One of the best parts of being a fiction writer is imagining people’s secret lives. Even before I started writing fiction as an adult I was entranced by other peoples’ interactions in restaurants, and wondered what their background might be. I’ve been reminded hundreds of times by my dining companion to bring my attention back to OUR table instead of the adjacent one. I sit and wonder how long that couple has known each other, what language they’re speaking, why one is glaring at the other.
People watching provides fabulous material for character building. Airport waiting rooms. Public buses. Beaches. All provide such riches for studying how people walk, their facial tics, arguments. Imagining who they are and why they act that way.
Saturday I was sitting on a beach in Maine. A kind of regular-looking woman walked by with two young boys. She was slim and tan and wore a bikini top and cut-off jeans. And she was covered with tattoos, but only on the parts of her body that would be covered by clothes: her torso, her chest, her back. I started wondering why she needed to hide the body art. I imagined she was a high-power executive with a tattoo fetish. Or maybe she became a biker chick on the weekends. What if she had gotten tattooed when she was in the Army as a young woman?
I once stood behind a man in an airport line that was moving very slowly. He was a fit, handsome African-American with hip glasses, a leather jacket, and a shoulder laptop case. I whipped out the little notebook I carry everywhere and started writing down who I imagined he was: A college professor of jazz. The single dad of a little girl. Originally from Maine. Are any of these things true? Very likely not. But he might make it into a book or a short story one of these days. Hey, maybe his ex-wife is the tattooed executive on the beach!
Have you put elements of a real stranger into a character in your book? What kinds of secrets have you imagined? Who have you seen lately that you wondered about?