On my way to our last Scribes’ meeting, I drove through town. I take this route so many times that usually, it’s boring. My thoughts wander as I don’t notice the familiar surroundings. This drive was different.
Our city’s had so much snow that sidewalks are sometimes clean, sometimes not. Some people shovel them. Some don’t. Bluffton Road has plenty of traffic, but a teenager must have decided that braving traffic was better than trudging through snow and ice. He was walking down the painted lines in the center of the four-lane highway. Not quite medium height, he wore a blue jean jacket with fleece lining, faded blue jeans, and a chain that connected his billfold to his belt loop. His dark hair scraped his shoulders, but what I noticed most about him was his swagger. The kid’s walk almost challenged cars to bring it on. It gave an immediate impression of his personality. It made me think. How well do I do that in my writing? Everything about this kid screamed cocky. Do I manage that without an adjective when I have a character step on screen?
To write main characters, I make character wheels and fill in backgrounds, goals, and motivations. It takes time to make them live and chatter in my head. But what about walk-on characters? Do I take the time to paint someone as vivid as that teenager?
I turned onto Broadway and stopped at a red light near the hospital. A woman, dressed in a purple exercise outfit–matching stretch pants and jacket–with her long, brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail, was marching down the sidewalk, waving her arms in the air and talking to the sky. At first, I looked for a Bluetooth or a cellphone cradled to her ear, but if there was one, I missed it. The light changed to green and traffic moved on, but I wondered about that woman. Was she shaking her fists at the heavens? Giving herself a pep talk? Outraged by something? She’d make an awesome walk-on character in a story. I probably wouldn’t get the gist of the real person right, but I could sure come up with a memorable scene with her in it.
On the next street over, I passed two, middle-aged, Black men–dressed in jeans and jackets–who were visiting and laughing so hard, their happiness flowed around them. It cheered me up just seeing them. I wondered how I’d use them if I put them in a story, because their joy was spontaneous. Could I mimic it on the page?
I’ve never been able to write about anyone I’m close to. When I know a person–family or friend–they become too complex for me to condense onto a page. But impressions of people work wonders. Writers want characters to feel real, and to do that, we need to make our characters consistent, but real people aren’t always one way or another, are they? They have little idiosyncrasies and their moods change. It’s like writing dialogue. It has to ring true, but real dialogue is full of fits and starts and false directions before we reach the meat of an issue. So just as for dialogue, writers create impressions of real people for their stories. The more vivid the impression–the mood, the style, or the image–the better.
*Just to let you know, my novella Midu’s Magic is available for free now on smashwords. If you read it and like it, DON’T buy the rest of the Emerald Hills novellas. They’ll be available in about a month in a collection, and you can get all of them for 99 cents instead of 99 cents each:)