Drawing on real life to craft great characters

I’m sitting at a table in the sun at the Starbucks at 29th and Rock Road, listening to the outrageous, obnoxious muzak pulsing on the speaker overhead. I just got out of an amazing critique group meeting, and I had a bit of time before church. So I decided to stop and recharge.

If there’s one thing Wichita really needs it’s a conveniently located independently run coffee shop. We have Mead’s downtown, which is great, but it’s not close enough to my church to allow me to go there and just chill before service. (If anyone in Wichita is reading this, start a coffee shop on the east side, and I’ll be your No. 1 customer!)

I don’t know if it’s the writer in me or not, but I love coming up with stories for people sitting around me. Not everyone I see generates a story on sight, but these folks did.

There’s a couple sitting across from me–a father and a daughter. I just love watching people. The daughter is probably 11 or 12. She’s got skinny jeans on, a short-sleeve white button-up shirt, and a purple beret. Her brown hair is loose and hangs halfway down her back.

Her dad (I assume it’s her dad) is a heftier fellow in blue jeans and a black shirt, with his salt-and-pepper hair gelled enough to stand up and a 5 o’clock shadow. They’re sitting at the high top tables, talking softly, laughing about something pleasantly. It’s nice to see, and it makes me wonder who they are.

It’s not that pre-teens and their dads can’t converse pleasantly. On the contrary, I’m sure it happens often. I just haven’t seen it very frequently. It makes me happy. I have such a close relationship with my dad, I’m glad to see another father/daughter couple having coffee together and just enjoying being together.

But for some reason, looking at them, my brain instantly went to “single parent.” Divorced. No mom. I’m assuming, obviously. I don’t know, but their body language indicated fondness without closeness. Maybe the mom died, but in our culture, it’s more likely divorce.

Makes me wonder what they’re doing in the east-side Starbucks? Are they going to my church? Will I see them there in 20 minutes when the service starts? I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for them just in case.

Sometimes real life is the best place to get story ideas. Sometimes real people are the best source for great characters. It’s awesome to be able to live in your own little universe in your head, and I’m all for that. But it doesn’t hurt to draw from reality at the same time.

How do people move? How do they dress? How do they speak? How do they act around each other? Pay attention to people the next time you’re out. You can learn a lot just by opening your eyes.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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  1. As a literary blogger, I think it is so important to understand where characterization comes from. I think the best characters really do come from real life experiences, just like this one. Great and insightful post!

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