Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inspired by Life

CHARACTERS: Lady in the Red Hat

I was driving home from the bank the other day, and saw a woman walking down the sidewalk. Calf-length flowered sundress, carefree walk, bright RED wide-brimmed sunhat. The breeze rippled her skirt around her long legs. I wondered what her hair was like, because all I saw was the RED hat. Was her hair short? Was it long…and if so, how did she tuck it under the hat?

Or wait. Maybe she'd undergone chemotherapy--and she had no hair. Interesting theory.

Little snippets of her possible character started developing in my mind.

I stopped at the stoplight and continued to observe (yeah, we writers are weird, stalkerish people). At that point I smiled, because I saw that instead of wearing sandals or flip-flops to match her feminine attire, this woman wore clunky boot-like shoes. Aha! Not your typical girlie-girl. An individual, someone not afraid to lose the overall ultra-feminine effect by pairing her sundress with stomp-worthy boots. That, or else she was very practical. I mean, if she planned to walk a lot that day, she'd need more of a hiking kind of footwear, right?

And then I glimpsed the final impression-changer: one of her hands came up from her side, and she took a drag on a cigarette. That surprised me! But her being a smoker did kind of match the boots. Nix the practical theory for the boots--back to the rebel individual, anti-girlie theory. The red hat was the initial flag that waved "I don't mind standing out!" Her character was solidifying before my eyes.

I wondered…do the characters in my books ever surprise my readers like that? Or are the kids, teens, and adults in my novels more like stock characters, easily put into a well-defined category? Normal. Safe. PREDICTABLE. Do I ever go beyond "normal" characters and make them individuals? Am I afraid to drop something more unusual into the mix, for fear that it won't seem "realistic" or "right" for that character? Fascinating revelation.

What about you and your characters? 

A word of caution. You can go totally bonkers and overdo the unpredictable factor while making your characters stand out and be different. I've read books where almost every single character has an eccentric, bizarre, or unusual trait. Like (and I'm making these up) Uncle Harold has an alligator farm…petite elderly neighbor Ms. Crayville races stock cars in her spare time…BFF Hilary adores scorpions and utilizes them to get even with her ex-boyfriends.

It can reach overload in a short time. The quirkiness begins to be the new norm. As you read, you don't experience the exhilaration of glimpsing a parrot in a flock of crows. You experience…a flock of parrots.

Do you people-watch, and get writing ideas from people you see or meet in real life?
Do you tend to make your characters normal and predictable--or are they quirky?
What's your favorite zany/quirky/eccentric character you've read about in a book?


  1. I'm not in to people-watching, like some writers. However, I do love quirky characters. The one that comes to my mind first is Luna Lovegood, from the Harry Potter books. Thanks for the great reminder, Carol!

  2. I'm a people watcher from way back, and I do make up stories about them. I once watched a family in a restaurant that came in to celebrate some event in one of their lives, and by the time they left I'd worked out that their marriage was one-sided and their children were having school problems, etc. Now, this was all based on body language, because I wasn't close enough to truly eavesdrop, and it was probably quite a happy family, but it made a more interesting story to wonder what their problems might be, etc. I do that at airports too. :-)

  3. People-watching: Yes. (But it's the eavesdropping part I like best!) I like quirky characters but sometimes find it difficult to determine when it's too much..

  4. Yes, I think I like listening more than watching. And I agree with Victoria; Luna Lovegood was awesome :)

  5. I love people watching. I make up stories for them and get ideas for characters.

  6. I love people watching. Also, interesting attire and grooming gets my attention.

    I enjoy reading quirky books, but haven't really added the quirk myself except in one of my current WIPs.

  7. I do people watch, and the questions begin to percolate. I agree about not have characters be have too many quirks.

  8. I am a big time people watcher. I get many quirks from people I've just watched at the grocery store, bank, and dining out. Fun stuff!

  9. I could definitely picture the lady in red.

    Hubby and I sometimes play a little game when we're on the train to work. We randomly pick people and guess their life stories. It's a lot of fun.

    Oh, there's a little award for you over at my place. Pick it up whenever you like. Hugs

  10. Cool picture of the lady in red . . .love your observations!
    My characters have a tendency to be fairly "normal" and less quirky, although my current MC does have a prankster streak underneath her desire to overachieve.

  11. I like people watching. I love catching a snippet of info and wondering what they are talking about. I've not used any as characters though. Not yet.

  12. I do love to watch people, I'm always looking for new ways to describe actions and appearance

  13. Fun topic, Carol.

    I LOVE to people watch. I am always fascinated. There are so many quirky individuals out there to observe.

    But like you said overload isn't good. As with everything in writing I believe BALANCE is the key. GIve a freaky quirk to the main MC or supporting character, BUT put average or mundane character personalities with them. It will bring out that character so much more. If you have too many, none will really shine!

    Like in the HP series. Harry really isn't that quirky. Hermione and Ron are really the characters with the PERSONALTY. Ron is hysterical and Hermione is a pushy no-lt-all. But they are memorable because Harry kind of just goes with the flow.

  14. I can't help but to people watch. I do it without thinking sometimes. I think this is part of being a writer--or so I tell myself. : )
    When I am writing, I try to mix quirks with otherwise normal behavior. Too many quirks can make a character unbelievable. Too much normalcy can make a character boring. And we all have quirks, right?


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