People Watching

One of the most common questions I see (yes, see not hear) is “where do you get your ideas from?”  I say see, because I always seem to see it when I’m reading interviews with writers.  Personally, I don’t think I’ve had that question more than once or twice.

Maybe it’s because my ideas don’t seem quite as interesting as someone else’s?

Whatever the reason, I’m going to assume for a moment that you, dear reader, would like to know where I get some of the ideas for my stories.  That’s not what you’d like to know?  Sorry… what was that?  You’re kind of fading out on me…  Nothing to say?  Fine, let’s push on.

I could tell you that some of my ideas come from dreams and some come from daily life.  I could tell you that and it would be true… well partially true.  I do, in fact, get some of my ideas that way.  But more often than not, my ideas come from people.

Doesn’t sound all that strange to you?  How about if I say that one of my hobbies is people watching?

No.  I don’t mean people watching as in “Officer, I caught this pervert peeping through my bedroom window” watching.  I mean that when I’m out for a walk or sitting down for a coffee or basically whenever I’m out in public I watch the people around me.  Sometimes I try to figure out what they do or maybe who they are.  It’s fascinating.

So am I saying that by imagining someone else’s life, I come up with story ideas?  Not exactly…

Most of my story ideas begin with my main characters.  I decide where and when these people live and start to create a history for each of them.  Usually, that first work is done in my head… that’s right, nothing on paper.  At least not yet.

So I come up with a couple characters.  With luck, the characters are not ideal matches for each other; think of the odd couple.  Different, but not different enough that they’d kill each other if left alone.   After all, it’s a story we want, not a short and ugly duel.

Now I have some characters, I have a setting, but I don’t have a story plot just yet.  Now comes the fun part.  What conflict would be realistic for my characters?  It could be the same for both, or something totally different.  For example, in my first (finished) book, my two protagonists are Kalten and Paena.  Kalten is a peasant boy, formerly a huntsman for the local Lord who was conscripted one day into the army.  He was taken away from his mother and sisters at sword-point.  When he came home two years later, his family is gone and the farm is long abandoned.

Paena, on the other hand, is a caravan guard with dreams of joining the Queen’s Guard.  She comes from a merchant family, all of whom were slaughtered by rogue soldiers when she was young.  A peasant farmer turned soldier and a merchant warrior woman.  Both have different goals and different backgrounds.  Still, there’s a story in there somewhere.

That’s how I first began plotting.  Kalten was a combination of a number of farm-boys I knew growing up.  Paena is based on some young women I worked with several years later.  Again, people watching was largely responsible for who they became.

I had to bring them together somehow, despite their dissimilar goals and background.  Kalten happens upon Paena when she and her merchant employer are under attack from bandits.  Coincidence?  Of course, but you’ll notice that life is nothing more than a series of coincidences at the best of times.  Still that single coincidence isn’t enough.  They need one more to force them together working towards a single purpose.

What are the chances of that happening?  Well… since it IS my story, I’d say the chances are pretty good.  I just had to bring in more of Paena’s ‘personality’ quirks to make it happen.  Oddly, the massacre of her family by rogue soldiers left some emotional scars.  To wit, she hates soldiers and, to a lesser degree, warriors.  I wonder how she’ll do in a setting where she trains, eats and lives with soldiers and warriors 24/7?

In this case, personality from both characters brings them back together.  It also helped me to decide the general direction of the story.  And after the first six chapters or so, a miraculous thing began to happen.  The characters began to tell me what to write instead of me telling them what to say and do.  Amazing stuff.

And only possible because I’ve had a lifetime of watching people and seeing how they react to different stimuli.  I include myself in that too… I’m probably my own biggest guinea pig in that respect.

The same thing happened in my second book… I knew the character well; I’d wanted to write his story for years.  His morals, ethics and habits really determined the direction for the whole story.

Where I find the biggest challenge is avoiding stereotypes.  The bad guy does bad things because he is an evil fellow, right?  Well…  It’s usually never that cut and dried.  Instead, the bad guy probably started out as a normal kid who did something bad and suffered for it.  At least, the first time, anyway.

The fringe benefit to watching people is you get an ear for dialogue and an eye for body language too.  It just makes writing the interactions between familiar characters saying familiar things that much easier.

Never done it before?  That’s OK.  It’s an activity you can do wherever you happen to be.  I would just suggest that you pick your place carefully.  For example, a biker bar might be a bad first choice… or then again, depending on the type of character research (and maybe pain research) it could be the perfect place to start…


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