On Observant Characters

Anonymous asked: “On the contrary [to a nonobservant character] could you give advice on how to write an observant character? More specifically maybe a manipulative one? Who uses their observed knowledge to play or use people?”

Like unobservant characters, even when observant, I don’t think it warrants describing scenes or people more or less. While we talked yesterday about unobservant characters, similarly, it’s not that the character is seeing more or anything like that, but is noticing more.

An observant character might be a little more suspicious of things around them. They might catch onto secrets that others are keeping or at the very least be able to guess at their private lives. The thing about having an observant character is that you need to include things for your character to observe. 

One of my favorite books is The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton – this is a book where manners and etiquette are important. Hearsay and missteps in etiquette matter to the characters. It begins the protagonist Lily Bart’s demise. They expect too that the reader be able to catch onto these little details. Sometimes it will mean knowing what to watch for. 

In this example, manners and etiquette are important to the characters and just because they are, everyone notices when the rules are broken. It’s one thing I love about this book. If you’re familiar with the kind of etiquette of the time (1910), then you would be just as shocked / appalled by the things that happen. While I wouldn’t say every character is observant or unobservant, all characters are very much aware of the rules of etiquette and therefore are observant when it comes to etiquette, always watching themselves and staying mindful, and that is why too they are all the more alarmed when the rules are broken. 

When writing an observant character, you need to give the observant character things to notice. Do they have a reason to be suspicious? While a character who is observant might not notice everything, think about what kind of things might drive their suspicions. What do they believe the characters around them are hiding? Like the characters in The House of Mirth, if the characters tend to be aware of something – like manners and etiquette – they’ll notice when those rules aren’t followed. 

If an observant character is being manipulative, there must be some kind of leverage. What secret have they uncovered? What things have they noticed to uncover it? What do they have to gain by keeping that secret? If there’s nothing to be gained, why be manipulative?  Additionally, there are some things that observant characters might catch onto, but because the secret is harmless, doesn’t pertain to them, or just doesn’t matter, they probably won’t do anything about it. Not every secret is going to matter. Not every secret will they even consider a secret. They might even be a bit careless about it – assume other people have noticed too – and let the secret slip. 

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