Friday, January 21, 2011

Novel fodder

I recently started a new novel. Well, not so recently. I just haven't made as much progress as I'd like. I'd been flailing around with it and for many weeks I couldn't figure out why. I loved the premise. It had a strong plot. I could even weave in some interesting themes without being intrusive to the story. So what was the problem?

I haven't been paying attention, that's what. Blame it on this crap winter weather (and today in NYC it is, once again, crap) or a busy life, but there it is: I haven't been people-watching. And that, my friends, is a key part in developing my characters.

No one is outside! And if they are, they are bundled and angry and STEALING MY CAB, dammit. If I needed a pissed off New Yorker character, I'd be all set. Forget going out on the street, I could just look in the mirror.

What I need are people who spark ideas, like these characters:

1. I once had a dentist who was drippy-sugar-sweet. He spoke in sing-song and had this weird whoop of a laugh. All was fine until his assistant came in the room and he yelled her with such anger (hatred, even!) it was as if he could grab her by the hair and slit her throat any second. Then he'd turn to me and do the sing-song again. Yikes. What was going on in his head? I don't know for sure, but he snapped in the middle of a crowded shopping mall. At least in one of my short stories.

2. A character in a book I recently finished up came to me while I was listening to Amy Winehouse. What might it be like to be her BFF? Challenging, I'd bet. So I started with that idea and worked from there. I ended up with one of my favorite (albeit difficult) characters.

3. You know how preacher's kids are supposed to be the wildest? In my experience, not only is that true, but their charismatic dads are great for inspiration.

Now, I never lift someone completely from life. Every character is unique, has a little of myself sprinkled in them, and is a composite from many sources, even snippets of conversation on the subway.

But they usually start from something external. So it's time for me to pay attention again.

How about you? Do your characters originate from observations? Or do you make them up from scratch?