when you're people watching. You'll end up with a character who'll jump off the page because he or she seems so real.

This morning as I stood in line at the post office, I couldn't help but notice the man in front of me. His smell hit me first. He reeked of stale cigarettes. To say he smelled like a dirty ashtray would be spot on. I stood as far from him as possible which gave me the opportunity to study him visually as well.

Description Facts

He was a big man. Probably 6'4" tall with a build that seemed more lean than bulky. His shoes were brand new and of the horribly expensive NAME BRAND variety. They probably cost as much or more than I spend on groceries in two weeks. His watch was expensive also--NAME BRAND but with a black leather strap rather than the expected stainless bracelet that you more commonly see with that brand. (Was it a knock off? Possibly.)

He wore black sweats--jacket and pants--and they weren't new. In fact, they were stretched and faded a bit and covered with "pills," those little balls of fiber that develop in the washing and drying process.

First Draft Description

He was a tall man dressed in faded black sweats, but his shoes were new.

That would give the reader a basic picture, but it wouldn't give a hint of the character's circumstances as well. Good descriptions should convey more than the way a person looks.

Better Description

He was tall with broad shoulders, but he had the rangy lean body of a runner. Maybe that's what he was since he wore running shoes that probably had set him back a couple of hundred bucks. The shoes contrasted sharply with his clothes--a pair of old black sweats covered with little fuzz balls from too many cycles in the washer and dryer. When the wind changed, I nearly gagged as the smell of stale cigarettes wafted from him. This guy was no runner. He wouldn't have the lung capacity for it.

Here's One For You To Use

A baby cried behind me. I, along with others, turned to see what poor mom was stuck in line with a baby. My gaze came to a screeching halt on the young woman directly behind me. She was in her twenties and was about 5' tall. She had huge boobs--completely overwhelming the rest of her body-- and they were displayed prominently in a low, scoop-neck, blue t-shirt.

Black stars of varying sizes were tattooed across her left breast. A man's name was tattooed on her right breast. In large flowing black script.

I wanted to look longer to see what the name was, but staring is rude plus I didn't want her to think I was some perv. Instead, I looked at the other people in line because their reactions to her appearance were priceless. Every man and woman stared at her then quickly their gazes would dart away, then back, away, back.

Maybe they were all like me, curious to know whose name she deemed so important that she had to have it emblazoned on her breast. She seemed completely oblivious to the attention she was drawing, and I found that in itself interesting.

That young woman is a candidate for great characterization. You can describe her not only physically, but also her demeanor, the reactions of people around her, and how she responds to those reactions.

That kind of description is a perfect platform for a writer to dive into a bit of backstory about a character who fairly shouts, "Look at me."

Why does she want to be the center of attention? If the character isn't a main character, and you don't need to give the reader that intimate look at her motivations, you can still make her a compelling character who will interest the reader and keep him glued to the story.

Sound: Example from Suburbia

Here's an example of how listening to someone can help you create a character. Sunday afternoon, darling hubby and I were at Walmart. As we left the store, a young man shouting into a cell phone passed us. He was nearly foaming at the mouth, he was so angry. Literally, spit was flying. He was an attractive young man--tall, lean, but white-faced in anger. I would have expected his face to be red.

Here's what he said:

You f***ing bitch. You think you can f***ing do this? You f***ing think again. I f***ing own you, you f***ing bitch.

Wow! Suburbia isn't what it used to be. This guy didn't care that people were walking back and forth, including children, and staring at him. He was still shouting and cursing when I reached the car.

Need an unhinged psychotic character? He'd be the role model for sure. Think about the woman on the receiving end of this phone call. What kind of woman has such low self-esteem that she'd even be with a jerk like that?

Takeaway Truth

Use real people to improve your characterization skills. Make notes when you can. Really look at people. Listen to how they talk. See their physical habits of movement as they stand around or talk to others. Note how they smell. All that will help you create characters who seem real.


  1. I was behind this woman at the post office - she had THE hair I always dreamed of - from cut to highlight perfection; great jeans, adorable spring sweater...short boots..and THE handbag! And then she turned around and her face..OMG was the same as the mother in Psycho! Too much tanning had rendered her beyond scary!

    1. *LOL* I had an experience like that once in New Orleans. From the rear, this woman looked like Barbie in her short, tight dress. When she turned around, she had a face that was more wrinkled than my elderly mom's. Girls, let that be a lesson to you. Sunblock and moisturizer are your best friends.