What we’re writing: Watching strangers


HALLIE EPHRON: Every time I introduce a new character in a manuscript, I face the challenge of making the character memorable--so that when the reader meets that character again, they remember who I'm talking about. I hate it when the characters in a book blend together and the whole enterprise feels like a badly cast sitcom in which all the actors look alike.

Some authors are superbly deft at creating characters that imprint on the reader. Here’s how Jasper Fforde introduces a minor character in The Eyre Affair:
I worked under Area Chief Boswell, a small, puffy man who looked like a bag of flour with arms and legs. He lived and breathed the job; words were his life and his love – he never seemed happier than when he was on the trail of a counterfeit Coleridge or a fake Fielding.

Talk about terrific visual images—you can’t beat a bag of flour with arms and legs.

Here’s how Agatha Christie describes Jane Marple in the “The Tuesday Night Club,” the 1927 short story in which the character was first introduced:
Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in around the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair. She was knitting, something white and fleecy. Her pale blue eyes, benignant and kindly, surveyed her nephew and her nephew’s guests with gentle pleasure.
What makes the description work so well is the contrast between how Miss Marple appears – an oh-so-proper and somewhat ditzy old lady she seems to be at first blush – versus the very sharp observer and deducer that she turns out to be.

It's a challenge to put a memorable character on the page, and the devil's in the detail. I sometimes go to my people-watching file to find those details.

My people watching file is something I've been adding to for years. I carry a notebook and take down the details of the people I see on the subway or bus or airport, trying to capture what is it that makes one stranger stand out from another. Trying to imagine each person's story. Some real people have  inspired characters in my books.

Here’s my notes about a guy who was riding the Red Line into Boston:
I’m sitting on the subway beside a man - all I can see of him is a one bright blue sateen Reebok with a thick white rubber sole. He raises his arm, extends it so the sleeve slips away to reveal a watch. "Wednesday," he grunts.
Here’s another man on an Amtrak train to NY:
Bearded buddha, wire-rimmed glasses, swarthy, overflowing abdomen, black leather jacket, jeans. Scan down to his Teva-sandaled feet, scrupulously clean, toenails an even strip of white across the top of each. Back up and notice his shirt is white and unstained even if the buttons are straining. Back up to his hands - also clean, pudgy, silver ring embedded in the flesh of his pinky. Carrying a black backpack over his shoulder - he shifts it into his lap, unzips it and draws out a paperback. Star Trek.
This man was sitting opposite me on the subway:
Sneakers. kakhi pants, pink polo shirt – the clothing freshly laundered, not ironed. His body doesn't quite fill them and his clothes seem to cling to their own wrinkles. Skin so pale you can almost see through it, veins visible. Cheeks pink, nose reddish. Face clean shaven, eyes wide open, startled, watery blue. A raw bloody gash on the bridge of his nose. Comb-mark lines on his comb-over, as if he glued the hair down – a few strands have sprung loose and hang down in the back as if fallen from a pony tail. Fingernails long, clean. I want there to be a plastic hospital bracelet on his wrist.
Do you people watch? Do the people you watch surprise or intrigue you? Do they inspire you to tell a story?

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