Sometimes when I’m in a creative drought, I’ll walk around the mall “weirdo hunting” which is doing exactly what that sounds like. You find someone who looks weird and you follow them around. Bonus points if you’re bold enough to tail them to another store. If I don’t locate a weirdo, then I know that the weirdo of the day is me and the game ends.
This way you can observe how someone strolls, their posture, their expressions, how they hold a product in their hands and examine it, how they treat the cashiers. Some people like to eavesdrop on conversations—and don’t get me wrong, I love eavesdropping on strangers because I have no friends and it’s the only way to participate in a conversation—but I haven’t personally found the method fruitful. I find I do better starting with a physical form and then letting the character take care of the rest. One strange contortion of your mouth could earn you a co-starring role in my next story.
So imagine my delight the other day at Barnes & Noble, when we were getting coffee at the half-ass Starbucks (the other half is the regular standalone version), to encounter one of my most hated fictional characters right behind the counter. Well, not that I had any animus towards the poor girl. Wasn’t her fault. Yet she behaved exactly how I envisioned, same sing-song voice, same squat stature. Flirted with my fiancé the same way she flirted with my protagonist’s boyfriend. I think she might even have had her short sleeves rolled up the same way. The main difference was that she didn’t seem to be a nasty person, although who can ever tell?
I felt proud as I watched and listened, as though the whole situation was of my own making, like I was watching an animated film I wrote myself. Really, I felt vindicated. It almost makes you believe there’s some sort of mystical world populated by these individuals, and sometimes they fill in for someone who didn’t show up for work.
I like to read writing advice, not necessarily just for the advice itself but to see what makes the advice-giver’s brain tick. Yeah, I know, “Don’t read advice, just write, F you, blah-blah-blah!” But I enjoy learning about other people’s processes as a sort of psychological study. How someone writes is how they see the world, how they see themselves. Maybe it’s all just how we see ourselves, who knows?
To create a cast of characters, some people say to write about different aspects of yourself, others say just let them show up and do their thing. I don’t really buy heavily into the former because I don’t think you get a very good variety of characters when you make the conscious decision to expand upon yourself. There’s a tendency to be too picky and careful about it, to create your perfect “dark side” character, for instance. I just look for someone I don’t like and let it take off from there. However, there’s no doubt that deep self-awareness aids us in everything.
On the other hand, characters don’t just come out of nowhere and take up residence in my head. I’ve heard of people who’ve had crackhead ballerinas show up, but my brain isn’t very creative and can’t generate these things by itself. When I go over the list of characters in my head, they generally seem to be loosely based on people I know, but with creative license they morph into someone new, preferably absurd. I sort of close my eyes and converse with them. See how they react. I just need a face and an aura.
While I prefer a protagonist that is similar to myself, I do need some distance because when I try to stick to the truth, the result is quite wooden, much like the original. Some people write so they can imagine doing things they would never do in real life, but I have a hard time with that. For instance, if a situation calls for someone to make a choice between bravery and cowardice, it’s difficult to allow my character to be brave when I’m naturally a coward. I feel like I’m lying, and someone might find me out. They do say “write what you know,” after all. But then I run into the first problem of how boring I am. That’s why it’s best to have a decent amount of daylight between you and your beloved protagonist.
The greatest authors of old didn’t need psychology degrees or MFA’s to write their masterpieces of insight into the human psyche. They also didn’t have smart phones. I wonder if, in the future, the ability to pierce into someone’s soul will be lost entirely? Will there ever be another Dostoevsky or Hardy? Doubt it. But why not? Help me, where’re their writing advice books?