Years ago, I attended a writing conference with a regionally famous author. Someone asked her how she came up with characters, and this author responded that a lot of the time she would listen for conversations in the line at the grocery store or in other public places.
I was a teenager at the time, and I found this bit of advice to be a) fairly creepy, and b) not worth much, because I lived in a small enough town that there wasn’t a great deal of variety of conversation taking place in public. And so, that bit of writing advice got tucked away in the back of my mind, where it lay alone, gathering dust.
At least, until today.
I had forgotten my phone/MP3 player, so waiting at the bus stop I was forced to *gasp* listen to the people around me. Around here, anyway, waiting for the bus involves listening to music, getting some studying or other reading in, or quiet, banal conversation with friends. Sometimes all three.
This afternoon, though, in the midst of all the common noise, there was a man arguing on his cell phone. He was far enough away that I couldn’t really hear him, except when he was getting irate with the person on the other end of the line. I noticed him first when he said “I’m the nicest guy who’s ever dated you!”
The phrase struck me enough that I wrote it down, and began trying to figure out who would say something like that. I wasn’t even thinking about the guy on the phone, I was thinking about a character in a story. And I was wondering why someone would say “I’m the nicest guy who’s ever dated you” as opposed to “I’m the nicest guy you’ve ever dated”. Not that I’d want anything to do with a guy who uttered either phrase; the nice guys I know show it through their actions, and not their words.
Now, I have to stress here, that all my time spent with psychotherapists has been on the patient side of things. I’m can’t emphasize enough that I’m not trying to analyse the guy on the phone, I’m trying to figure out who one of my characters who would say that would be. I’m looking at this from a literary point of view, not a psychological one.
The first thing that came to mind, by saying “who’s ever dated you” rather than “you’ve ever dated.” makes it all about him. The (presumable) girl on the other end of the line is an object to be acted upon, someone to be dated, not someone who dates. If I was writing this character, he would be very egocentric. Nothing is his fault, and every bad thing that happens was meant to disrupt his life and annoy him.
It’s easy to get under his skin. Because he’s not willing to admit that other people, well, quite frankly, exists in realms completely separate from his own, he takes everything personally. I imagine that this phone call was post-break up, with the girl being the one doing the dumping, and he is having a hard time accepting that she doesn’t find him as perfect as he does. While he wants to save the relationship, it’s more because he wants a pretty ornament on his arm, and a warm body in his bed than an actual relationship. He doesn’t care about her, but he needs to be the one doing the rejecting, not being rejected. I don’t think this guy would be above using…unsavory methods to get what he wanted.
Now, if my character had said “…you’ve ever dated”, he’d still be a selfish twit, but he would at least acknowledge that there are other people out there making decisions that have nothing to do with him. His girl is a person, not an object–though she still needs to be tightly controlled. He’s aware that she has interests that aren’t him, (while I’m not sure the “…dated you” guy does) even if he’s not thrilled about it. He’s nicer, but only in the way a bear is nicer than a shark.
If I were writing a romance novel, these would be the boyfriends my heroine has at the start of the story, before she meets Mr. Right. In a drama, they might stay together throughout the novel, but he’d be putting her through the ringer. A mystery might have one of our men killing the girl (or the girl getting fed up with being controlled and killing them).
I then started thinking about situations where the guy I could hear would be the hero of the piece–what could the girl on the other end of the line have done to provoke, or even deserve such ire. I came up with, well one, possible solution (She’s a con artist, who stole all his money and was in the process of fleeing the country. He’s wanted himself, so he’s not going to call the cops on her.) And maybe that’s where I need to take this little exercise next.
I really don’t have a place for either of these characters right now, so this was more of an exercise than anything else. It got me thinking about not only what my characters say, but how they say it. The way we talk reveals so much about us, and the same should be true for our characters. And truth be told, I really don’t know anything about the actual guy on the phone, except that if he were to ever ask me out, the answer would not only be no, it’d be hell no.
So, have I entered the realm of the creepy author? Does either of my readers have similar experiences, where a single overheard phrase turned into a complete character? Am I over thinking this in a bid to avoid doing homework and/or go grocery shopping? At least in regards to the last one, probably.
EDIT: I’d love to hear what you’re impressions of someone based on the lines “I’m the nicest guy who’s ever dated you” are. Are they different from mine? What about the girl on the other end of the phone? Do you have any ideas about who she might be?