Guess Who?

Hello SErs! Harmony here. During a recent conversation with friends, which brought immense amusement, we talked about the ways in which we describe people. This got me thinking about the common descriptors we use in general and how we can enhance characterisations in our fictional writing.

To give you some idea, the conversation included my confession that when I was staying at a buddhist monastery on lay retreat many years ago, I attempted to describe one of the monks. It went something like this …

In my head, I pictured the monk with longer hair than the others but still incredibly short–the rest had all kept theirs close-shaved. So, in my wisdom, I said, ‘He hasn’t got much …’ And then I realised how that was about to sound, so I shut up.

My companion grinned, somewhat wickedly, and finished for me, ‘He hasn’t got much hair?!’ To which, the whole of our group fell about laughing while I blushed furiously.

It sounds basic, but in everyday life, we do tend to use such generalisations. However, when it comes to writing, we are forced to take a closer look. When everyone around you has a shaved head and wears either black or brown robes, what other characteristics might define each individual?

Yes, we have the obvious fat, thin, tall, short, and eye colour. But what about the uniqueness we each possess? We all carry ourselves in a certain way … stooped, standing straight and stiff-backed, proud, shy, a permanent frown, or a permanent smile. What habitual mannerisms do we use? Rubbing a chin, biting a bottom lip, winking, wagging a finger, eyes darting or eyes fixed and staring, and talking with our hands, etc.

As per this post’s title, all of this also put me in mind of the child’s game ‘Guess Who?’ in which the whole point of the game is to identify the physical differences of humans. Of course, the first question usually attempts to define gender … male or female … but then you have to get more specific. Does the person wear glasses? Does the person wear a hat? Does the person have a big nose? And that kind of thing.

Mimics, both on TV and around us, provide great insight as they are often adept at picking out the main traits of a person. Sometimes, we can use  such caricature to great effect, as long as we don’t overdo it. An example of a book caricature character that springs to mind is Professor Dolores Jane Umbridge, who the kids made into a rather effective ‘toad lady’, not to mention her penchant for frills and kittens. J K Rowling managed to get this across without it feeling too much or forced. And, as exhibited at Hogwarts, children are brilliant at picking out our traits and mannerisms and exaggerating them, as well as giving nicknames–so kids provide us with another source of insight that we can apply to our writing.

One of my favourite activities is people-watching and making up stories about them in my head. To the right is a picture of a crowd I took from Pixabay. Take a look at the different people … what kind of person do you think one or another is? Then take a second look and ask yourself what it is about that person that made you think what you did. What makes that person appear so different to the next one? If you can, try and name the unique element. Whenever you get the chance, do this with people you encounter.

We can do this with strangers or with those we know well. In fact, often, stepping back and observing like this can give us fresh insights into our loved ones (yeah, so perhaps take care here!!!!).

What about you? Are you a people-watcher? What works for you in developing and imagining characters? Do you use any specific tools or methods? Let me know in the comments below.

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Harmony Kent

22 thoughts on “Guess Who?

  1. Pingback: Author Inspiration and Two Weeks of Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  2. I love people-watching! My mom and I love to create stories about the people we pass, but I also like to ponder about what I might have in common with those people. I find that we are all so different (and disconnected) that I often contemplate how we can also find common ground among us. 🙂 And I love when a book has two (or more) characters who are vastly different as best friends (Harry, Hermione, and Ron). 🙂

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  3. I can’t help making up stories when I people watch. I also can’t help my self doing the following with your little photo.” The community had come together to observe the daylight occurrence of the Comet. It was apparent that no one had any idea the local bank was dropping water balloons in celebration of their fiftieth anniversary. Only one man was spared the indignity of a complete face wash as he was busy trying to answer his boss’s text. It is reported that a solicitor has filed a class action suit against the bank on behalf of the clean face crowd. Meanwhile, the spared individual stands out as he is now being called, ‘unwashed.”‘

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  4. I love observing people when they don’t know they are being watched. 🙂 The man with the hat looking down intrigues me. I think he’s already beaten everyone to the punch and posting the stellar event on FB. 🙂

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  5. I’m a terrible people watcher. When I’m out and about I’m usually oblivious to what’s happening around me.
    On the flip side of that, I have an hyper-active sense of empathy, so when I do connect with someone, it’s easy for me to start contemplating what makes them tick.
    P.S….I used to love that old game of Guess Who 🙂

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  6. I love people watching, and tend to make up bits of stories about them. Most of them are just exercises, but some will wind up going in a notebook for later reference. Look at the man toward the back, the one in the hat. He’s keeping his head down to avoid being photographed, and any facial recognition that might be in use on street poles and ATM machines. We’d better talk to him. You go to the left, I’ll come in from the right so we can check his papers.

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  7. In that crowd picture I would pick out the bearded man with the cap looking down while everyone else is looking up. Intriguing idea how to describe a monk when they all look the same; even body language is difficult with robes, but not impossible, does he walk with head bowed or chin up, are his hands clasped still or do they twitch nervously?

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