This article is for writers and those who aspire to be writers, it goes beyond the usual import of the mechanics of writing. It covers the need and reason behind observing people, talking to them and learning to develop good three dimensional characters that can be recognizable.
Recently, reading the comments in online writers' groups and listening to members of live groups of aspiring writers, I've come to realize that many miss one of the most important sources of inspiration - research and development for an individual wishing to pursue the craft of writing. I am not talking about the mechanics, we can easily remedy holes in the mechanics by further education or, at the very least, a good writing program that will check your work for spelling and grammatical errors. Nor do I intend to lessen the importance of these mechanics.
There are those who have taken classes and others that have independently developed as writers. The ones that took classes may have had exercises as outlined below, but for either group it is a good chance to review and/or, in some cases, to gain a new perspective.
The really important actions of writing, other than putting the thoughts and words to paper is watching and listening. It has been a proven, and greatly overlooked, fact that seventy percent of really good communications is listening. Thats right, Listening. In todays fast paced world we, as a society, have become so busy telling everyone of our beliefs, opinions and ideas that we miss hearing the other side. There are millions of stories to be had and told in the world at any given moment. We, as writers, only have to sit back with our mouths shut, eyes and ears open and absorb these wonderful pearls that are rolling all over the place.
Get your notebook, a sandwich, and bottle of water and then go sit on a bench somewhere and just observe, closely, everyone that passes. Take notes on how they walk, the way they dress, their mannerisms. Talk with some of them or just listen to the different individuals in the group, crowd, or whatever. If you do pick one individual to talk with, dont make it an interview, just get them to talking and listen to what elates them, or what bugs them gathering insight into differences in character, attitudes, mode of speech, type of accent; read and remember each persons body language -- it sometimes speaks more than words. Just by their movements, try to analyze what else may be on the minds of the individuals.
As you just observe people take notes on the way they walk, hold themselves, even the way they dress; as an exercise make-up first person scenarios for what you see in each one, two hundred words or less, what caused their limp, why the particular hair style, who they are, are they social or reclusive, active or inactive, employed or unemployed, if unemployed are they students, independently wealthy, retired, etc..
There are infinite combinations that may be used to give verbal life to those you see. You may be totally incorrect in these mute studies, however you have given your imagination one of its most powerful exercises and in restricting your per person biography it helps you to learn how to tighten your work and still give a reasonably complete character description.
All these tidbits of observation and listening will only help you to develop real three-dimensional characters when next you sit down at your computer or typewriter and begin to spin your tale. Before you know it your characters are one in the same with the image of one of those passers-by that you observed and including your supposition as to their inner thoughts and unique actions. Developing into strong, honest, real representations of individuals forming the whole of your storys society. This is true whether you write fiction or non-fiction; your characters, real or fictitious, have to appear in your readers eye as the person or a person as the case may be. Someone they can picture mentally, and hopefully say, I know that person, he is just like Joe Blow or Jane Doe down the block. You have given a life like quality to your character. He can be a hard fighting, two fisted, leader and in his own mind a man of many self doubts who, by his actions, overcomes those doubts or personal demons.
You might even volunteer at a Senior Center, sit and talk with those who have lived long and eventful lives. They, every one of them, have a whole stockpile of stories they would love to have someone to tell them to. Some of these stories are good and full enough to stand on their own; in those cases ask if they would mind if you wrote about what ever that event in their life was. You will be surprised how happy that would make some of them and how much more detail they will go into to tell you their story. In other cases, some of the little tidbits you gather will inspire good fictional short stories or even novels. Not to mention the character study of these differing individuals.
Another source is at an AA meeting; the Friends of Bill W have some almost unbelievable stories not to mention the characters in the group - from the lowest down and out, to those that are the last people you would expect. Probably the most fun and insightful group to sit with and listen to are children. In their innocence they see things, sometimes clearer than most adults whose minds are now so cluttered with knowledge and life experiences.
There are people and character study opportunities just about anywhere, do your homework. Some of these stories will be dark and even sinister, some laced with action, and the majority will show a great love affair with life and other individuals, generously seasoned with emotional highs and lows.
I will close this piece with an example, one that is true and from my past of how I missed an opportunity to really have an expanded, interesting story rather than an anecdote. The only excuse I have to offer myself is that I was just a young child at the time and never expected to become a writer.
When I was a young boy of about ten years of age, I periodically came in contact with a great-uncle, Uncle Lou. I remember him as this dapper old man who always was wearing a black double-breasted suit with a white carnation boutonniere. He always reminded me of Edward G. Robinson, the actor, thick facial features and a cauliflower ear and every time I saw him he had a very big cigar in his mouth. The thing that impressed me the most, as a child, was his card tricks. He could make a card appear to be coming out of the very narrow base of a floor lamp, I was mesmerized by this feat. My father had told me that Uncle Lou was once a professional prizefighter and even was Light Heavyweight (I think that was the class) Champion at one time. I was also told that, at the time I met with Uncle Lou, he was an officer of both the New York Sports Alliance and the New Jersey Sports Alliance, which were the officiating bodies of the Prize Fighting in those days. Being a child and not really interested in that particular sport, the only thing that impressed me were Uncle Lous card tricks; besides we were an average family and I was not really so sure of the honesty of Uncle Lous history.
Almost ten years later, while on duty in the Pacific with the U.S. Navy, I happened upon an old copy of Police Gazette. For those unfamiliar with this publication, is was a mystery magazine with true crime stories and always had a centerfold type portrait of some, famous or semi-famous prizefighter.
Low and behold what did I find in the center of this particular issue of Police Gazette? Youre right! There, staring back at me, wearing tights and lightweight six-ounce gloves in an old time boxers pose was Lou MacFarlane, my Great Uncle.
So you see, there are a million stories out there; this is but one example of how the expanded story would be one that made a good short story. Surprise yourself and find these pearls that have been mistaken as just a grain of sand in your own family or even the families of friends and talkative strangers.
I hope I have been of some inspiration to all of you and want to wish you, all, good fortune and KEEP ON WRITING.