Saturday, January 14, 2012

Collecting Characters

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.

14 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:44 AM

    :) I work in an aged care facility and one of our residents is 101 years old. It brightens my day to see her toddling around with her walking frame, her white hair sticking up in every direction. It's just gorgeous. Not to mentions that she is just the loveliest lady.... I love random things like this that just make you smile.

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog entry. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. I hope to see her one day in one of your books, lovely story!

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  4. Sounds like quite a character! And people wonder where writers get inspiration...

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  5. I don't seem to be able to help it. The only writer's motto that really matters, for me at least, is "I can use that." Ruthless and cruel sometimes, but best to acknowledge it.

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  6. Thanks so much for sharing this. You made me see this lovely woman and care about her in just a few short paragraphs. No matter how magnificent the character (and she really was), the writer has to be deft enough to show her magnificence to the reader. Loved it!

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  7. Great post! I agree, I have encounters like that all the time. Thank you for sharing.

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  8. The other part of this story that I loved is the fact you were so interested in an elderly woman, allowing you to observe and take her in, imagining her life, getting ideas for a character in the future...rather than be cranky and impatient she was blocking your access to pay and/or exit the store.

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  9. When you meet someone who has that much impact on you, it's great to sit up and take note. If you capture even a fraction of that, you can convey a very magnetic character. You can also make a hybrid character with traits from several different people you encounter. AND people watching is so much fun.

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  10. I do this all the time. Faces, voices, laughs, comments I hear...everything is story for me.

    People are just awesome...I like watching more than anything else but still.

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  11. It happened to me a lot of times whenever I get the chance to be on the passenger seat. Looking at the people of all walks in life, I think a lot. What it's like to be in their shoes, what are they thinking. I'm so amazed how you characterized the 93-year old woman. That, the people we meet, see, accidentally bump-in can play a good/bad character in everyone's story.

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  12. I liked this post! It is amazing the characters we can come up with just by observing others. It's part of the reason I love mall watching. :)

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  13. What a wonderful post! And I agree: those routine errands offer up the opportunity for character inspiration, whether you are looking for it or not.

    On weekends I visit the Rochester Public Market. I can't begin to count the number of people who end up in little stories in my head or on paper. Everyone, to some degree, is a character. :)

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  14. What a great story. It's often the same for artists (at least that's what they've told me when I interviewed them). Such a rich, vivid word picture!

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