Friday, April 6, 2012

Turning People into Characters (a/k/a Modus Operandi)

I recently read that some-or-other-writer believed that a good way to create a character was to take someone you know and tell one lie about him...then build on that lie.  At first, it sounded crazy.  But the more I thought about it...well, it kind of started to make sense.  Real people and places often creep into a writer's work, whether intentionally or not.  This methodology just openly acknowledges that fact.
For instance, what if one of the attorneys I know is not what he seems?  What if, instead of being a stead-fast pillar of the community, he were actually...a cannibal?  And what if the sweet, patient receptionist were actually...the matriarch of some sort of crime family?  Well, it definitely makes them  more interesting...
I had something strange happen yesterday that reminded me just how much we can distort something (for better or for worse) and use it in our writing.  I seem to have a lot of strange things happen to me, which can be good since it can made for good book fodder.  It can also just be...well, strange.

This is a not-too-far from the truth recounting of yesterday's strangeness.  There may be one lie in there somewhere*:

Lunchrooms are loud. If you have ever worked in an office, you already know that. So when my best friend abandons me for a fancy birthday lunch with her husband, I make plans to get out of the office as soon as possible. I walk down the street to a small Mexican place and order two sweet potato tamales; I take refuge at a small table near the back of the restaurant where I can write in peace. Between bites of chips and salsa, I peck away at the keyboard. If I can tune out the other diners, I can probably reach half of my word count for the day.

I am well on my way, too, when a shadow falls across the table. Sensing someone nearby, I look up from the screen. He is probably a bit younger than I am, but otherwise unremarkable. He has dark hair, but I would be hard pressed to recall much more than that. Like I said—unremarkable.

“Are these seats taken?” he asks, gesturing to the chairs across from me. Assuming he means that he needs to borrow the chairs, I wave my hand absent-mindedly and go back to my typing.

“No, that’s fine,” I say.

He sits down at the table across from me.

My fingers slow down. Did he just sit down? I wonder. Seriously? He just…sat down?

I type faster, wondering if I should get up, ask him what he wants, just move to a different table. For some reason, I don’t want to be rude. I wonder if those people who I read about in the newspaper worried about being rude in those moments before their killer lashed out.

I shake the thought from my head and try to focus on the computer. The stranger takes out his cell phone and looks over some texts. He seems perfectly at ease; for some reason, this rattles me even more. I try to focus on typing, but my fingers stumble over the words as I grow more agitated.

A few patrons seem to recognize him, and he shakes hands with them good-naturedly. He clearly means something to them. As he hugs an elderly woman who greets him, I wonder if he is a politician. That would make sense. Politicians certainly know how to schmooze, and this guy was a schmoozer. I think I remember reading somewhere that Ted Bundy was quite personable.

The waiter brings his food, and he thanks her profusely before digging in. My throat feels constricted. I can’t eat. And I so rarely go out to eat, that the resentment builds as I realize that I just spent money on food I can’t even enjoy. The silence drags on, minute sliding into minute until I can’t take it anymore.

I stop typing and look at him, more than a little annoyed. “So, what do you do when you aren’t busy eating lunch across from people you don’t even know?” I ask. The words sound harsher than they did in my head, but there it is. At least it is out there.

“I am bringing a new grocery store downtown,” he says. “The people deserve to be able to buy their groceries in their own neighborhood and not have to drive across town.”

I’m not sure how to respond, so I mutter something non-committal. I wonder how much longer this will drag on.  (For those of you who are drags out for a full hour!)

“What are you working on?” he asks, taking a big bite of whatever it was he ordered.

“A book,” I reply, wondering if this was his modus operandi. Maybe he targets women who are alone. He probably thinks no one would miss them right away.  I wonder if I have worked in a law office too long.  Maybe it is making me suspicious, or pessimistic, or--

Law office.

Crap! I am wearing my work sweater that has the firm’s logo on it. He can find out where I work. Strange-Man-Across-the-Table can track me like prey now. Then I realize that I didn’t tell anyone that I where I was going for lunch. It figures, the one day that I don’t eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the lunchroom is the day I will end up dead via serial killer.

I feel like I am in a horror movie, and I imagine all of the viewers yelling at me. Get out of there! What are you thinking?
"What kind of book are you writing?" he asks, not looking up from his food.

"Dystopian young adult," I answer without thinking, then I clasp a hand over my mouth.  Why did I just tell him that?!

"I don't read much.  I mean, I do for my industry, but not for pleasure," he says.

See!  I knew he wasn't trustworthy.  A non-reader.  Hmph!
“I should really get back to my day job,” I say with false brightness, as I pack up my computer, and gather my cell phone and coat. I am careful to ensure that the Potentially-Dangerous-Man-Across-the-Table does not have access to any of my personal belongings that could lead him right to my door.

“It was nice meeting you,” he replies with a wave and a smile.  I swear I can feel him watch me leave.

I walk briskly back to my office and dash back to my best friend’s desk.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, taking in my frazzled appearance. I spill the story in a rushed jumble of words, backtracking repeatedly to make sure that I emphasized his oddities adequately.  She agrees that is it odd, and reasserts the fact that I have been know to attract some odd characters.

Ever efficient, I decide I should find out who my future killer is.  I dart to my computer and perform a few quick internet searches. Within minutes I present my friend with a photograph of him and a profile page ready for her inspection.  I figure she should keep it all together as evidence...for after I am found slaughtered.

“That’s him!” I nearly shout, pointing at the grainy picture accusingly.

“Hm,” she says tilting her head. “He looks pretty normal. And it looks like he is pretty prominent in the community...Oh! Wait!  That would be the perfect cover.”

I nod my head in agreement, glad that she is taking this as seriously as I am. She turns back to the computer screen and skims his profile.

“Hm. Studied paleontology…economics…yoga…. Interests—“

“What?” I asked, nudging her aside for a better view of the screen. “Oh.”

“I’m sorry, honey,” she says. “Why do you always seem to attract the strange ones?”

“I have no idea,” I mutter, staring at the screen. “Who the hell lists ‘teeth’ under the ‘Interests’ section of their bio?” I try not to shudder.  Teeth?  Really?  Interested in...teeth?
This pictures is so creepy
that I can barely look at it. 
“Dentists?” she offers, her voice hopeful.

"Well, sure,” I agree. “But he isn’t a dentist.”
“No,” she says sadly.

I look at her intently. “If I go missing, make sure to check the grocer’s freezer section,” I inform her. “And when they find me, see if I still have all my teeth or if he pulled them first.”


For another take on what may have happened (a/k/a the "Non-Serial Killer" version of the above story), check out my friend Patrick Nelson's blog.   

*Actually, no.  This is a pretty straight forward recounting of how it all happened and how my mind always goes to the worst case scenerio.  I lied about adding-in a lie.  Writers do that a lot.  Lying = Fiction.


  1. Yep. That's pretty much how it went down. Except she pointed out the "teeth" interest to me, not the other way around. ;) I accused her of reverse stalking him (I was kidding! Sort of...) and then we commenced supposing how such a prominent member of the community could actually be a very sly serial killer on the side. Everyone's gotta' be something. Perhaps being the downtown grocer just isn't enough for Mr. Teeth Man... you never know...

  2. Did I? See, when we get on a roll, I forget who says what! Well, then I guess I lied about not lying. See, I have this fiction thing down pat!

  3. So I'll be on the lookout for a serial killer nicknamed "The Dentist." Thanks for the heads up! That does sound a little creepy. Reminds me of the guy in the grocery store who followed me around for a few aisles, even though I was with my kid, who was a toddler at the time. He asked me how long I'd been married, and I told him 7 years. He asked if I was having "a seven year itch." He told me he'd been married 21 years, and was looking for his third. ICKY!!! I just looked at him as if he'd turned into a giant bug and slowly backed away. He took off in search of a less disgusted candidate for his next affair. I mean, really!

  4. As far as the story collaboration, I thought that part was great. I love the multiple perspectives on events and especially when it's the same event. Sometimes we can learn so much from another person's view of things. Great job on the collab.

    As far as the story, if it actually went down that way, I'm sorry to hear that. One thing I always try to avoid is making a woman feel uncomfortable or creeped out... it's probably a fear or something, I don't know. In any case, I hope you never have to cross paths with The Teeth Guy ever again. Happy lunches from here on out, okay? :-)

  5. Reading this almost made me late for class--the one I teach!

  6. That, or something similar has never happenend to me. Though I have to admit I suffer from the same paranoia.

  7. I would be scared too! I'm not usually alone anywhere, but I can see why you'd be scared! My mind also comes up with the worst case scenario for every situation I'm in. I think it's just a quality that writers have.

  8. The Dentist! Ooo sounds like crime fiction to me. :)