At the market the other day I was fortunate enough to get in line behind an elderly woman using an electric cart. She had a corona of curly white hair, wore a lovely floral blouse that matched her lilac trousers, and from her size had to be six feet tall or better standing.
I zoomed in on the details about her that interested me most: large hands laced with ecru age spots; on the left she sported a thin gold wedding band and modest diamond engagement ring that still sparkled. An old, chunky man's wristwatch (her husband's?) with big, easy-to-read numbers hung a little loose from her wrist. She gave off an aura of genteel perfume that I couldn't identify but reminded me of the Chantilly my mom likes to wear.
She had a full cart of groceries (I noted a gorgeous eggplant, three containers of fresh strawberries, and a gallon fat free milk.) As the clerk bagged everything for her in brown paper she gave direction on what was to be bagged together. She also listened and nodded as the cashier gave her an easy shortcut recipe for eggplant Parmesan, and then told her a funny cooking mishap story involving turkey gravy and peanut butter.
The lady had a strong, deep voice with a beautiful northeastern accent, maybe New Hampshire, and laughed out loud at herself several times with a big woman's booming, hearty laugh. Each time she did it tickled me, inviting me to laugh along (but I kept quiet so she wouldn't realize how closely I was eavesdropping.)
At some point during their exchange my order was also rung up, but the cashier and I had to wait as the lady's bags were loaded up in another cart. I paid in cash instead of using my card so I wouldn't have to ask the lady to move (her wheels were actually blocking my access to the card machine). All this took about ten minutes.
As soon as the lady left the cashier immediately apologized for making me wait, and I told her not to worry about it. "She's ninety-three," the cashier confided, shaking her head. She wasn't complaining, she was smiling.
So was I. Standing by that lady had been a privilege for me, not an inconvenience. It was like being in the presence of royalty; I was completely dazzled. Even as I write this a day later, I can still recall perfectly the sound of her laugh and the smell of her perfume. I also have no doubt a version of this magnificent creature will show up in one of my novels.
Observing strangers contributes most to my character collection. A chance encounter, like the one I had at the market, allows me to gather just enough information to start my imagination rolling. I need a little mystery to jump start the storytelling, and not knowing the name of the lady at the market, or where she lives, or any of her personal history gives me the room I need to invent. Finding out one small detail, like the fact she was born in 1919, gave me just enough to build on.
Imagine what this woman might have seen in her lifetime: the Great Depression, WWII, all those presidents, so much history. Was she a USO girl, or maybe a Rosie the Riveter? I bet she was. Does that old watch belong to the same guy who gave her those rings, or did it belong to her dad, her brother, a long-lost love? To still be shopping for herself -- and laughing -- at the age of ninety-three speaks of who she is at the very heart: strong, determined, dignified, joyous.
Every time you go out in the world, you have an opportunity to collect story elements from real life. People are walking characterization treasuries, and if you pay attention, you can borrow some of that personality gold and reinvest it in your fictional cast.