Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Eyes Open: Characters

(X-Posted on the Tri Mu Blog.)

This is one of those “Where do you get your ideas” posts. I write on this topic once in a while because this is honestly the question I hear most. Again I would like to mention that ideas are everywhere, and writers should always pour what they see into that churning pot of plot soup in the back of their heads. Today I would like to highlight a couple ‘characters’ I encountered in the last twenty-four hours.

I saw the most interesting chef/waiter yesterday. He seemed almost a caricature of a person—or maybe like a muppet. His nose was large, the size further exaggerated by a thin, dark mustache, but his head was almost bare, just a few wisps of hair over his ears and around the back of his skull. He wore dark dress pants and shoes with a long white apron that started at his waist and fell to his ankles. His shoulders slumped slightly, his head craned forward as he carried a silver tray over the brick walk. He was, in a word, fascinating—not in a I-wonder-who-he-is-and-about-his-life kind of way, but in an eccentric extra in a movie kind of way. He just didn’t seem quite real.

Later, I saw two boys dressed like they were headed for the gym. They found a spot on the grass and proceeded to practice stage fighting. They were clearly working on a set routine, and were quite good. While it looked like the blows hit, that was an illusion caused more by the person reacting to the punches/kicks/tosses than the guy acting as the aggressor. Very interesting. Who were they? What were they practicing for? How did they get started?

Walkers often carry ‘weapons’ to either defend themselves or scare off muggers. Walking sticks, long umbrellas with metal tips, and golf clubs are all items I regularly see walkers carrying. This morning, while driving in traffic, I saw a gentleman in his late fifties carrying nunchucks. That was a first. I really wanted to stop and talk to him. Was he actually trained in martial arts? How long he had been studying? I of course didn’t, so I guess I’ll have to make it up myself.

In the stairway to my office, I ended up behind a woman in her early twenties. She was dressed for success in a cut-for-corporate skirt, sleeveless silk blouse, and power pumps. But, as she climbed, she rubbed her palms down the front of the skirt and tugged at the collar of the blouse. Her ankles wobbled with each step, as if she wasn’t sure of her balance and didn’t wear heels often. Interview? First day on the job? Defending her thesis? I’m not sure, but she was nervous and though she looked great, she was out of her element.

These are just a handful of people I observed recently. Strangers are fascinating and are both a good source for characters, and a source for picking up mannerisms and action tags. Sometimes writers get stuck in their own heads, imagining their own worlds, but we need to remember to look around once in a while. A fun exercise to do is to take a notebook, head to a public place (park, restaurant, ect.,) and jot down short notes on the people you see. Explore the ‘why’ and ‘what if’ about people you know nothing about beyond what they are currently doing/saying/wearing. You might pick up something interesting.

What interesting characters have you encountered recently?

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