“All characters are based on elements of a writer’s personal experience.” Robert Holdstock
I’ve always been a watcher. No, not in that creepy Keanu Reeves (The Watcher) sort of way. My watching tendencies come more out of an innate curiosity of what makes people tick. I often sit and wonder at the lives of the people I come in contact with on a daily basis. Are they rich? Poor? Do they have a good marriage? A good job? Are they nice or more of a self-centered prig? Do they have mannerism that I find interesting or repulsive? Why did they pick those shoes to wear with that blouse? Are they a secret spy? A terrorist? A serial killer stalking their next victim?
For instance, take the man from Starbucks my writing group observed last night. He was tucked away in one of the room’s only comfy chairs, “reading” a self-help book. I say this with air quotes because, although he had the book open in front of his face (and I mean literally blocking his face), he was talking on his bluetooth. At least I assume it was a bluetooth because surely he wasn’t sitting in Starbucks, pretending to read a book AND talking to himself. What the heck was this guy all about? We all took a peek at him and speculated. Was this man a secret spy? Perhaps he was sent to observe the man across the room wearing a nondescript baseball cap and typing feverishly on his laptop. Or perhaps he was waiting for that girl he met on that dating site and hoped to impress her with his choice of reading material. Or maybe he was just a douchebag hiding behind a book we all knew he wasn’t interested in reading and talking way too loud on the phone. I ruled out secret spy right away – Jason Bourne he was not – and settled on the latter.
This is what makes people watching so fascinating to me – speculation and the “what if” game. Like the woman I see at the gym every so often with the ginormous…um…let’s call them ta-tas. I see her float past me during my hour-long, 27.9 mile ride to nowhere. I am always shocked and amazed that she can walk with such impressively good posture – shoulders down and back, perfect alignment over the hips, head up. I don’t know much about physics but I would certainly think that she is defying gravity in her ability to remain upright with such a disproportionate top load or maybe she has a spine made of steel. Hadn’t thought of that possibility until just now, but I digress.
As she passes me, I always look around expecting to see a Bravo camera crew trailing behind her, catching her every move for the yet unannounced new addition to the series – The Real Housewives of Denton County. I am forever disappointed that she is all alone because who wouldn’t be tickled pink over another Real Housewives to add to the DVR lineup. No? Just me? Hm. It is a this point that my mind begins to ask questions. Is she a stripper? A kept woman? A kept woman who used to be a stripper? Sydney Bristow in costume preparing to take down the membership manager who is really an arms dealer using 24 Hour Fitness as a front? I always thought he looked a little questionable. I’ve been meaning to run him through public data.
The peculiar man from Starbucks and the buxom blonde would both make great supporting characters in a novel. Neither would make it to the end of the book alive, but we all need those expendable characters to keep the story flowing. Right? You know I’m right. But what about those instrumental protagonists? My former history professor is character inspiration gold. Not in the sacrificial lamb sort of way but as leading man material. He looks like a young, very thin Ben Affleck with nerdy glasses and displays some distinctive and, often times, funny tics. He is a brilliant historian, versed in his discipline with more than his fair share of passion on the subject. He paces the room as he lectures, his voice getting louder and more animated with every breath. Sometimes I feel like I am in church (if i went to church – don’t judge me) because his voice will suddenly boom and reverberate off of the four walls of the small room. This is always the point in class where the devil inside me rejoices because his sudden increase in volume will cause the snoozers to jump out of their skin, knock their empty spiral notebooks onto the floor and look around in wide-eyed shock. Maybe that’s why he does it.
He says “right” after every couple of sentences and he’s not asking a question. He just says it. Maybe it’s a Minnesota thing. He is also shamefully disorganized and clumsy, dropping piles of unbound, coffee stained lecture notes onto the floor so often it becomes such a part of the daily routine that students don’t even notice anymore. I see him not as this odd, little professor teaching me a freshman level history course, but as the lead in a romantic suspense novel. Perhaps, the absentminded professor schtick is just a cover. What if he is a super secret spy, a member of an off the books black ops team only activated in times of great crisis (are you seeing a pattern here)? What if he will have to team up with the to be announced, tough as nails female character to save the world? What if he is just what he seems, a quirky intellectual who is inadvertently dragged into some sinister plot? Better yet, what if the bodacious blonde from the gym and the obnoxious dude from Starbucks are assassins bent on killing the president of the community college (the president that reminds me of that lawyer). The professor stumbles upon the plot becoming a target himself, then he must team up with the aforementioned compelling character, eliminate the blonde and the Starbucks dude to save the president’s life and dismantle the bomb hidden beneath the library atrium with only his knowledge of World War I trench warfare tactics to guide him.
Or maybe not.
Characters are the driving force in every story. Without them, there is no point to putting pen to page. Next time you are at the grocery store, standing in line behind that lady with one too many kids who wants to pay with an actual paper check, take a look around you. See, that man in the next aisle? No, not him. The other one. Yes, the one with the carton of milk and toilet plunger. Take a good look at him. Ask yourself: Who is he? Why is buying milk and a toilet plunger? Could he be a super secret spy? A terrorist? A serial killer hunting his next victim? Oh crap! Did he just smile at you?