Capturing the Essence of a Character

by Dax MacGregor
Before writers can describe the essence of a character to our readers, they must first conjure it in our imagination. Here is one of my techniques for developing a catalog of character traits for later use.

When I am stuck waiting anywhere, I scan the room for interesting characters that I might be able to use in one of my stories. I note physical features, but I’m more interested in behavior and patterns of speech.

Side note: The image above was taken from the lobby of a hotel in Bora Bora. I caught my wife drooling as he awaited the passengers booked on his boat tour.

For example, recently I sat in an airport during a delayed flight. Across the waiting area, a round middle-aged woman stood apart from her husband lost in what appeared to be unpleasant thoughts. She had her shoulders pulled way back to counterbalance her ample bosom and distended abdomen. As a result, the hem of her loose-fitting dress hung an inch or two higher in the front than the back, rising and falling with each labored breath.

Close behind me, a gum-chomping teenager jostled me multiple times without apologizing. I never turned around, so I don’t know what he looked like. What I do know is that he never stopped moving, shuffling about in his neon-green athletic shoes, while his mouth spewed words like veggies from a salad shooter.

A young mother sat facing me at a nearby table holding a newborn in her left arm and eating with her right hand while talking on a phone cradled to her ear and, at the same time, participating in conversations with her husband and his parents. I marveled at her ability to multitask. However, it bothered me that she ignored her baby boy who appeared hungry, based on the effort he displayed in attempting to nurse on her clothed nipple and the way he clawed at the edge of his mother’s ultra low-cut top that appeared to have been specially designed for emergency breastfeeding situations.

I use my an app on my phone for capturing notes. I make a separate note (like those above) for each person. When I am writing and need to develop a new character, I’ll often look through my notes for inspiration. But, over time, I’ve noticed that the act of documenting these character traits affixes them in my mind. Often, I’ll be able to recall one of these people and their behaviors from memory, without consulting my notes.

As writers, we work to improve our writing skills via reading the works of others, studying writing techniques and typing until our fingers are sore. However, it is also important to spend time observing. Because when it come to describing the essence of a character to our readers, we must first conjure it in our imaginations. We stock our personal library of character traits: physical attributes, behaviors, mannerisms and patterns of speech, by observing those around us.

If you have other techniques for capturing the essence of characters, please share them in the comments below. And if you’ve recently observed an intriguing character, please take time share it with us.



  1. Cynthia Starks

    Hi Tom/Dax — Thanks for sending this to your prose critique group members — very good thoughts and ideas. I need to do more of this to have a “bank” of character traits to draw on, as you suggest. Looking forward to seeing you again back in our little group. 🙂

    • Dax MacGregor

      Cynthia, Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I’ll see you all again soon.

  2. greedy reader

    I love it, Dax. My problem might be narrowing down which people to watch.


    • Dax MacGregor

      Hi Kristen. Greedy reader? Nice. I have the same problem, especially in crowded places when I travel, the choices can be overwhelming.


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