Spying for Your Characters by Arwen Elys Dayton

Arwen Elys Dayton is the author of the epic teen fantasy Seeker, set in a near-future Scotland and Hong Kong and London. She loves creating characters who both frustrate and inspire. Publishers Weekly agrees: “In this powerful beginning to a complex family saga . . . Dayton excels at creating memorable characters.” while Girls’ Life.com says, “Look no further than Seeker for your next read. . . .This book is beyond engaging and, with a movie deal already in the works, you won’t want to skip this.” Don’t miss your chance to ask Arwen Elys Datyon a question on her Figment chat on March 23rd.


Spying for Your Characters

I’m going to give you some writing advice, but I take no responsibility for what might happen to you if you follow it. It’s important I start off with this disclaimer, because I’m going to tell you, essentially, to be a spy. Maybe not exactly a spy—more of an eavesdropper. Also I may be recommending that you become, in the friendliest and most well-intentioned way, a stalker. But only a slight stalker.

As a writer, you are going to write all sorts of characters (good, bad, evil, well meaning, old, young, everything), and you will 91rtOs+5SfL._SL1500_need to like all of them. Even the ones you hate also need your love if they’re going to be someone interesting when the story is done. The way I see it, the ability to love all sorts of different characters is like a muscle that gets stronger the more you use it. And my favorite exercise to train this muscle is a bit of spying, eavesdropping, and stalking.

What do I mean by this dangerous and offensive suggestion? I mean that being interested in all sorts of people out in the world is one of the best ways of learning to create and then love all sorts of characters in your own stories. In this age of everyone-staring-at-their-phones and instantaneous access to billions of hilarious YouTube videos, I choose to buck the trend and find entertainment and fascination in the people around me.

Sitting alone at a coffee shop? Excellent. Pretend to look at your phone while actually listening to three or four conversations at neighboring tables. My favorite sort of conversation to listen in on is two people discussing a delicate subject while trying not to say anything too personal or embarrassing out loud. It’s up to me to figure out what they’re talking about—and I’m fairly certain the things I imagine are better than the truth.

Walking through a shopping mall? Why not follow that bickering set of teenagers for a little while and figure out the dynamics inside their group? Is one of them the ringleader? Trying to show off? Is someone in that group the kind of person who likes to put others down just for fun? Is one of them genuinely nice? Maybe you’ll lose sight of them around the food court, but you’d be amazed how much you can silently observe in a minute or two.

Do you take a train to work or school? Trains are made for eavesdropping! With a little practice, you can learn to arrange your face to look like your mind is wandering or you’re half asleep. Or you can pretend to read a book. For some reason, when you’re on a crowded train with a book, people will act like you don’t exist. They’ll say all sorts of interesting things. Listen to those things. And while you listen, imagine where these people came from when they stepped onto the train and where they’re going. Glance at their clothes. Can you figure out what they do for work? Can you guess how they like to spend their free time? Do they smell funny? Do they have nice teeth? Are they covering acne with long bangs? Spy on them!

You are creating a mental library of people who are interesting, and conversations worth listening to. And it will help you to no end when creating your own stories. The world is full of characters and adventures. You just have to open your eyes and ears and let them in.


Arwen-thumbArwen Elys Dayton spends months doing research for her stories. Her explorations have taken her around the world to places like the Great Pyramid at Giza, Hong Kong and its many islands, and lots of ruined castles in Scotland.

Arwen lives with her husband and their three children on the West Coast of the United States. You can visit her at arwendayton.com and follow @arwenelysdayton on Twitter and Instagram.

4 thoughts on “Spying for Your Characters by Arwen Elys Dayton

  1. I thought I was the only one who did this, it’s great to know I’m not the only stalker out there! I completely agree with you that the world is full of charachters and we just have to notice them. Stalking with a purpose: Writer’s Stalk. Thank you for the advice! 🙂

  2. Thanks, Arwen, for the inspirational post! I’ve been told by other writers ‘spying’ is something writers should be doing but it’s good to be reminded. I’ll be checking out your books after this 😉

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