by Malena Lott
I’m writing this planted at a red round table for kids at the Orlando International Airport waiting for our flight back to Oklahoma. On our first trip to Florida, we’ve had our share of waiting, but for writers, it’s a chance to add important “data” to our story folders. People watching – and listening – is key to developing interesting characters, ideas and juicy details.
No doubt, in the Sunshine State, I’ve hit the PW jackpot. Universal Island of Adventure was a melting pot. I counted more than a dozen cultures and languages. I waited for hours in lines, hours in the airport, and hours in the car traveling to various beaches. At the beach, you bet, more soaking up the sun and people. How can we make the most of people watching? And why pay attention?
1. Style. In writing, our goal is to develop interesting characters that make our readers care about them. Style is an important factor – slumpy? fashionable? just rolled out of bed? Just across the way, I spy a middle-aged man with a combover, navy blue neck ring and bright orange and yellow Hawaiaan shirt with black headphones. You can tell a lot about people by the dress choices they make. I can’t see his feet, but I’m guessing athletic socks, up to his calf or deck shoes. Lemme check. Cool. I was on the money with the first guess. No flat, cardboard characters. Bring them to life with their dress and physical markers – freckles, moles, skin tone, scars and so on.
2. Gestures and mannerisms. How we eat, stand, sit, and react to others provides the nuance to character. Make a note of it. A silver-haired woman to my left is making notes in a workbook with a red pen, her glasses half-way down her nose. Her no-nonsense aura fits her make-up free face and sensible attire. And it says something about character when a person chooses to “get things done” while waiting in an aiport. Ahem. The little tics make us who we are and our characters unique to the reader.
3. Relations. Is anything more fun than watching people communicate? Not just listening in on conversations, but how they move in a pack. I’ve paid attention to “pack mentality” and moreover, “pack energy” during my travels. Only once did I see a group exhibit extreme joy, yesterday on the white sands of Cocoa Beach, a large blended group – half of them Asian and half of them African American, as they frolicked and laughed and picked on each other on the shore for more than an hour. They radiated happiness. As I walked through their group, I felt energized myself. Likewise, how others respond to each other’s touch or arguments or snarky retorts are all worthy intel, too. How characters relate provides depth to the story.
4. A person’s character. If you look closely enough, you can learn a lot about an individual’s character by watching the small choices they make. I’m reminded of a large woman who laid in the shallow water and let four small children cover her in wet sand. She was a human sandcastle and lay there patiently until the children’s adventure was through. I bet she’s a great mom, a free spirit – or she was being held hostage by savage toddlers. Small acts of kindness or rudeness say a lot about what makes our characters tick, revealing backstory and internal motives and conflict.
5. Speech. Writing great dialogue can be tough and can surely be improved by becoming better listeners. In our stories, dialogue must move the story along, but also reveals character. Clipped speech? Slow, fast, tone, inflection. We can typically tell things like education level, geography and career types from speech. In a small town in Florida, we stopped off to watch their fireworks display. One teen told another, “Got a tongue ring today…Gator colors.” I can only describe her accent as “swamp hick.” I’m from Oklahoma and was raised in a small town, but her voice had an edgier quality…a gravelly undertone. I wish you could hear my daughter try to impersonate it.
BONUS: Emotion. What’s a story without emotion? Not one I’m interested in reading or writing. Emotion is a critical layer in storytelling, and is best delivered in small touches, not knocking the reader over the head with hit. It’s not, “she was angry,” but, “she grabbed the pan and hurled it against the wall.” Picking up emotion is possible by paying attention to 1-4.
Grab your notebook, your camera, peel your eyes and ears and have fun being a watcher. Remember, you aren’t judging, you’re cataloging. And it can be a hoot when you’re in a new place.
Did you know my short story, The Pool Boy, is free today on Amazon? It features four very different women in a neighborhood book club, which they call the Lonely Hearts Book Club after the down year they’ve had. Meet the CEO, the rich widow, the recently divorced young mom and the preacher’s wife – and, of course, “the” Pool Boy himself in my summer short. I’d love to hear what you think of it.