We all have things that we would never ever dream of doing.
For example, I would never ever go ziplining. This is, for me, an absolute.
There are some assumptions you can make about me solely from that confession, right?
First, you may assume that I am not adventurous or impulsive.
You would be right.
Second, you might assume that I have a fear of heights. That's also correct.
Do you see how a simple "never" statement can show you things about my personality, even exposing my fears? This is a very useful trick when developing a character for your novel. These never statements will tell your readers important details in a subtle way. With a well placed "never" statement, you don't have to spell out all the details. Your readers will naturally draw their own conclusions.
However, with every "never" statement there is often an "unless" statement.
I would never go ziplining unless my mother and cousin dragged me along with them. No, I don't balk at all forms of peer pressure, but these two people can get me to try things that I'm naturally too fearful to try. I mean, think about it . . . if my mom is brave enough to try it, what's my problem? If my baby cousin is brave enough (and I want her to admire me) then it might be worth the risk.
Here's another real life example:
Remember, I'm afraid of heights. While at a water park with my husband, children and my cousin, I decided to go on a waterslide. There were actually 4 slides all using the same line. At the very top you could select which slide to go down.
One slide looked tame. The second slide looked twisty, but safe. The third slide looked daring. The fourth slide looked like a death trap.
My cousin entered the line with me.
At the top of the stairs I noticed that the first two slides were closed. Now I had to choose between daring or death drap. I also learned that the line determined which slide you would be put on. My cousin was ahead of me and she was placed on the daring slide. That left me stuck. I either had to go down the death trap and risk what I imagined would end in paralysis, or go back down the stairs against the crowd and look like a chicken to my cousin (and everyone there).
I would never have gone down that slide in a million years. It was almost a straight shot down and seemed to defy gravity. I would never have done it had I not been in that situation.
Sure enough, I let myself be directed onto that death trap slide. If I'm honest, it's still an out-of body memory that I cannot believe actually occurred. I arrived at the bottom unscathed. No one was even watching. My cousin had returned to the lazy river without me and the only one to witness my bravery was my inner self. Unfortunately, she still had her hands over her eyes.
You get the idea. Good characters need "never" and "unless" statements. They show readers the depth of personality, expose inner conflicts and add an element of realism your readers will appreciate.
Hop back here every Monday in February for much shorter posts featuring one of my character's "never" and "unless" statements. If you're a fan of my writing, don't miss it.
People watching is a valuable activity for writers. Here are some tips to help you succeed:
1. Seek out a crowd. Choose a busy time when your chosen location will be crowded. This allows you to blend in and go virtually unnoticed.
2. Bring writing supplies. Pack a pocket sized notebook and a pen in your pocket or purse. Better yet, use a note taking app on your smart phone.
3. Be open minded. Don’t choose who you are observing outright. If you fixate on one person you might miss the silly thing someone else does or says.
4. Pay careful attention to groups. Who is the “life of the party”? Who is the person who would rather be someplace else? How can you tell?
5. Be stealth. Bring a friend along, but tell them what you are doing. Your occasional chatter will make those around you more comfortable and put you under the radar.
6. Respect boundaries. If you hear something deeply personal, don’t listen too hard. Watch emotions or reactions subtly. You can fill in the gaps of content yourself. You are, after all a writer.
7. Don’t stare. This annoys people and they act less natural when they’re annoyed.
8. Stand in line. One of my favorite things to do is to stand at the back of the line at Panera one Wednesdays. A large group of Seniors flood the place on that day and their grumpy chatter is pure gold.
9. Find the feelings. Notice stress and tension, either in conversation or in actions.
10. Movements matter. Consider body language and how a person handles objects in the environment. For example, did the person destroy their Styrofoam cup during conversation? Could that person be inwardly angry or just really A.D.D?
Here are some samples of my people watching notes. Remember, these are just quick jots that can be fleshed out and can be expanded on later. While people watching, keep your notes simple and brief. Write just enough to activate your memory.
Man and woman at Panera. Neither is wearing rings. I suspect a date. The Woman says she hates salad, “it’s like a crunchy, squishy blob of leaves”. Suddenly, the man opens his brief case and pulls out his Bible. He begins preaching at his companion across the table, though he doesn’t seem aware that he’s making her uncomfortable. She pulls out her phone and begins texting while being preached to. His eyes are on his Bible and he doesn’t even notice. She slides her phone under the table and continues texting. I imagine that she is texting her friend “worst date ever”. She nods periodically to make it look like she’s listening. She shifts in her chairs and, under the table, her thumbs never stop. His voice rises to make his final point but all she hears is the giggling of the five children taking up two tables to her right. She looks up from her texting to smile at the kids. The man sighs, looks up from his Bible and asks “Is it analogy or is it truth?” The women turns her eyes back to him, looking up from the texting she had just returned to. She’s thrown by his statement, realizing that he may have just talked himself into a corner. It was time to speak up. Could she get a word in? Could she make her point or would it only start a new flight pattern of scriptural references flying at her like bats in a disturbed cave?
A group of people at Mimi’s Café. They sit behind us, but I can hear them talking. They complain about one of the women’s boyfriends. She apparently broke up with him because he was too “into video games”. I reasoned that he must have either been obsessed or a game developer. They talked about how he had just been in Japan for a video game conference. I assume the average gamer can’t afford a trip like that and imagine he’s a developer. They must have broken up just before his trip. They were asking if he’d contacted her since his return. She said that she received the thumbs up emoticon on Facebook from him and called him when she received it. She was upset. What did it mean? Was he trying to say he was happy without her? She tells her table of friends “He said that he didn’t mean to send it. It was an accident.” To this, a male friend at the table said “You can’t accidently send an emoticon. Those can’t be faked.”
It was such a strange conversation that I had to write it down. Sometimes people don’t know how weird they are.
I imagined the poor dumped guy and imagined him selling some huge game at the conference that was guaranteed to make him a millionaire. Someday they’d run into each other again. He’d be in a suit and tie surrounded by business men and shelling out a fortune for a gourmet dish and wine. She would be bussing tables next to his to afford rent for her “apartment” in her parent’s basement. He’d notice her, but wouldn’t say a word. She’d be thinking of an emoticon, the facepalm.
Sometimes, your note will have nothing to do with what really happened. For example, once while on a date with my husband, we were seated at a table that another couple had just left. The blond woman who left the table smelled strongly of perfume and she had so much hair that some of it was just looking for reasons and opportunities to jump ship onto the booth cushion. My husband was directed to her former seat. That’s when I began to wonder . . .
Imagine a guy who is in counseling to save his marriage. His wife is unable to go that night so he’s all alone. His counselor calls him back and the room still smells from the last client. He sits in the seat she was in, the only remaining seat in the room. When the husband arrives home he smells of women’s perfume and long blond strands of hair cling to his suit. How would his wife react?
Save whatever you scribble down while observing. You never know when these everyday exchanges could worm their way into your next story.