How Strangers Can Inspire Your Characters

If you are a writer, then you are a whole thesaurus of other things too.You are an artist, an architect, a dreamer, a tactician, a politician, an anthropologist, a historian, the list continues.

Today, none of these roles are your concern, because today, you are a psychologist.

As a writer, you should be obsessed with human behavior, because human behavior is what will drive your characters:

  • Why do people do things?
  • What would make someone act a certain way?
  • Why do these people want this, and what are they willing to do for it?
  • What would change their minds?

By now, you know that motivations are important, but what else is there to creating a good character? How do professional writers do it? How badly do you want to do some homework?

Don’t answer that last one. Let’s get into two different techniques that are going to help you improve your characters:

Staring at Strangers

Does this sound like you – you’re twelve pages into your story, and you realize something major. Your protagonist is nothing more than a version of yourself: different hair, maybe, idealized body type, usually, no major flaws that can’t be fixed, and they just so happen to believe in the same ideas you do.

The worst part: you might not even know this is happening.

FEAR NOT. I’ve been there (more recently than I’m going to admit), and there’s a very simple (and maybe even dangerous) fix.

Okay, not dangerous, unless you do something horribly wrong. Have you ever sat in a coffee house, or a restaurant, or the library, and just stared at people? Good, then you’re one third of the way there.

Step two is to write down who you see. Hair color, clothes, movements, how they seem to present themselves, how they relate to the people around them. Easy, right?

The last step is to ask yourself a few questions. What is going on in their heads? What is the most interesting thing about this person? What could they possibly be doing in this place that isn’t what you would expect?

This alone should help shore up your characters with juicy, but very realistic bits and pieces that are true to life. It’s worked for other authors, like Charles Dickens, so it should work for you, right?

Write it all down, write everything you know about your characters down. You need to know as much as possible about them (alright, easy on the physical description there. We don’t need to know how many wrinkles on each hand, do we?). Find a decent character chart, and start getting into your character’s head. Motivations are key, but so are histories, current relationships, and how the world sees them.

What Has It Got in It’s Pocketses?

As for the second technique, I want to share with you an eye-opening phrase that one of my professors once asked me: ask yourself, what does this character keep in their pockets?

You need to know all of the secrets about your characters, because a character with a secret will keep a reader hooked.

Everybody always wants to know.

Go forth and stare! Go out into the world, and watch people. Jot down a few paragraphs for every person you find interesting, until that one finally clicks. Then blog it, and send me a link, because I’m dying to know what’s in your characters’ pockets.


Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to comment (with a link to your sketch, if you like), like, and follow the blog!

Image courtesy of ginoandsharonphotography via Flick Creative Commons.

23 thoughts on “How Strangers Can Inspire Your Characters

    1. Ah, well, I don’t pretend to be good at figuring out people when I watch them from afar. Only that I can use them as a skeleton for characters, and slight expressions or ticks from a stranger can culminate into interesting character flaws or habits in my mind.


  1. This is SO true and something I’ve employed for my writing for a very long time. I also have a number of experiences that have allowed me glimpses into the human psyche that many people don’t have. Well written and thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you have any anecdotes from your experiences with watching people? Any close calls or altercations?

      Sometimes, I’ll sit in a shop with a notebook, and people will give me funny looks, and I have to pretend I’m not writing about them, but nobody has ever approached me.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. …this. I have locked eyes with too many people without realizing it. Some of them think I’m hitting on them, some of them think I’m creeping. One of them thought I was trying to announce my superiority and stared back.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. This sort of thing reminds me of cold reading people and I think it’s a great way to form new characters for our stories. You’re right to say many of our created characters possess a part of us because we know ourselves better than anyone so to write it in full detail is somewhat simpler. Keep the writing guides going, I look forward to improving my own as well 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cold reading is a great way to put it, although sometimes it’s better to impose your own imagination (because some people aren’t as interesting as your own mind).

      As long as people keep reading, I’m going to keep writing! Actually, even if nobody read this, I’d probably still… ya.

      Thank you for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love studying people. They interest me endlessly. Few minutes is all I need to sketch their profiles pretty accurately. I don’t give so much importance of what they are saying because it seldom have something to do with what is really going on. Must be the practice I got when I came to live in a country where I could not understand and speak the language. I came to depend on body language out of necessity. Another thing is I am blessed (or curse) with a photographic memory. I don’t remember all the details but crucial ones. All of these save my skin more than once. People fascinate me greatly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Photographic memory? That must be an incredible gift (yes, gift)! I completely understand you about the body language – most of my people watching happens from across noisy rooms, so I usually don’t get to hear my strangers anyway.

      Having said that, I love hearing people talk, I love hearing tiny pieces of what their lives are made of, and especially how they react with the other people they are talking to.


        1. That sounds like a very charged statement to me!

          Liars are hard to defend, but I have to admit they can sometimes make excellent fodder for villains or foils or something like that.

          I have to agree though, I can’t stand them. Won’t stand them.


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