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.