Find exciting characters in mundane places

by Marion J. Smith

I’m sure most writers have a little notebook and pen handy in a pocket or purse. I’m sure most also find time to kill while dinning solo in a coffee house or waiting an hour at the doctor’s office. Do not kill that precious time. Make it work for you.

Image: Jeroen van Oostrom /

First you will need to become a sly spy, a peek-sneak, and an eavesdropper. All useful sins. You will also need to practice hiding, from the person at the next table or seat, what you have written. And learn the art of gazing nonchalantly, vacantly around the room occasionally. No one must suspect you could be watching him/her.

Now you have learnt the basics for character studying you can hone your pen, un-lock your note-pad and set out to find characters for your next project.

Start with a person you think may be around for the next ten minutes or so.
Note the obvious: his approximate generation, her obvious nationality. Maybe you have a pair or a couple. Workmates, senior lovers, mother and child, a pair of teens.

Next note is he obese, she reedy, he an Adonis? So far so easy.

Now is the time to bring your sneak-a-peek training into play. See her hands: How does she hold her coffee cup? Are the fingernails clean, scarlet, dirty, split, bitten? Are the knuckles red raw, arthritically twisted? Is the hair windblown, dirty, or newly coiffed? Describe the appearance. His dirty fingers. Is it fresh motor oil? He must be a mechanic. Or weeks old ground in dirt: a hobo or a slob? Her red rough hands. From a lifetime of manual employment, a possible skin disease, smoker’s nicotine, or time out in a bitter wind.

Now sneak-a-peek at the face. Ruddy or pale. Made up or neglected. Is that is a secret smile, an ugly sneer, or hidden tears. Study the body language; slouched, stiff, upright, bowed.

Ask yourself why. Now is the time when everything you have sneeked-a-peek at you can assume reasons for. What is that smile about? Why is he so gaunt and gray? Why has she had her hair done? Try to get involved in a casual conversation. Maybe something useful will come of it.

Next we will try using our eavesdropping skills. She chats to everyone who passes by. What does she find to say and why. He’s bitching to his buddy about someone else or even to an invisible partner. The couple across the way, are they looking at each other when they speak or avoiding eye contact? Gather clues from these conversations.

Having observed and made notes of the obvious elements you can then begin to assume. Ask yourself “Why”. The kids in the waiting room are driving everyone crazy why does the mum, or mummy, or mother, not do something about them? A drunk is arguing with the server. Something unusual has happened in the car park. The staff clearing tables is doing a lousy job.

Now your jottings can really start to work for you. Maybe your story has already been born of it’s own free will. If not then save your characters for a rainy day writer’s block. Next year you may need a well-dressed, obese man in a doctor’s waiting room along with the sexy Mom of three brats.

You take it from here. I wish you many hours of happy character building. Just don’t end up in the doctor’s waiting room because you have consumed too many coffees.

Marion has been a member of the Cambridge Writers Collective for almost 18 years. She enjoys writing short stories and poetry. Marion has published “After Sunset” a selection of her poetry. Other work has been published in various anthologies. Marion is also a lifelong thespian and watercolour artist.

One response to “Find exciting characters in mundane places

  1. Lee Anne Johnston

    Just wonderful Marion! I love it.

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