Sunday, July 3, 2011

Be a people watcher

Our fictional characters are all around us if we’re willing to look and to speculate. Today a man we’ve seen before waited at a crosswalk for traffic to ease. Slightly stooped, he had a white beard and deep wrinkles, a denim jacket and dirty slacks. Earlier in the week, the desert heat had risen to 106, and I wondered how he’d managed. Assuming he’s homeless—he wouldn’t be the only one in town—he might sleep in a shelter or in a quiet alley, washing himself in a public restroom.  But this man didn’t come out of nowhere. I imagine that back in the day, he’d shown promise in high school football but joined the Army with two buddies and came home from Nam with shrapnel in his skull, which was better luck than his friends had.  In and out of bars and VA hospitals, he could never hold a woman or a job for long. The pawn shop in Flint had given him fifty dollars for his Purple Heart, and he thumbed his way south where he might not freeze solid in the winter. He’d never meant to kill that guy in Metairie, but he doubted the police saw it his way, so he hit the road again. Now he’s here in Las Cruces with a chronic pain in his gut that he fears is cancer. The other day he saw a guy dash out of a Walgreen’s, and their eyes met briefly before the guy drove away in a hurry. Then through the glass door he saw a body lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Calling the police couldn’t end well for him, so he walked away. Apparently only one person has seen him, and that’s the guy who was in a hurry—the killer? And now our street person feels vulnerable out in the open. Will the killer go after the only witness?

If you keep a notebook, try to notice the people around as you go about your daily business. Describe them in your notes, but by all means change the details as much as it suits you. Then imagine interesting backgrounds for them. Don’t worry about story lines or plot. Right now you’re working in your laboratory, creating characters who might come in handy later. And, as with my homeless vet, your characters may well offer you a story line.

12 comments:

Jean Henry Mead said...

An excellent example, J.D. It reads like a Lee Child's plot. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper to find countless skeletal plots to flesh out for a full fledged mystery novel. Or sit on a park bench to play people watcher. Restaurants and airports are also great places to eavesdrop on conversations. We're a devious group, aren't we? :)

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

People watching and eavesdropping are something I've always done much to my husband's dismay.

Marilyn

Bob Sanchez said...

It's a sneaky thing we writers do to people, creating new backgrounds for them without their knowledge. And if they happen to be people we know, we can change our character's gender or profession, and the people will never suspect we used them.

My favorite eavesdropping experience was at work, listening to two women chat about shaving their legs. One said, "If I had legs like yours, I'd have a guy shave them for me."

Bob

Stephen Tremp said...

I'm definitely a people watcher. I tried taking pictures and notes of this one woman, but her husband beat me up. So I stopped with the note taking.

But I do have a pair of dark sunglasses I now use. So far so good.

Marian Allen said...

Oh, yeah, I have a big thick folder filled with scraps of paper with characters and dialog bits scribbled on them. I live in a small town, and it's really funny to make up a history for somebody and then meet and get to know him or her and find how wrong you were.

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Morgan Mandel said...

When I worked in Downtown Chicago and got off the train, I'd hear all sorts of snippets of conversation. It would aggravate me to no end when the people walked in the other direction and I couldn't hear the rest of their stories.

Morgan Mandel
http://spunkyseniors.blogspot.com

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I always notice people, especially their interactions with others.

Bob Sanchez said...

Stephen, you've gotta be a little more subtle. Remember, any details you miss, you can just make up.

Little Pickle Press said...

I love to watch people. As a writer of nonfiction, however, I spend my cycles ascertaining the reality of what I observe vs. developing fictional details. Great post, Bob.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Great post about characters! We try to play this is a game on long car trip with our daughters. It is way more entertaining than roadside Bingo, or the alphabet scavenger hunt. Yesterday we witnessed a couple in a little beat up pick up truck from Maine. His hand reached out and touched her hair, she turned to him and smiled. Their beagle had his head out of the window. The only items in the back of their truck were 1 sleeping bag, 1 gallon of water, 1 gas can, and 1 backpack. We started making up stories about who they were and why they were all the way on the other side of the United States.

Brooke from The Bluestocking Guide said...

I did a lot of people watching in Philly yesterday. I was very interesting.

J D Webb said...

Great post, Bob. I've always said that characters are the backbone of novels. If you don't love or hate them why continue reading? And I have surreptitiously followed people havving a conversation just to hear the rest of some interesting dialog. Almost wound up in a ladies restroom once. Have to be careful.