Study people like you’re about to play them on TV

650 433 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

I’m not really one of those ‘people watchers’ you find sitting in café windows or on park benches, glancing around as the world goes by, trying to figure out everyone’s story as they pass. When I was studying for my Novel Writing MA, a read lots of advice that said writers must love watching people; we have to be observant and curious and pick up on the little things others might miss. Well, let me tell you, that ain’t me. I’ve never once studied a stranger on the bus and invented their life story, or spotted an elderly couple angrily elbowing each other in the supermarket and dropped them into my novel. I’m too caught up in my own thoughts and anxieties to notice strangers so much.

Being a people watcher is a great attribute in a writer, because you’ll pick up on behaviours and mannerisms that will make your characters more believable and authentic. But if it doesn’t come naturally to you, like it doesn’t to me, don’t worry. There are plenty of techniques and exercises that will help you hone the craft of building characters.

Recently I watched Quiz, the ITV drama about contestants who cheated on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in the 1990s. Michael Sheen plays Chris Tarrant and, as always, he’s fabulous. I adore Michael Sheen, not just because he’s beautiful and a terrific actor but also because his portrayals of real people are so uncanny. His Tarrant is so spot on I was utterly mesmerised by it, and it got me thinking about how he must prepare for roles like this. He obviously watched a lot of footage of Tarrant and studied his voice, his facial expressions, his mannerisms. The way Tarrant always looked so serious when he hosted Who Wants to Be a Millionaire like this was the most important thing on television. The way he sucks his breath in a little before telling you big news. They’re things most of us wouldn’t even notice in Tarrant until we saw Sheen doing an impression of them.

It’s details like these that can bring a character to life in fiction, too. By exploring your protagonist in this way, thinking about their mannerisms and body language, you add depth and colour to what could otherwise feel flat on the page. 

Try this in your current manuscript or writing journal 

So, how does this help authors? Well, pretend you’re Michael Sheen preparing for a role. Think of somebody you know – a relative, a friend, the man who works at the post office, a vlogger you like on YouTube. If you were playing them in a film, what mannerisms and quirks would you replicate? What little movements or vocal tics would make that person instantly recognisable? This exercise will get you thinking about the characteristics and behaviours that make people unique, even if we don’t notice them at first. You’ll start spotting little habits, twitches, noises that make them who they are. So, pick a person and jot down everything you can think of that you’d need to tell an actor who’d been hired to play them. Once you have a list, try writing a paragraph introducing them as a character in a story. Give them some dialogue and let them react to what’s around them. You’ll find it adds authenticity and realism to the character. 

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes