It may surprise some of you, but I was a bit of a drama queen when I was a teenager. What? Mother of all things zen? Oh yes, my daughter comes by it naturally. I was a big door slammer, too. I once slammed my bedroom door so hard, it knocked the center panel of wood right out. Kinda took the steam out of that temper storm.
I did manage to find a creative outlet for my teen hormones-gone-wild; the theatre. One of the few saving graces my little backwater town offered was the delightful community theatre, The Gaslight. Although they had a strong teen theatre program, I actually broke on the scene with one of their adult plays, a summer musical called Sweet Charity. I was the only teen to get a speaking part – very exciting. I played Rosie, the new girl. It was a small role where I had to play an innocent girl, fresh off the bus in her hemmed up prom dress, the newest addition to the taxi dancers at the dance hall where Charity, the lead character, works. As fresh meat, she’s picked right off the line by a smarmy old guy. There was a lot of improv required for that role and the old guy in question was a sweet veteran actor named Gene, who worked at the post office for his day job. He had me blushing many times just by whispering nonsense into my ear. As I recall, “You’re such a ham!” was one of his favorite sweet nothings. I didn’t do so much acting as reacting in those early days. I’m not even going to tell you about the prank he pulled during one of the mid-week pickup rehearsals. Talk about initiating in the new kid! Oy vey! Despite the hectic rehearsal schedules and performances and the embarrassing (yet hilarious) pranks, I was hooked. I was in love with acting.
By the time I went away to college, I still loved theatre, I just wasn’t so in love with the idea of being an actor. I still hung around the acting crowd. I got a job as a stage hand for one of my work study gigs and I even took an acting class at the college level. I’m so glad I did. For one, because I met a fantastic friend in that class. And for another, I learned many things about studying people that I still use in my writing to this day.
We would have to do these acting exercises outside of class and write journal entries about our experiences. Most of these exercises involved many hours of people-watching. Things like, observing how different people walk. An exercise might say something like “Notice that each person walks in a unique way. Describe some of the different gaits you observe. How would you capture that on stage? What does that person’s walk say about them?”
You can surely see how using this exercise could be beneficial when describing a character in a novel.
One of my favorite exercises was about hands. Just hands. How much can we tell about someone by studying their hands? Think about how much we do with our hands, how we talk with our hands, what we do when we don’t know what to do with our hands, etc. So interesting those exercises.
I still enjoy people-watching. You can find many ideas for characters while simply observing your fellow man going about their day. It does take a little effort to put down your cell phone from time to time and actually look around you, but trust me, it’s worth the effort. The other day, while I was sitting in a café, waiting on my order, I noticed this woman standing in line, wearing a very unusual outfit. She had short-cropped brown hair that was full of movement and style. She wore a crazy print shirt with a furry pink vest on top. It looked like a creature from a Dr. Seuss book had been turned into a fur vest. There was baubly jewelry bouncing around her neck and some kind of cross-body purse. Then I noticed her shoes. They didn’t seem to match the outfit. Plain white support shoes? I didn’t get it. Then, the line moved forward and my view of her changed. She had a stilted walk, more like the stumbling shuffle of someone who’s had a stroke. I looked closer at the spiky, sassy hair and realized it was probably a wig. The woman no longer appeared to be a young hipster, but an aging flower child, still showing her individuality as she battles against time and disease. Oh the story ideas that hit me from just that little moment. That brief encounter. That character study, in the flesh.
Take some time to do some people-watching this week. Jot down some of the unique things you see. You might even get some story ideas out of it, if not a little drama.