Kate Flora: We’ve been visiting the big city—San Francisco—and leaving my desk and exploring new territory always reminds me how important it is to get out now and then to go “character shopping.” Once, years ago, when I spoke to a high school class, I told them that while they thought they were there to watch me, actually I was there to watch them. Then I took them through some observation exercises. What does a classroom sound like? What behaviors can I observe? What are the details that might help to bring a character to life?
Now I have a whole city to provide me with characters. Shortly after we arrived, we took BART (the Bay area subway system) over to Berkeley to see our friends’ newly purchased house. As I gazed around the subway car, I realized that my husband and I were the only people there who weren’t plugged into our phones. Nearly everyone had earphones on, and everyone was staring intently at screens.
There was something almost ritualistic about it, like people entering the Church of the Cell Phone. The car would stop. People would get on. They would find seats and immediately bow over their phones. And never lift their eyes to see the people around them. Perhaps it was kind of them—no one could see me stare.
The forty-something blonde with the lank hair and phenomenal gum chewing skills is a definite candidate for one of Joe Burgess’s reluctant witnesses. She’ll absolutely have to blow one of those defiant bubbles in his face.
For Thea Kozak, who consults to private schools, there was the gaggle of high school kids.
The large, perhaps Samoan dandy with his burgundy suede boots, and his entourage of girls—his beautiful African-American girlfriend and her plain and pudgy girlfriends. When he wasn’t taking selfies of himself (most of the time), there was some actual conversation going on. When he finally stood, anticipating his stop, he planted one of those burgundy wonders on the seat and wiggled it around to admire it. My imagination stuck an older lady with a cane into the scene so she could whack him and tell him to get his dirty foot off the seat.
At the next stop, the door opened and three young black teens got on. Two dashed for the back, the third threw himself down on the seat in front of us. Yes, mama said it was rude to stare, but there was some kind of amazing physics going on. The waistband of his jeans only reached the top of his thighs. Between that and his actual waist was an 8-9 inch expanse of shiny red boxers. A sweet-faced lad with honey brown skin and an amiable grin. But how, oh how, did he keep those pants on when he walked? Perhaps gravity was the reason he reclined rather than sat? Eventually he got up and ambled down the car to join his friends and I waited with ‘baited breath for the descent of the pants. It must have been magic because despite the narrowness of his hips and the absurdity of their position, they never fell off. Imagine my cynical cop watching that performance? I have seen such pants fall down, though. In airports. On the street. On the stairs leaving the subway.
It was followed by one his cohort spilling a Coke, which rolled in a suspicious brown stream up and down the car as we made our herky/jerky way to the other side of the bay. Repellant in real life; amusing in a book.
And speaking of fashion, the only other set of people interacting with each other instead of with their phones were the tall, awkward, skinny blue-haired boy and his teeny girlfriend. He had to bend like a stork to reach her face, but he couldn’t stop kissing her. Ah. Young love. Or young lust? What a springboard for a character’s imagination.
There is a young Middle Eastern couple with a small baby. She looks far too young to be a mother. He is dressed like a dandy. The baby is in colorful fleece. After a signal passes between them, they get up and walk to the end of the car, and return, he carrying a sign begging for money, she, eyes down, trailing in his wake, holding the sleeping baby. How can they even get anyone’s attention, when all the eyes are on their phones. Only one person gives them money, a geeky young man who digs in his backpack. They move on to the next car.
On the escalator to the street, there is a man wearing a luscious, soft-looking brown cashmere dress.
Then on into Berkeley, approaching the campus via a city street where in clear defiance of
the “No Drug Area” signs, gaggles of odd, shabby-looking people were gathered in a miasmic fog of marijuana. Gone are the used bookstores, in their place food joints and stores selling vinyl. Past a row of booths alternating activism with recruitment for campus fraternities and organizations. Pre-business. Pre-law. Pre-medicine. Environmental awareness. Come to a lecture on socialism. I’m remembering my college days. We had a dress code. They have an undress code—often the largest pieces of clothing worn are piratical, over-the-knee boots.
I am tucking my mental notebook away when we pass a lovely young woman with russet curls and a sprinkle of freckles who appears to be scrutinizing something botanical. How academic. How pleasing to see her taking an interest in her environment. But alas. No. She is just looking for the right backdrop and lighting for her selfie.
For 2016, I have vowed to concentrate on “otheries.” Taking note of the world around me. It’s a writer’s job. And how richly I am being rewarded.
Berkeley is a gold mine for character shopping. The problem is that most readers think you’ve gone overboard writing unrealistic characters, but you actually toned down the authentic people you observed in Berkeley.
I love knowing I am not the only one who does this kind of intense watching and in-my-head writing. It is so much fun to watch people and make up stories about them or imagine fitting them in to an ongoing project.
Oho, Brian Thiem…I thought of you when we went through Oakland.
I’d say you are in a better place now, but the implications of that phrase are…uh…deadly?
It is our duty to spy on others, isn’t it?
I am imagining a scene where two ardent young lovers get their nose rings tangled…
I have to remind myself of these opportunities now that my face is so often buried in a device when I am on my own and waiting for something–a bus to come, a doctor’s appointment, my husband to pay the check, etc.
I love San Francisco and oh, the people and scene possibilities there.
Otheries. I love it. It’s how the writer’s vision has to work. Great narrative of your BART trip and your companions.
I love listening to life unfold around me. It’s very entertaining.
Love the descriptions and can just see them in a book – unreal characters taken from real life! I love it. And the word “otheries” is terrific.
Great post and so true. We could all write subway stories. I have a few scary ones as well as funny. The writer gathers people, places and “stuff” everywhere. No one is exempt from the writerly eye.
Oh, absolutely, I do this all the time, and I hurry to write down impressions before I forget. You’ve really explained it so clearly though.
Wonderful descriptions, Kate. You took live people and made them come alive for me. I’m a people watcher too, but you reminded me to continue my search for interesting characters. Thanks!
Lol! I thought I was the only one. Traveling is not only great character fodder, it’s entertaining. I often feel as if I’m visiting the human zoo.