Last week I stood on a sidewalk in the shopping district of Seattle while a pickup truck rolled to a stop at the light. Beat up trucks are rare in Seattle, but that didn't hold a candle to the man belting Italian opera in a beautiful tenor from the cab. Last night we went out with friends to a shady little bar that could be straight off the pages of my upcoming novel. The decor hadn't been updated since the seventies, and the tabletops were as sticky as they were drab. The real scene stealer sat at the bar in a shimmering gold dress with a bow. The thirty-something man sitting next to her did his best to take her home, but the poor guy was left in the dust as she worked the rest of the room before leaving early. She had to be at least sixty-five.
You go, girl.
Extraordinary inspiration springs up in the most ordinary places. If I take the time to pocket my cell phone and pay attention to my surroundings, I'm typically rewarded with an idea for a character. Sometimes a scene unfolds that is too unbelievable for even my brand of fiction, but it could be fodder for a new spin later. The trick is finding a large group of people and allowing your imagination to run away.
Here are some of my favorite people watching spots.
Living near a city makes finding new characters easy. Look for facial features, tics, and traits that are interesting with the right backstory. Observing demographics can help give balance to your books. The world has a lot of variety walking around on it that likely expands beyond your peer group.
If you're on a normal commuter line, there are still interesting things to see. Almost daily I observe a petite woman wedge herself between an entitled oaf who sits with his knees going east/west and a slob with his laptop bag on the seat. Most riders put their noses in a phone or book, but occasionally you get a talker. The downtown lines are even more interesting. I spent forty minutes stuck in traffic next to a guy so out of his mind he repeatedly set his stolen coat on fire instead of springing the security device. Avert eye contact and take notes.
The woman reaming her boyfriend over his shampoo selection may have finally hit the last straw after months of bigger problems stacking up. Who knows? Clerks witness the strangest behavior and this is just grocery shopping. Malls can be amazing people watching territory, particularly if there's a food court known for table top gaming meet ups.
This is a chance to watch family dynamics or a date in progress. I love going to restaurants with friends and weaving backstories for the people around us. I'm certain we're completely off base 99% of the time.
Second only to public transit. If you sit in an urban coffee shop long enough, you will see and hear some disturbing things. It's also a chance to observe at least one or two earnest writers trying to hit their word count for the day.
Keep in mind, this isn't about making fun of people. It's about observing and exercising your imagination. Anywhere you go could lead to your next great character or a new twist in your story. If you already have a character but don't feel like you know them yet, hang out where they would go and watch the crowd for a while.
Do you have any places that bring you inspiration for characters?