Finding Characters Wherever You Look

Misty MasseyMisty Massey
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I spent last week serving jury duty.  Before anyone rolls his eyes or moans, I have to say it wasn’t that bad.  These are modern times and all, so after the first day of qualifications, the clerk of court gives you a voicemail number to call twice a day.  If the message doesn’t specifically request you by name, you don’t have to show up at the courthouse, and you don’t have to waste a whole day sitting in the jury room waiting to see if you’ll be called.  So your life continues pretty much in the usual manner.

When you go to the courthouse, you can’t take a phone, or iPad, or laptop inside with you.  Nothing electronic that might have communication capability.  It’s all in the name of justice, and I was okay with that.  Several of the hundred people with me were not so okay.  On the first day, as I was walking into the building, a woman stomped past me, muttering.  She looked up as she passed me.  “FYI, you can’t take a cell phone inside,” she snarled.  I nodded and thanked her, even though I’d read the informational sheet that came with my summons, the one that said in giant all-caps NO CELL PHONES.  I got in line to be wanded (yeah, you have to be checked for weapons at the door.)  While I waited, the woman returned, and kept up her enraged muttering all through the line.  Fortunately for her, once she got close to the bailiffs, she quieted down, but I found myself watching her to see what would happen next.  Would she attack the clerk of court with her shoe?  Would she calm down and do as she was told?  I even briefly toyed with a scene in which she pulled out a gun, shrieking to the sky, and starting shooting out all the glass in the windows.  All because she couldn’t have her cell phone for a couple of hours.   (She behaved herself, in case anyone was worried.)

It occurs to me that situations like this are fantastic places to study character.  We’ve talked about people watching at places like the mall or amusement parks.  The trouble with those places is that people generally want to be there.  There’s more to character than how we look when we’re happy or content.   Angry, miserable, annoyed…these emotions are vital to fully fleshing a character.  And even though I didn’t mind showing up for jury duty, there were others who felt differently. It was a valuable chance to observe people at their less-than-best. 

I was eventually seated on a jury, and we spent a half-day deliberating the details of the case.  During that time, I found myself filling in what little I knew about the people in the room with fictional details of their lives – in other words, creating characters out of what I saw.   I didn’t even get their names, but in my mind I created whole lives and backstories for them, just on the strength of their comments inside the jury room.  Some people were angry about being there, some resigned, and some in a hurry to convict and get home.  A couple were pleased to have been chosen, and one was so proud it radiated from her face.  Two or three didn’t speak so much as a word, only communicating by raising hands when it was time to vote, and keeping their heads down and arms crossed the rest of the time.  Two were peacemakers, doing their best to let dissenters know their opinions were valuable and trying to keep others from jumping across the table at those same dissenters.  In other words, we had a tiny little village of characters.  I watched as the angry man’s face turned redder and redder, and as the worried mother paced, hoping to get home to her kids soon.  I noticed the way one woman talked with her hands, her manicure drawing extra attention, and how another woman gripped her purse and kept her eyes downcast. 

So remember that every time you’re around people, it’s a chance to make your own characters authentic and believable.  Next time you find yourself forced to sit through a lengthy boring meeting, or even called to jury duty, try not to be too unhappy about it.  It’s a great learning experience, and you might find yourself walking out with more useful character behaviors than you can even use in the course of your story.

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9 comments to Finding Characters Wherever You Look

  • WOW!! So, those cliched TV jury characters are real! Who’d o’ thunk it? hehe!

    And, good advice. Though it is harder to watch those annoyed people at times, they do give you the other side of the coin. I only worry about the “What are you lookin’ at!” part of the equation. ;)

  • sagablessed

    Yup. Agree 100% Misty. My first WIP was started in that way. :) Second as well. Different place are a great way to just sit and research.

  • As one of the unfortunate South Carolinians who has been called 8 or 9 times (I do forget how many at this point) to jury duty, I have seen most of the stuff you described, and yes, it was informative. But I am so dense, because I never put it together as you did — People trapped together *do* become a small village, with all the foibles and tics and petty annoyances they have at their worst. I hope you will put you own small village to work and let us know how the story goes. In fact, I’d like to see parts of it here, all fleshed out. Hint hint hint.

  • I agree, up to a point. We aren’t as modern and I’ve waited for hours in a room with lots of folks, but never actually got on the jury. I did play the “what if” game the last time and it helped pass the time. I wished there had been someone like the lady you described to make a more interesting starting point, though.

    Hehe. I’m a grumpy puss at the mall. I hate to shop, so only go when I absolutely have to. Then get out fast.

  • Wow, you sure were productive with your jury duty time! I feel like I just read the synopsis for a modern retelling of Twelve Angry Men!

    A good reminder that watching people when they aren’t happy about their situation is also a valuable exercise. I’ll keep that in mind when I return to the shop this afternoon to pick up my car :(

  • Good for you for turning the experience into something positive, Misty. I would have been one of the red-faced grumpy guys whining about my electronics. Sad, but true.

  • This reminds me of my jury duty last year. It was a fascinating study in types and also type breaking as people said things that put them squarely in a category and the next sentence said something that differentiated them as individuals not bound by a group identity.

  • quillet

    Your character descriptions are fantastic. You actually make jury duty sound fascinating! And your last paragraph reassures me. I have a tendency to sit in those dull places like meetings, doctor’s offices, passport offices, you name it, watching the people around me and making up stories about them…instead of paying attention to the agenda or my name being called or whatever. I’ve often seen this as a flaw (daydreamer), but now I can tell myself I’m working! :D

  • Nathan Elberg

    Everybody has a life, everybody has a story. Most may not seem like material for an action novel, and many people have chosen to ignore or let others deal with all their challenges. But talk to the person sitting next to you on the subway, the senior blocking the sidewalk with a walker, the woman next to you in the doctor’s office. Their real lives may be much more interesting than any you make up for them, if you know how to find their drama.