Shhhh, Don’t Say a Word

I had to go to the doctor a few days ago, no major problems, just one of those necessities in life that caused me to spend a joyful afternoon looking down the barrel of a waiting room full of germ infested people who seemed to have all arrived way before me – awesome.

Can I just say here, that I do not understand how a system that claims to be dedicated to public health has come to believe that the most reasonable solution to visit patients is to clump about 50 of them, sick and non-sick alike, in the same room, let them stew for a couple of hours and then see what pops out of the petri dish!  Ridiculous…

At one point, while in the throes of waiting room despair, I lost complete control of my senses, and accidentally rubbed the corner of my eye after touching one of the (probably) germ infested magazines.  As a person who writes everyday about various ways to die in a small town, it didn’t take much of a shove for me to convince myself that even though I had arrived reasonably healthy, I was probably leaving with a rare incurable disease.  I had to lay down when I got home and play sick for a good hour before I could allow myself to believe that death had not come calling…

The good thing about going to the doctor, as I mindfully steer your attention away from my clear and present hypochondria, is the awesome opportunity it creates to build foundations for fun new characters, as you are essentially trapped in a small room with random strangers with even more random ailments for an extended period of time.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer out there who loves to study people as they go about their normal activities.  I always have my notebook on hand to jot things down for later, while pretending to update my to-do list (I mean, you don’t want to look like a creeper…)

I looked around the room at the cast of players I had to work with:  A young girl with a rash on her arm, swinging her feet back and forth like she had been there for daaaayyyys – nothing there.  A young man dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and work boots, who rushed in like shit was about to get real and said he needed a shot for poison ivy right away!  – wonder where he’d been?  A couple who sat with a new baby in a carrier between their feet:  Him – an everyday Joe, decent looking but nondescript.  Her – a skinny dirty blond, who had clearly not been blessed with the knowledge that low rise jeans paired with a famine cut tee so soon after child birth could make even the slightest frame look as if one were wearing a flesh colored fanny pack.  (I know, sometimes I get bitchy in my private thoughts.)  Those two didn’t speak to me in any creative way…or to each other…or to the baby for that matter, as both were far too busy dancing their thumbs across the screens of their phones to do much of anything else…blah.

But finally, after many hidden glances around the room, my eyes lit on a spark of life.  There was a lady stuffed to overflowing into one of the wooden chairs, watching Dr. Phil on the wall-mounted screen like she expected him to reach out and change her life at any moment.  She was wearing those Dollar Store knockoff-Nike-slip-on-shower-shoes that made me wonder how she kept her feet from slipping out with every step.  In my head, I could hear her shuffling along like the whoosh of a slow moving elliptical.  She wore black shorts that had seen better days and a dark green t-shirt that read, “Don’t let your mind wonder…it’s too small to be out by itself!!!”

All this was topped off with a wild surge of grey hair that looked like it had staggered into the room of its own volition, a touch late after a night of binge drinking and was now doing some sort of scattered interpretive dance atop her head by means of electrical current.  The only thing keeping it from jumping free and running from the room was the bright red crochet headband that she had clamped it down with.

I began to run scenarios in my mind and envision how she would act and react in each of them, all the while silently begging her to not speak, or walk across the room, or anything else that would break the illusion I was actively painting of her in that moment.

At times like this, I often think of the Foreword from The Body in the Library where Agatha Christie wrote, “…staying one summer for a few days at a fashionable hotel by the seaside I observed a family at one of the tables in the dining room; an elderly man, a cripple, in a wheeled chair, and with him was a family party of a younger generation.  Fortunately they left the next day so that my imagination could get to work unhampered by any kind of knowledge.  When people ask, ‘Do you put real people in your books?’ the answer is that, for me, it is quite impossible to write about anyone I know, or have ever spoken to, or indeed have even heard about!  For some reason, it kills them for me stone dead.  But I can take a ‘lay figure’ and endow it with qualities and imaginings of my own.”

I get that.  I often see physical traits or get impressions of people based on their outer shell and begin to fill them up with my own imagination.  Or I may hear someone, a specific thing they say, the tone of their voice, or the sound of their laughter, and that too becomes a character trait that has nothing at all to do with the person from which it derived.  Spending too much time with any of these strangers may very well cause me to forget the thing I found so interesting about them to start with once it gets all mixed up with their other mannerisms.

So that’s one example of how I start to build a character from what may seem like out of nowhere.  Sometimes I see a person that speaks to me on a creative level; sometimes I hear a word or a phrase that grows into something more, and sometimes they just show up in my brain like little pod people waiting to be filled up, lol.  How about you?  Where do your characters come from?

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