Characters From Life


I had an experience a few weeks ago that I’m drawn to talk about. One of my gifts each Christmas is a Border’s gift card, and I judiciously use it. My goal is for it to last as long as possible. My writer’s group meets there so I took the opportunity to pick up a new novel I wanted to read. Unfortunately, somewhere between the cafe and the YA section, I lost my card. It had a significant amount left on it so I was tearing the store up looking for it.

Finally, Marsha and I went to the information desk and a manager arrived to help me cancel it before someone used it. He was talking on the phone to the individuals who handle such matters when I noticed a young person in the YA section paying a lot of attention to our conversation. A few minutes passed and a woman rounded the corner. The girl began an earnest conversation with the woman and she began digging in her purse. Meanwhile, manager is still on the phone. A few minutes pass and the woman approaches and says she’s found a gift card. She holds it tight against her chest and says if I can describe it, she’ll return it. So, I explain it was one of the white ones with silver snowflakes. I fail to mention there is a bird on it. She says, “Too bad, this is the bird one.” And begins to place it back in her wallet. The manager isn’t slow. He points toward her wallet and says, look at the number. All we need are the last four. That will tell us if it’s her card. Reluctantly, she took it out and read off the numbers and sure enough it was my card. The manager took it back and took me to the front of the store to verify that it hadn’t been used. It matched my last receipt. (This is how we had my last four digits of my gift card so word to the wise, keep those receipts)

During this exchange I watched this mother-daughter and the mother when she approached and the nuances of her reactions during this is it or isn’t it her’s period, were amazing. I realized how general my character’s reactions can be. When in real life there are all these subtleties. Tweaks of movement of an eyebrow here or a nose there. The lip that curls when a moment of joy is lost. Animus that hovers around a tightened jaw. Seconds that build around these tiny movements can bring chain reactions from those around them. It was a magnificent epiphany for the writer in me and made a nearly sad moment into a learning experience.

I can’t begin to know the dynamics of that mother-daughter, but I do understand those of my characters. My job now is to find those subtle movements in their interactions to give them animation.

What about you? Do you find yourself incorporating the people around you into your writing? How has it improved your writing?

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Characters From Life

  1. “Too bad, this is the bird one.” ?!?! WHAT???? No way. I’m surprised she came over at all if she intended to be like that! I wouldn’t even occur to me to say “if you can describe it.” Good lesson though. You’re right, so much communication is non-verbal.

    • dawnall

      It has been a blessing in disguise in that regard. Now I look at my characters and their body language in a new light.

  2. What a powerful post, Dawn! Besides showing your finely-tuned writer’s powers of observation, this says a lot about some the morality of some people. I immediately thought of a day years ago when my son was 13 and decided to go to a movie with his friends who were all the same age. All of them told the attendant they were 12 to get the “12 and under” discount. Mike told the truth and got pilloried for it. We talked about it when he got home and told me what had happened. As it turned out, one of the kid’s parents had been with them and had told the kids to lie about their ages. I asked him how he felt about it and he thought it over and said that while it hurt that his friends took jabs at him, he felt good about telling the truth. I’ve never been prouder of him. What cost did this parent bear for telling her kid and his friends to lie for a couple of bucks? Immeasurable, in my opinion. It’s hard to imagine how her son could ever respect her again. And, that reminds me of the anecdote about Eleanor Roosevelt when she was on a plane seated next to a reporter who struck up a conversation with her, and posed the hypothetical question to her, that “Would you go to bed with me for a million dollars?” After pondering it for a minute, she replied, “Well, for a million dollars… yes, I would.” The reporter smiled, then said, “Well, what would you do sexually for ten dollars?” Eleanor became indignant and snapped, “What do you think I am?” And the reporter, answered, “We’ve already established what you are–now, we’re just haggling over the price.”

    Good post!

    • dawnall

      Thanks, Les. Our kids learn some of their best lessons without us present huh? I was so proud of my oldest when he was stabbed. The first question nearly everyone asked was what color the perp was. He said, “It doesn’t matter. Only the cops need to know that. Or you can watch the news.” It was a proud moment for us as parents. Another human being stabbed my son and really his color isn’t relevant, his actions are. Another lesson learned.

  3. I remember this. Still can’t believe she did that.

  4. I am constantly people watching and finding ways to implement what I see into some of my characters for building them up and also flawing them. But it is very sad that she didn’t just give you the card when she obviously knew you had lost yours in the store. It is sad how selfish people are becoming these days but again it helps me build and flaw my characters for my novels.

  5. Oh, I’ve met those people that do things that you would never do – they are always good for inspiration! Whenever I’m thinking up my antagonists I go through these people that I’ve met or observed and use some of their character traits to help bring my characters to life. It works very well 🙂

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