There’s a phrase in the film industry you may be familiar with – location scouting. It’s the process of actively seeking out unique and interesting settings during pre-production. It’s difficult work and requires a keen eye. Maybe a scene opens at a pet shop/aquarium in San Francisco’s Richmond district? Maybe our hero lives in an abandoned lighthouse on an island in Maine? Whatever it is, location scouting is not something that passively happens – it requires action.
The same thing can be said about discovering characters. It’s difficult to create someone from scratch, relying on the limiting perspective of your own thoughts. And to capture just how interesting, just how strange, just how dynamic and unpredictable human beings really are, we need to get outside of ourselves and experience the raw, true source of all the details that make characters live and breath – we need to wander and observe the strangeness all around us.
Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do― to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.” – Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
So, recently I’ve used my lunch breaks to go character scouting. I stroll down the streets and alleys of the financial district with my hands in my pockets and my earbuds set to Back Seat Loungin’, and look for people wandering from point a to point b.
A homeless man flicks a cigarette in my direction. A stylish black man tells me in a cheery voice, “Keep on goin’ man!” A tattooed man silently gets arrested. A middle aged woman cries on her phone.
There’s so many people here that would make excellent characters. And every day I seem to notice more, as I start to actively look and not just see.
Here’s a great song for strolling: