Everyone eavesdrops. It’s human nature. If anyone ever tells you they don’t, they’re a filthy liar. We all need to know what our fellow humans are discussing in their private conversations. It makes life interesting. However, writers must take it to the next level.
For writers, eavesdropping isn’t an occasional sport, it’s part of the job. Many writers, when interviewed, will admit to using outside influences when developing their characters. It’s the rare writer that can pull a fully three-dimensional character straight out of their enviable imagination. For the rest of us chumps, there’s the art of eavesdropping and people watching.
I was watching the perfect basis for a character on the train the other day. She was an overly positive, religious hipster who blessed a man’s broken foot before riding off on her merry way once the train reached her station. You know you’ve got an interesting person on the train when all the passengers are staring openly, books and phones forgotten. Stick her in your book and hopefully you’ll have your readers glued to her naïve optimism as she faces endless obstacles. They’ll just be waiting for her to snap.
Even snippets of conversation caught as you walk past people can become the basis for a character. On a holiday at the beach, I walked past two surfers discussing their friend’s misfortune the night before:
‘He lost $100 to a game of rock-paper-scissors last night,’ one said.
‘What, again?’ said the other.
Not in a million years could I come up with something so ridiculous. The notion that someone made a bet on a child’s game more than once captured my imagination. Who was this errant potential surfer who thought this was a good idea? Was there some underground rock-paper-scissors gambling ring operating under my very nose? Or was he just a drunk guy with a spare $100? The possibilities were endless. Marijuana was probably involved.
Before you know it, this snippet of conversation has created a drug-crazed deviant with horrible money handling skills and a penchant for children’s games. His gambling problems have caused strain in the family home and he is facing being kicked off the couch. Not only that, but his drug use has caused him to constantly see a dog-sized talking mouse wherever he goes who keeps urging him to pop children’s balloons. His friends are starting to think that his muttering and shaking may not be a prank like they originally thought. They think he’s suffering from dehydration. Probably from all the salt water when he surfs. They’re putting out a petition to have a drinking fountain put in at the beach. But he more likely needs to go see a doctor. Unfortunately he lives in a remote town and the closest doctor is a thousand kilometres-
Are you still reading this? Shouldn’t you be eavesdropping?