It is 5:31am on a Thursday morning and I am sitting in my local Starbucks. I’ve already been to the gym, I’ve already kicked off a process that will take some time at work and I’m part-way through my first cup of coffee of the day. But more importantly, I have my laptop open and on it I have my “Writer’s File”, as Annie described it yesterday, open. I’m sitting here, watching people come in and out. I’m listening to what they order, sure, but more importantly I’m listening to how they order. If they come in with someone else, I’m listening to how they interact with each other.
My little Writer’s File has been neglected for a while. It is a bit of a mess, really. But today, it’s getting a lot of new character information, such as:
- The businesswoman who forgot to remove her sunglasses when she came in, and just walked into another customer she appears not to have seen. Did she stay out partying last night and the sunglasses are masking that look from her eyes? Was she up all night with a sick relative? Did she just fly in from the west coast?
- The “regular”, who expects that whomever is behind the counter they will know what the order is… and then gets upset when there is a new barrista waiting for him to tell her what he would like this morning. Is he like this at home and/or in the office, too?
- The lab technician or nurse who meandered in — is she coming off her night shift or gearing up for her work day?
- The barrista who appears to be enjoying her work today… when I commented that she seemed “peppy” today, she said, “It’s my Friday, so why wouldn’t I be peppy?”
- The patron who is here every day with a new business venture he is trying. He’s been in construction, solar electric installations, personal fitness training, home design and sunglasses. What is his plan today for his next business venture? Did he supply that businesswoman with her sunglasses? Did he stop putting a logo on the side of his truck because he kept needing to change it, or is he simply designing the next logo and will put it on next week?
My coffee is nearly done and I have added a good dozen characters to my Writer’s File. Some will never go anywhere in any of my stories, but the effort of writing them down, describing their looks, their personalities, their interaction skills and even their preferences for early-morning beverages is a good workout for my creative muscles. And as I sit here and get to know all these strangers around me, some of whom I see every day and some I’ve seen for the first time and may never see again, I once again realize that we have as many characters available to us as there are different people in the world. Our characters should be flawed. They should bump into other people by accident, they should have rough mornings after staying up all night. They should have a preferred drink and a morning routine. Not all of these details need to be included in our stories, of course, but they need to be included in our characters so that they can make our stories richer, deeper and more realistic and interesting.
So, look around you today. Write down a few notes about people you see coming and going. Then let us know who you’ve met — who is that person you see across the way?
Its interesting that you keep characters on file. In the beginning I used to go into coffee shops and watch people to see how they behaved, but I haven’t done this in ages. I’ll make a point of checking characters out in a local coffee shop from now on. I think it was Julia Cameron who wrote The Artist’s Way that talked about keeping regular coffee dates with yourself, but I’d forgotten all about this until you reminded me of this practice. Thanks.
This was a really useful post. Thanks!
Well, that’s a clever idea. I’ll have to try that.
I can’t help myself with my writing the way you do, going out and observing, but your post gave me inspiration for something I can do — watch one of those channels on TV where it’s all people in real life, not necessarily a reality show though. From there I could get characters in a similar fashion as you do. Thank you.
As for “the businesswoman who forgot to remove her sunglasses when she came in”, she might be like me, and wear prescription sunglasses so it’s easier to just leave them on than switch to regular glasses! Or she might be a spy.
That’s good, Icy. It opens up a plotline as well. Maybe she broke her regular lenses, and is forced to choose between peering out of her sunglasses in dark rooms, or removing them and trying to make her way through a blurry world. How long will she have to deal with this problem until she can replace her glasses- and how much can go wrong until then?
It is 5:31 AM and you’ve already worked out?!!!!
I wonder who is writing what about you?
“A bespectacled guy comes into the coffee shop every morning at 5:30, the bags under his eyes darker each visit. He nods at the barrista as he grabs his order and pops open his computer. Most likely he’s spying on everyone in this place. Wonder if he’s onto me yet.”
hehe, yeah, I get some curious looks sometimes….