As writers commit to writing and further admit that no matter what their day job may be, they are writers to the core – several changes occur. One of those changes is a compulsive need to people-watch. We know that we’re doing this so that we can observe behavior, mannerisms, and everything there is to absorb about people so that when it comes time to add dimension to our characters, we can make them realistic and believable – people with whom the reader can identify, sympathize, flaws and all.
One of my favorite places to get ideas for characters is Wal-Mart. Now, before you start throwing flames my way, let me say this: I am in no way demeaning that store or the people who frequent it. The reason that I like this particular store is because everyone shops there. If you go to a trendy mall, you’re only going to see a particular type of people at that mall. If you go to a salvation army store, the breadth of economic bracket of the typical consumer there is also going to be limited.
But, at Wal-Mart, you see everybody in one place – everyone from people on food stamps to a guy who drove up in a Benz. You’ll see mentally challenged people there with their case workers, struggling to maintain a hold on their independence and dignity in a world that shuns and degrades them. Single mothers (teenage or otherwise), bachelors, college students, parents with eight kids trying to save a buck here and there on the essentials, and of course, that guy who drove up in the Benz who wants to save a few bucks on the HDTV he’s putting in his 5th guest room.
If you want a reader to be able to sympathize and empathize with your characters, then you need to be able to do the same with actual, living, breathing human beings. People from different walks of life as you, people with problems you can’t possibly imagine, people with advantages you know you’ll never have.
What I’ve found really rewarding is going into a Wal-Mart and just watching, observing. Take a look around you, but not that cursory glance you normally give that is filtered with the blinders of your past experiences and your own preconceptions. Take the blinders off and look around you with fresh, objective eyes: the eyes of a reader waiting to be guided, thrilled, excited.
Take a look at the woman pushing the cart with her kid in it. What do you think her daily life is like? Is she happy? What do you think she daydreams about while she pushes that cart through the grocery aisles? What does she want out of life and what’s preventing her from getting it? Asking yourself these questions and filling them in with complete fiction is a great way to build your characters. If the fictional backstory you build for these people fits what you’re looking at, then it might also fit scenes you write for such characters.
Places like Wal-Mart (as well as thousands of other good places to people-watch) are endless fountains of ideas for characters. So, the next time you’re stuck looking for ideas for new characters or the ones you have lack dimension, then just get in the car and do some character shopping.