"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.
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.