Collecting People #amwriting

Collecting people is a great way to build characters. Not, you know, like The Collector, of course.

People watching is the first step. You go someplace public, like a library or a hospital or a grocery. Watch them. Listen to them.

Here’s a woman saying, “A pound and a half of bacon.” And another one says, “Really??” And the first one says, “Yes!” Dear god, in how many ways could you take that? Erotica writers, please don’t answer.

Here’s a man saying, “Him and me weren’t going nowhere.”

Here’s a man with a cell phone ringtone of a quacking duck.

Here’s a Mom in the ER waiting room with a baby and an extremely well-behaved and happy four-year-old boy.

Observing them is only the beginning. To collect them, you need to observe details — the woman’s tone of voice, her friend’s accent, the man’s beard and clothing and smile, the other man’s flat-top haircut, the Mom’s loading VeggieTales on her phone for her baby to watch and the little boy’s pride in his Captain America t-shirt.

You follow them in your imagination: who are they, when they leave wherever you’re observing them? How did they come to wear those clothes or choose that ringtone or be alone or be with those particular companions? What are their lives like? What might be their pasts and what might be their futures?

My mom and I have a friend who used to invent entire lives and histories for people he observed in public — start with a detail and spin out a whole character sketch on the spot. Sometimes he’d do it for himself: “My name is Jimmy Dupree. My son gave me this cap and I wear it everywhere. He lives with his mother. His mother and I were married when he was born, but we got divorced and she moved to Tennessee…,” and he would go on until something or someone else caught his fancy. (His name is Ralph Cotton, and you can find his books here.)

Collecting PeopleNow that you’ve noticed them, observed them, detailed them, and thought about them, you’ve collected them. They’re not the people they actually are; they’re character possibilities. You can cast them in stories. Do you need a couple of girlfriends to stumble into a mystery? Use the bacon lady and her incredulous friend. Do you need a couple of hunting buddies who maybe grew up together but are different now? Use the beard guy and the flat-top guy with the quacking cell phone.

Remember: People are a renewable resource. There are always plenty around, and collecting them doesn’t take up any room. Unless, of course, you put them on index cards, in which case they take up a file box, maybe.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Collect a dozen people. Write them on file cards. Put the cards face down and mix them up. Select four and put them in a story together.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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