Developing characters through eavesdropping.

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?

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My character walked in and punched me in the face.

How do your characters come into existence? Do they appear in your head fully formed or do you develop them slowly over time, adding pieces of personality here and there?

My characters come from all over the place. For instance, in the story I’m writing now, my main protagonist just appeared to me one day and I haven’t changed her in the slightest. Her friend however, she’s based on my younger sister, a flighty young girl who should take things a little more seriously. I’ve changed that character countless times.  I also have one character that I discovered while doing research for the story, and this is the man I want to talk about.

He was a handsome fellow.

He was a handsome fellow.

Not many people know much about – or have even heard of – Paracelsus. He was a Swiss German physician, alchemist and general all around occultist, whose writings surprisingly talked about God a lot. That doesn’t matter though. What matters is this quote, because it was the reason Paracelsus became the basis for one of my characters:

And I do not take my medicines from the apothecaries; their shops are but foul sculleries, from which comes nothing but foul broths. As for you, you defend your kingdom with belly-crawling and flattery. How long do you think this will last? … let me tell you this: every little hair on my neck knows more than you and all your scribes, and my shoebuckles are more learned than your Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high colleges.

BURN! This guy was badass. Not only that, but his real name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. He liked to be called Paracelsus because he believed he was next to Celsus in terms of skill as a physician.

How can you not make this guy a character? He is the most interesting person I have never met. The intimidating thing is trying to create a full character based off of him that does him justice. He is that awesome. Listen to me, I sound like a groupie.

I'm not the only one who wanted to adapt him into a character.  Anyone recognise this certain father?

I’m not the only one who wanted to adapt him into a character. Anyone recognise this certain absentee father?

Anyway, he fit perfectly with what I wanted to do with the story, so I adapted the real person into a character that hopefully does him justice.

So tell me, where do you get your characters from?