How to write about people in your travel stories

People are part of our travel experiences, and help make our travels extra special. Bestselling travel author Peter Moore reveals how to do them justice in your article or story...

4 mins

Humans are sociable creatures by nature. And our fellow humans are an important part of our travel experiences. Therefore, they are an essential element in our travel stories, too.

Think about it. How many times have you heard someone say that it was people, not places, that made their journey so memorable? The same is true of your travel story. A well-formed character can really bring your story to life, capturing the essence of what you are trying to say and giving it added depth and texture.

As an important protagonist in your story, you will have to describe your character. What they look like. What they wear. Their views and beliefs. Their personality. Their strengths and their foibles. One, or all of the above, could be vital to your story.

Using a real person in a non-fiction story can be a bit of a minefield. I’ve been writing about travel for a couple of decades now and writing about people is still the trickiest part. Having said that, I have picked up a few techniques and golden rules over the years that have helped me. They could help you, too …

Keep it concise

A few well-chosen words, brushstrokes really, can convey so much. One of my favourite passages from The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux describes a group of Aussie travellers as ‘two boys and a pop-eyed girl ... a reminder that I’d touched [rock] bottom.’

The wired craziness of being on the road for too long and the Aussie travellers' penchant for adventure, all summed up in a few simple words.

Mind your language

Choose your words carefully when you are describing your character. Words like ‘quaint’, ‘untouched’ or ‘exotic’ can come across as condescending and patronising used in this context. Keep your language simple and effective, with maybe a well-chosen metaphor or two to add a bit of colour.

Mind their language

Dialogue is a powerful tool and can really elevate a travel story. A single statement from your character can save you paragraphs of exposition and give an invaluable insight to their personality as well.

Having said that, use dialogue sparingly. Keep it natural. And never put words into people’s mouths. People hate being misquoted and these days they’ll take to social media to tell the world about it.

Don’t always get physical

You don’t need to rely exclusively on physical appearance to fill out a character. What they do, what they say, how they react can be just as important to their role in your story as the clothes they wear or the colour of their hair.

Tell it how you feel it

The more you travel, the more you become aware of the unspoken social cues and signals you get from people, despite substantial language and cultural barriers. Ascribing those to your character, particularly the motives behind them, can be tricky.

In such circumstance it is best to describe the person and the situation through your own impressions: I felt as though he was trying to telling me something... I got the distinct impression... I wondered if she was trying to protect me...

Things may not have been verbalised. But how the character made you feel can be just as revealing as describing their hairstyle.

Consider naming rights

Deciding on whether to use someone’s real name in a story is a dilemma faced by every travel writer. Some people are happy to be identified, especially if you are writing about their guest house or trekking service. But what about someone who has unwittingly become part of your story, often without their knowledge?

As a rule, I always change peoples’ names. On the rare occasions I use a real name, it’s usually just their first names and I try to get their permission beforehand. Unless the person is famous, a real name doesn’t add anything to your story. And people rarely see themselves the same way as the rest of the world does.

Having said that, there maybe a story behind a person’s name, a story that adds depth and insight into your story. If that’s the case, ignore everything I just said. Except the part about asking their permission.

Never put a person in danger

People often open up to travellers, sharing thoughts that may otherwise get them into serious trouble with the authorities. Think twice before using them in your story. With social media so prevalent around the world, it’s very easy for those authorities to track a person down. Your writing could quite literally put someone in mortal danger.

I faced this very dilemma in my book, Swahili for the Broken-Hearted. I stayed with a person in Zimbabwe who hated Mugabe with a passion and openly mocked him – in the privacy of their own home.

I felt the incident was important to convey the situation in Zimbabwe, but I didn’t want it to be used as a pretext for them thrown in jail, beaten up or have their property confiscated. So I changed their name, several identifying characteristics and a few other little things, so they couldn't possibly be identified. As a writer it is your duty to protect them.

Is it really necessary?

OK, that shepherd in the Pyrenees might have strikingly blue eyes, but does that really add anything to your story?

As a writer, you need to consider which descriptions are vital to your story and which are redundant. Does your description make your story better? Does it add depth? Does it move the narrative along or bog it down? If you took it out, would you really notice?

Don’t make things up

You’re writing non-fiction. You’ve made an unspoken contract with your readers that what you are telling them is true. It may come through the particular prism of you and your interpretations, but it is largely factual nonetheless.

Most readers have a pretty good bullshit detector. It’s pretty obvious when things don’t ring true. And in these days of social media you’ll get called out very quickly and very publicly. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Finally, be a good human as well as a good writer

Don’t be sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic. In fact, just avoid all the ists and phobias. Don’t be entitled, elitist, judgmental or patronising. Never mock a person over something they have no control over – their looks, their clothes, their poverty. 

You can report on all these things. Just do it in a non-judgemental way. Of course, this will go without saying for most.

Discover Peter's travel writing

In addition to writing for, and hosting his new podcast No Shitting In The Toilet, Peter Moore has authored seven beloved travel books, published by Penguin Random House.

Expect tales of mishaps and misadventures around the world, including Central America, Africa, Italy, Australia and beyond. You can download his ebooks for as little as 99p here.

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