Wednesday, January 7, 2009

From observation to character

I could be wrong, but I think it's my day to blog. In case I'm wrong, please forgive and the rightful blogger can have my day.

My yard is full of birds. Every tree branch, and especially the deep recesses of the big pine trees, is adorned with puff balls of feathers. They flutter and squabble over the bird feeders, peck frantically at the snow under the feeders, and line the fence tops. They flit in waves from one side of the yard to the other. We have large windows that look out over our back yard and there’s a tall Blue Spruce just outside my office window providing me with a great view. I like watching the birds and noticing the way some stick together in cliquish groups, others are loners, some are excitable, and others never appear flustered. I like the little sentinel that perches atop the highest tip of a tree and offers a frantic signal if a hawk ventures near. I laugh at the greedy little gobblers who don’t want to share. I’ve observed the way even the smallest birds puff out their feathers and become fat balls when the day is cold. Some birds are easily identifiable as doves, sparrows, etc, but some appear to be strange mixtures like red-breasted chickadees, black-topped finches---and there’s that predatory hawk. I know he has to eat too, but I can’t help feeling sad each time he makes lunch out of one of the smaller birds.

Another writer and I observed during a recent book signing at a busy book store that watching people is a lot like watching birds and it’s an essential part of being a writer. To write about people a writer must first observe them. Some are puffed up with importance, some are timid and shy, some are rushed and rude, and some curious, funny, or friendly. They have interesting mannerisms, distinctive speech patterns and vocabularies, and an endless variety of physical characteristics.

Character development in writing involves more than displaying the thought processes or physical characteristics of a character. Though these are important, for a character to feel real to readers he/she must first become real to the writer. More than whether or not a character has brown eyes or blue, red or blonde hair, a cute cleft in his chin, dimples, or fat or skinny lips we need to know his/her mannerisms, personality, strengths, weaknesses, trust worthiness, ethics, and a sense of where this person fits in his/her world. People watching is a good place to start getting to know how people walk, dress, talk, gesture and do so many of the actions that signal a person’s character, mood, and feelings. This is often referred to as body language. Body language usually tells us more than a person’s words about a person and these little give-away signals need to be stored away in a writer’s mind, then brought forth in our characters to give them life.

Staring isn’t nice, but being observant is just fine. Just as watching the antics of our backyard birds has brought me some pleasant moments, a few surprises, and much enjoyment, watching people has gifted me with some tender moments, some sadness, a few chuckles, and a greater awareness of the people who make up this vast world and the pages of the many books that have brought me great pleasure. I believe watching both birds and people has enhanced my ability to create believable people. Even the hawk has his place.


Cheri J. Crane said...

Great blog, Jennie. I like to people-watch, too. A mall is a great place to observe humans in an interesting habitat. =)

Gale Sears said...

I learned the art of people watching when I was a theater student. It was critical to our work as actors and has been helpful when transfered to writing. Such an interesting blog, Jennie and your descriptions are wonderful!

Valerie said...

Observing seems a smart gift to cultivate, not just for writers but for everyone. I think we all hurry so much and stress so much we don't take time to observe--kids, neighbors, ward members, friends--and if we did we might learn some of their needs and hurts and be able to help them. Likewise, I think sometimes what we call "complaining" is observing and even what we might call "gossip" is also just observing, if our spirit is caring and interested rather than petty or hurtful (although I realize that's an invitation for some to justify). But onto safer territory, I think our observation of our own lives and also teach us things about ourselves and what God wants us to learn about ourselves. Very thought-provoking post, Jennie. Thanks.

jeri gilchrist said...

Your post captured my attention right off, Jennie. I could visualize all the birds as you descibed them. I loved taking a moment to think and ponder about bird watching. My dad lives near Valerie and when I visit him, weather permitting, we sit on his back porch watching the birds and talking. I have had some fond moments doing that with my dad. To continue it on with people watching and character building really made me stop and think. In writing, I feel like this is an area I certainly need to improve, but I do love to people watch.

I loved this post. Thank you for the insight!