Friday, September 7, 2012

Be a Character Collector

I used to take my notebook everywhere so I could jot down ideas as they popped into my head. Once, when I was in a bar in Charlottesville, Virginia, a rather large man came over to me and put his finger, firmly, on my pencil.

"Mister," he said, his voice drawling, "I would appreciate it if you would put this away."

I told him I was just working on a short story.

"That may be," he said, "but my buddies and I don't get into town much. We want to have some fun, and..."

I put my notebook away, and he smiled and gave me a nod.

One of my friends said he was "one of the hill people." I suppose he thought I was a government agent of some sort. He clearly wanted his privacy. How ironic that our conversation is now on the Internet. And that he found his way into my short story.

How could I leave him out? He was a character. Different. Complex. Surprising. The very thing readers look for.

If you want to be a productive writer in fiction, you need to become a character collector. Sometimes they'll come to you in a bar, but most of the time you'll have to stalk them. Here's what you are looking for:
  • People who are different - Weirdoes are always easy to spot and always welcome. But look for subtle differences, too. The person dressed impeccably, with an untied shoe. The homeless guy reading Tolstoy. The more closely you look, the more you will discover.
  • People who are emotional - Strong emotion is always captivating. And we often expose ourselves in moments when our heart or hormones take over.
  • People who want something - To me, this is the best of all. Hang around where a manager works in a retail establishment and hear the complaints and requests. One of my most interesting experiences was a long wait at the Social Security office when I needed my card renewed. One desperate person after another made his or her case with everything they had in terms of documents, arguments, and intimidation.
You can find characters anywhere, but I actively seek them where diverse groups gather and act. Weddings and funerals are obvious. Bars are good. Sports events bring together people from very different backgrounds, family units, and action. And there is more going on than what you see on the field. Food, souvenirs, and beer mix with misbehaving kids, couples on dates, and business people making deals.

Pay attention to what other people are up to. Even provoke them, if you dare. But watch yourself, too. How are you reacting to what is happening around you? Who catches your interest? Who raises your blood pressure?

Then capture the moment in full sentences, as soon as possible, in a way that doesn't excite someone from the hills. If you do, you'll have exactly the right characters available for your next story.


  1. I wonder what he did in town? Such a great character. (And great post!)

    -TL Costa

    1. He set my imagination going. About that time, I got a serious talking to about visits to some areas in the hills. If someone waves, wave back and broadly. If they don't see the wave, they may reach for a shotgun. This from a friend who came from those hills.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Stranger in a southern town? Taking notes in someone's favorite watering hole? Speaking with a Yankee accent? LOL.

    Dude, you've taught me so much that I have to return the favor. I have to teach you The Brain Dump, especially when you're studying paranoid people, even folks at the local social security office.

    Go in with the mindset that you'll have to remember things. Keep your ears and eyes open. Keep your feelings on edge but, if someone notices and calls you on it, say it's excitement and you're just happy to be there OR, better, find something you genuinely love about your surroundings that THEY could get behind. You do need the nervous edge because adrenalin makes the memory sharper.

    Don't take any notes until you excuse yourself to the restroom or wait until you get into the car, preferably driven off-site. Privacy is key. THEN scribble the notes. Yes, you risk losing some gems, but you'll still retain a lot. Trust and the ability to continue is valuable.

    1. What can I say? I was young and foolish. I am more discreet now. Also, I use memory tricks, such as concatenation, to hold the insight in my head.
      BTW, I was less a Yankee then (grew up on Maryland). But I was undeniably a city boy.
      Thanks for the advice, Rhonda!